The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. In a time before Leicester City were actual Premier League Champions, they relied on the goalscoring prowess of Ade Akinbiyi. In 2001/02 he became the figurehead of The Foxes’ incompetence.
Martin O’Neill’s four and a half year stint as Leicester City manager had propelled The Foxes from the old Division One to Premier League mainstays, winning two league cups along the way including victory over Tranmere Rovers in his final season. As his contract expired, the Ulsterman packed up his bags and headed up to Scotland to take over at Glasgow Celtic and many key members of his Leicester City squad followed suit. Emile Heskey headed to Liverpool for £11m, Theo Zagorakis returned to Greece, club stalwart Steve Walsh went to Norwich along with Tony Cottee, Stan Collymore was released and joined Bradford, and Neil Lennon was poached by O’Neill to join him at Parkhead. Gillingham manager Peter Taylor was installed in the dugout and quickly went about building a new team at Filbert Street. He focused on securing the signatures of lower league players that he felt could make the step up to the Premier Leauge, and duly recruited Richard Cresswell, Damien Delaney, Trevor Benjamin, Callum Davidson and Ade Akinbiyi for a combined £9.5m. Akinbiyi, a £5.5m signing from Wolverhampton Wanderers, had made his name as a prolific target-man, with a 1-in-2 record at Wolves, Bristol City, and Gillingham, and was seen by many as an adequate replacement for Heskey. Taylor enjoyed a solid but unspectacular first season at Filbert Street, finishing 13th in the league despite being top in October. Premier League experience was sought ahead of the 01/02 season, and despite losing Steve Guppy to Celtic, Taylor was able to add bite to his midfield with Dennis Wise, and an England international goalkeeper in Ian Walker.
A poor start to the season saw Leicester pick up four points from their opening eight games, suffering heavy defeats at the hands of Bolton and Arsenal. A 2-0 defeat at Charlton at the end of September was enough to see the swing of John Elsom’s axe fall on Taylor, and the Leicester chairman began his search for a crisis manager. The answer was, as always, Dave Bassett. With two relegations already under his cap it seemed an odd appointment, and if Leicester were going to lift themselves off the foot of the table Bassett would have to oversee a dramatic turnaround in results. His first game in charge ended in a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea, and it was clear that the return of five goals in nine games was a key contribution to The Foxes poor form. Ahead of the visit of Liverpool, Bassett needed his star striker to step up.
Akinbiyi’s goalscoring return at Leicester had, by this point, been modest. Nine goals in thirty-seven league games the previous season was a flimsy return for his £5.5m fee, and he was yet to open his account for the season heading into Bassett’s first home game. Despite this, Akibiyi was named alongside Dean Sturridge as the strikeforce charged with securing the points against Phil Thompson’s Reds. Liverpool themselves had enjoyed a decent start to the season, winning four and drawing one of their opening seven games to leave them within touching distance of the Champions League places. A win at Filbert Street would see them overtake Newcastle as November approached. An injury to Michael Owen saw Robbie Fowler re-introduced to the first team, with the #9 looking for his first goal of the season.
He didn’t have to wait for long. Gary McAllister’s corner kick was struck towards goal by John Arne Riise, only for Walker to parry the ball straight at Fowler’s feet. Leicester 1-0 down before the pre-match cups of tea had gone cold. Ten minutes in, and it was two. Another set-piece floated in by McAllister was met by the head of Sami Hyypia, and the Finn powered the ball home to put Leicester in real trouble. To get anything from the game, Bassett knew his side had to take their chances and when the ball was clipped into the path of Akinbiyi, left one-on-one with Jerzy Dudek in the Liverpool goal, it looked as though The Foxes might have a lifeline. The Nigerian’s lack of confidence won out, however, as he blasted his shot over the crossbar and into the Royal Infirmary car park. Aviation officials at East Midlands Airport could have been excused for stepping up to Red Alert when, minutes later, Akinbiyi’s volley followed his first effort into the chilly Autumn sky. Despite missing these gilt-edged chances there was a feeling that, if they could get to half-time and regroup, there was always a chance Leicester could nick something from the game, so when, in the 43rd minute, a long punt upfield from the home side was knocked down by Akinbiyi straight to the feet of Hyypia, Liverpool smelled blood. The Finnish defender’s raking pass outfoxed The Foxes backline, and Danny Murphy centred the ball for Fowler to smash home. 3-0 at half-time, and game over.
At the beginning of the second half, Leicester looked certain to snatch a lifeline, Benjamin’s near-post flick on from a corner fell kindly at the feet of a Leicester player from six yards out and, had it been any other Leicester player you’d have backed them to reduce the deficit. It just so happened to be Akinbiyi, his confidence now non-existent, who snapped at the chance and ballooned the ball over. Liverpool took their foot off the gas in the second half, and Leicester eventually did pull a goal back through a header from the diminutive Dennis Wise. The game could have become interesting had Andy Impey’s wicked cross not met the fifty pence piece resting on the top of Akinbiyi’s head and flown well wide of Dudek’s goal. The striker’s reaction said it all as he pulled his shirt up over his head and prayed to swap places with Richard III. The home crowd’s empathy with Akinbiyi had long diminished, and by the time he’d missed his fourth excellent chance of the afternoon, encouragement had turned to admonishment. Understandably enraged by their team’s incompetence, directing their ire at a player that badly needed a boost was perhaps not the wisest move. Further salt was rubbed into The Foxes wounds as the clock ticked over to ninety minutes, when Liverpool broke down the right and Vladimir Smicer’s cross was volleyed home by Fowler for his hat-trick. Boos rang out across Filbert Street at full-time, and Ade Akinbiyi headed straight for the tunnel looking like a man desperate to get home for You’ve Been Framed – rumours that his performance had been included on that evening’s show are unconfirmed.
In Leicester’s next home game, Akinbiyi remarkably scored the winner and celebrated with palpable relief, ripping his shirt off to reveal a ripped torso that he’d presumably cultivated while missing shooting practice. The win over Sunderland came in something of a mini-revival, where Leicester picked up eight points in five games to briefly pull them out of the relegation zone, but after recording only two wins from the beginning of December they finished dead last and were relegated. Ade Akinbiyi was sold to Crystal Palace in February and replaced by free signing Paul Dickov. The Scottish marksman managed to outscore Akinbiyi in his 12 games. Dave Bassett left his post at Filbert Street upon confirmation of relegation, and his assistant Micky Adams took over. Adams then brought Leicester straight back up the following season, but with the club in administration they were unable to survive in the Premier League, eventually suffering demotion to League One, before fighting their way back to the top division in 2014.
Akinbiyi went on to become a lower league journeyman, taking in Stoke, Burnley, Sheffield United, and Notts County via Houston Dynamo, but he never managed to rediscover the goalscoring touch that had convinced Leicester to break their transfer record for him. He ended his career at Colwyn Bay in the Conference North.
Leicester’s neighbours Derby County were also relegated, while Ipswich Town made it three from the east of England to go down. At the top, after three years of dominance, Manchester United were knocked off their perch by Arsenal, eventually finishing third behind the champions and Liverpool. Thierry Henry’s 23 league goals shot the Gunners to their second Premier League title, fittingly secured with a win at Old Trafford. Despite only scoring 21 goals fewer than Henry, Akinbiyi wasn’t honoured in the end of season awards – he was invited to the ceremony, but unfortunately he missed it.