This interview first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Bournemouth matchday programme – 2nd February 2016.
There’s very little that’s certain in football, but one thing that can’t be argued is that Emmanuel Adebayor knows how to hit the back of the net. Having registered on his Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur debuts, the Togolese hitman could become the first player in Premier League history to score on his fourth in a row if he gets his Eagles career off to a flyer, and cap one of the most impressive comeback stories of them all.
Never before in the history of Crystal Palace has a new signing generated so much debate as to his merits to the Eagles – at least not someone with as much quality as Emmanuel Adebayor.
With the ink still drying on his freshly signed contract a week ago, football supporters from across the world bashed away at their keyboards giving their verdict on one of the game’s most polarising figures, but as soon as Palace fans saw the striker holding their precious red and blue stripes adorned with his famous number 25, they knew where to put their faith.
It’s obvious what the greatest player in Togo’s history has been signed for – goals. They are what attracted some of the biggest clubs in the world to clamour for his signature over the years, with his raw power, direct running and incredible leaping ability leading him to become his country’s all-time record scorer.
He also has 96 Premier League goals to his name, but what isn’t generally known is the fact that he has 37 assists too; his unselfishness putting him within touching distance of David Beckham, Juan Mata and Robert Pires’ totals. Having seen the net not ripple enough for his liking this season, Alan Pardew knew he had to reach out to a man in the wilderness, without a club but a hunger to get back into the game.
Describing the process of his move to Palace, the 31-year-old said: “It was a couple of months ago when my agent called and told me that Palace were interested. I said, ‘if it’s possible then why not?’ At the end of the day I just want to play football and here I am!
“Pape Souare has been talking to me a lot trying to bring me here for the past couple of months. He’s been saying it’s a family club that’s beautiful inside and outside, and that mentality is right for me. Now I’m here I’m looking forward to figuring it out for myself.
“I’ve met Zaha before and Bolasie is a crazy dude from Congo. Souare is the same and that’s what I like. It’s important that I am happy, and I want to bring some enjoyment to make this a perfect team.”
Speaking to Adebayor you sense his genuine excitement at being given another chance to showcase his talents to a worldwide audience. His love for the game is also sincere – he has spent the past few months banging in goals past locals in street games on threadbare, patchwork pitches in Africa, clad in the colours of some of the famous names he’s played for.
It’s literally jumpers for goalposts stuff, but you feel that the back-to-basics regime has served his country’s most famous son well. Surrounded by friends, family and fans, he was determined to once again feel the weight of expectation on his shoulders from a country he helped put on the map when he single-handedly dragged them to their only World Cup finals in 2006.
“I did some training in London but I also did a lot in Ghana and in Togo,” he revealed about his unorthodox few months. “Where I was born there was no gym equipment but we still found a way to do our workouts, and I played a lot of games in Africa – don’t get me wrong it’s not the same level but I played as if I was playing in the Premier League.
“There was a whole country on my back saying ‘Emmanuel, you have to get out there, find a club and play.’ There was big pressure on me but now I have found a club in Crystal Palace so hopefully my country will start enjoying watching me on the football pitch again and hopefully I can do as well here as I did for the other clubs.”
Should he achieve that, then his signing could be the deal of the January window. Having grown up in his native Togo, he was spotted by Metz as a 15-year-old and followed the well-trodden path between Africa and Ligue 1. After being handed a professional debut in 2001, it was following relegation that the striker was handed an opportunity in the first-team which he seized by scoring 17 goals in 2002/03.
This prompted Monaco to sign him where Adebayor helped them reach the 2004 UEFA Champions League, which he watched as an unused substitute. Despite seeing no action that night, his burgeoning career was attracting admiring glances across Europe, and Arsenal moved to sign him for £3 million a decade ago.
After the now-customary debut assault on the scoresheet, four goals in 10 games followed in his first few months at Highbury and they’ve never really stopped since, with Adebayor hitting a career high 30 in 2007/08. He currently sits 25th in the Premier League’s all-time top scorers, and is just eight goals shy of tying Didier Drogba’s record haul for an African player, cementing his place as one of the deadliest finishers of recent times.
On his early days in the country, he reflected: “I was a kid learning my lessons in football, and I had a chance to play for a club like Arsenal where I became one of the best strikers in Europe, so there were lots of good memories for me. Two days ago I was at home on my iPad and I searched for my name and looked at my stats. I’d say they could be better, but they’re not that bad!
“When you see all the criticism from everyone and look back, you say to yourself ‘I’ve done quite well’. Hopefully I will have the chance to do the same for Crystal Palace.”
By the summer of 2009 those stats saw Manchester City’s moneybags dropped on the Gunners’ doorstep and Adebayor swapped London for Manchester as a £25 million acquisition. Once again goals followed but his time at the City of Manchester Stadium was a short one.
Frozen out by Roberto Mancini, he was handed an unexpected chance of lifetime when Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid came calling, meaning he will become the first player in over 60 years to represent both the Spanish giants and Crystal Palace.
He spent just five months at the Bernabeu Stadium, but loved every second, stating: “I tell all young footballers that have ambition that they have to play for either Real Madrid or Barcelona, even if it is for just one month in your career. You have to do it – it is the best experience ever and the best club I have played for.
“Playing for them was the highlight of my career because when I was in Africa we all knew about the Galacticos and saw them playing in the white shirts, and when I went there, walked into the dressing room, saw the players and signed my contract it was just incredible.”
It would be a white shirt of a different kind that he would next pull on though when he returned to London with Tottenham Hotspur in 2011 where he rediscovered his mojo. Throughout
this interview he talks openly about his need to be happy and the benefit it has to his game, something that came to the fore at White Hart Lane.
“I had a manager at Tottenham who had big belief in me in Tim Sherwood and he’d say: ‘Manu, get out there and play football, enjoy yourself and enjoy life’ and that’s what I did. I think that’s how you can get the best out of me. I’m not a mathematician so when people tell me to go left or right, it’s hard to remember. I can’t be too technical or it becomes quite hard for me.”
After a difficult period in his career ended when Spurs released him in September, you could have forgiven someone who has had experienced extreme highs and lows, both professionally and personally, if he questioned his desire for life at the game’s highest level, but instead of entering semi-retirement in far-flung footballing outposts such as China, India or MLS, Adebayor wanted to remain in London and in the Premier League as he is filled with a belief that he still has what it takes to keep his star burning bright.
“You always want to leave your name out there, and what I have achieved so far in football I’m quite happy with,” he admits. “I am the only player from Togo to have the chance to play in the Premier League so I’m already blessed with that, so whatever happens from now is going to be a bonus.
“Hopefully I can bring my experience of what I’ve been through in football to Palace and help the team achieve what they want to achieve. I have been in the Premier League for a long time so I know what it takes to score goals here and how to score them.
“My hope is to play well, enjoy myself and show my smile again to all those people that love me. No matter how hard things get I will keep it going because I touched the bottom when I was young and nothing can be harder than that – if that happened I would be dead. I just want to show people I’m still alive and still smiling.”