Henry the second

Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor, whom the great Thierry Henry has tipped for the very top, is vying to be top scorer of the English Premier League. He tells Jamie Jackson about his ambitions and his journey from Togo to London.

The Arsenal dressing room, Highbury, March 2006. Liverpool have just been defeated 2-1 thanks to a Thierry Henry double. Sitting with the club’s record scorer are team-mate Emmanuel Adebayor and Otto Pfister, Togo’s newly appointed coach. “Hey coach,” Henry says to Pfister, who was in Highbury to watch Adebayor ahead of Togo’s debut at the World Cup in Germany, “one day it won’t be me, but this guy.” Henry, Premiership top sc orer four times, points to the Togo striker. The youngster — making his sixth Arsenal appearance — has been substituted in the 67th minute, but Henry reinforces his assessment, saying with a wide grin: “Coach, one day he will be the boss.”

Henry, as Pfister tells the tale, was laughing yet serious. But by the time the Frenchman left this summer, the start Adebayor had made to his Arsenal career hardly suggested he could thrive at the club. Although there was no expectation that the 23-year-old could ever emulate Henry, a supreme scorer with 174 league goals for Arsenal, Adebayor’s record of 12 in 42 top-flight appearances was what you would expect from a man Pfister describes as “not a natural scorer”.

Yet this season the striker from Kodjoviakope — a neighbourhood in Togo’s capital, Lome — has six goals in seven Premier League games and is vying to be top scorer.

Arsene Wenger’s decision to allow Henry to join Barcelona for £16.1million has so far been vindicated. Adebayor has thrived on becoming the side’s new focal point. His goals include the first hat-trick at the Emirates, against Derby in September. And, led by Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal — average age 24 — have added the ruthlessness that was missing from last year’s flowing football.

“Thierry has left and he alone is 30 goals per season,” Adebayor says. “So, as a team we have to score more and everyone has taken on a big responsibility.”

Henry’s absence does appear to have freed Arsenal, who, on October 23, demolished Slavia Prague 7-0 in a Champions League match at the Emirates. That evening Arsenal’s passing, movement and touch — though against visitors obviously lacking quality — were sublime.

As Adebayor notes, the goals were shared. Fabregas, Alexander Hleb, Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner scored in that game and 12 players have contributed this season. And, although he missed out that day, the partnership between the tall and wiry Adebayor and Walcott, the club’s fastest player, was encouraging, especially with Robin van Persie out for another five weeks. “We know Theo’s qualities,” Adebayor says. “He’s very fast, he can go behind and he plays very good football. So, it’s very easy for me.”

During the recent international break, Togo hosted Mali in a crucial final qualifier for the African Nations Cup, which will be played in neighbouring Ghana next January. A 2-0 defeat knocked Togo out and caused a riot at Lome’s Kegue Stadium. “I even lived in Accra for two years and have a lot of friends and family in Ghana, so I would love to play in front of them,” Adebayor says. “But it can’t be changed, so I have to prepare myself for CAF (the French abbreviation for the African Nations Cup) and the World Cup in 2010. But of course, this was really disappointing.”

Yet Arsenal and their fans may have a differing emotion, as the result could prove vital to the club’s chances. Players can miss up to six matches because of the Nations Cup. Barcelona have asked Samuel Eto’o and Yaya Toure to miss the tournament, while Liverpool and Chelsea will be hampered by the loss of five players between them. Wenger could hardly suppress a smile when asked about Adebayor’s increased availability. His reaction was another indicator of how important ‘Sheyi’ has become.

Emmanuel Sheyi Adebayor was born on February 26, 1984. The son of Nigerian parents from the Yoruba ethnic group, he has three brothers and two sisters. Adebayor’s father died recently and he says: “Since my father died, I have become the leader of my family. Everyone started to fight when he died and someone had to take control. I am very like my father in my personality.” He is particularly close to one of his sisters, Iyabo and his mother, Hajia, still lives in Lome — which is by the border with Ghana.

Before his move to France, Adebayor’s childhood was spent in Kodjoviakope, “apart from 12 to 14, when my family lived in Accra”. When he was 11 he attended the Centre de Developpement Sportif (CDS), one of three professional football schools in Togo. It has around 80 boys, whose training sessions take place on a sandy field next to palm trees that form a border with Ghana that is notorious for drug trafficking and illegal crossing.

Spotted by Metz coach Francis de Taddeo while playing in a youth tournament in Sweden, Adebayor moved to eastern France in 1999, staying there for four years before leaving for Monaco. “He offered me a contract there and then. I was only 15 and it was hard, but he made me understand that I’d become a great player. It’s because of him I stayed in France and Europe. He gave me the best piece of advice — to not get big-headed.”

At last year’s Nations Cup in Egypt, Adebayor seemed to have forgotten de Taddeo’s words. His attendance at the pre-tournament training camp was erratic. This angered the coach Stephen Keshi who had to be restrained from attacking Adebayor on the team bus after Togo’s opening game had been lost to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“This was a matter of principle. Some of the players believed they didn’t always have to train,” says Keshi, who lost his job following the tournament but regained it from Pfister after the World Cup. “It was naivety, he fell into a trap and I didn’t like this.” There were also rumours that Keshi attempted to benefit from Adebayor’s move from Monaco to Arsenal. Now, though, the relationship seems repaired. “I think he realised what he’d done at the Nations Cup. He grew up very quickly.”

Despite the further problem of an arrest last December after Adebayor’s girlfriend, Charity, told police he had hit her — the Crown Prosecution Service advised that no further action be taken — Keshi is impressed with how the striker has now matured.

Gael Clichy, the Arsenal left-back, agrees. Adebayor is “very strong and one of the best in the air. He’s the complete striker — very difficult to play against in training.”

Pfister, who calls him a “baby, very easy to handle”, says that he is grateful for Adebayor’s support during the pay dispute in Germany. Togo’s group match with Switzerland was threatened when the players considered pulling out over payments of £110,000 appearance money and win bonuses that the Togo FA were reluctant to provide. “We fought together over this,” says Pfister, who briefly resigned during the tournament. “The world’s press made it a big story, but if you know African football it is no surprise.”

Yet after scoring twice in Togo’s 3-1 win against Sierra Leone in March this year, Adebayor and two team-mates were suspended for three matches (and received death threats) after demanding a £31,000 payment they claimed was still owed to each of the World Cup squad.

During two seasons in the Metz first team, Adebayor was voted best player in the second division, and he helped get them promotion. “Then I played for Monaco and we got to the Champions League final in 2004,” Adebayor says. Although an unused reserve in that match against Porto, and despite managing only 18 goals in 61 league starts for Monaco, Adebayor’s £7m fee is starting to look like another piece of shrewd business from Wenger, following such signings as Patrick Vieira and Henry.

According to Togo team-mate Erik Akoto, Adebayor is already better than his great hero, the Nigerian Nwankwo Kanu, whose shirt numbers, 25 and 4, he wears for Arsenal and Togo as a tribute. “I know him since we played together at CDS 10 years ago. He has the same mentality as Kanu but Adebayor can defend as well as attack. I really believe that in two years he can be African Player of the Year.”

Kanu, Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o have all won that honour in recent seasons. If Adebayor scores the goals that lead to Arsenal winning titles, he will have a chance. It is one more of the dreams he constantly mentions in conversation.

Adebayor is living the fantasy that motivates all African players — success in European football. Now, he wants it to continue. “As a footballer you still have to dream,” he says.