Football: Adebola lifts the Blues

Nationwide League: Birmingham City's big striker is supplying the power for a Premiership push
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IF EARLY season form is anything to go by, this time next year Charlton Athletic could be in the Champions' League and Birmingham City back in the top flight of English football for the first time since the mid-1980s. In Charlton's case it will probably be a question of dreaming on, and on, but for fans of the Second City's second club a place in the Premiership alongside their neighbours and fierce rivals, Aston Villa, is long overdue.

Thirteen seasons have gone by since Birmingham last found themselves among the nation's elite. In that time there have been a string of managers in succession to Ron Saunders, a bewildering number of players bought and sold by the last manager, Barry Fry, and an image problem stemming from the club's links, through the board, to a newspaper that told the world that Elvis was alive and well and living on the moon and that Hitler was a woman.

It has taken the new regime a while to be taken seriously but now, with Trevor Francis in charge of the team the signs are that Birmingham, who entertain Bury today, are at last heading in the right direction. Francis was an idol at St Andrew's in a way few players manage to be at any club, but he is probably as conscious as anyone of the need to consign his achievements as a player to the history books. The Blues are desperate for a new hero and, in Dele Adebola, Francis might just have found one for them.

With five goals in his first five games, the Nigerian made the kind of start to a season that strikers dream of and already the pounds 1m Francis paid Crewe Alexandra for the 23-year-old's services earlier this year is beginning to look a shrewd investment. Tall, strong, fast and skilful, Adebola seems to have all the physical attributes required to succeed. In temperament though, he is more gentle giant than raging bull.

"I possibly need to be a bit more aggressive, but I've done OK without it so far," he said at Birmingham's training ground on the outskirts of the city, the Scouse accent betraying his upbringing. "Sometimes, being a big lad, when you go into challenges referees tend to favour the smaller player so you have to be careful. I've only been booked four times in my career and two of them were for kicking the ball away."

His parents moved to England from Lagos when Adebola was six months old, settling in Liverpool as a result of his father's frequent visits with the shipping company he worked for. There Adebola played in the same city schools' team as Robbie Fowler. "I was going to go to Liverpool as a YTS, but with Robbie there all the attention would have been on him because as a kid he was phenomenal. I just thought Crewe would be a better option and one day if I was good enough maybe I'd play at a higher level."

At Crewe, like so many who have gone on to international honours, Adebola came under the tutelage of Dario Gradi. "The coaching there is unbelievable," Adebola said. "Everyone at the club is taught to be comfortable on the ball, no matter what age or what position you play." After four seasons, he was ready to take another step up.

"When he was at Crewe he tended to play as a lone striker," Mick Mills, Birmingham's assistant manager, said. "It possibly suited Crewe but it didn't suit Dele.

"Here we play with two strikers and it's helped his game to blossom and towards the end of last season there were signs that we had potentially an excellent player on our hands. I remember one goal in particular against Manchester City when he powered straight through on a 60-yard run and finished it with one of the deftest touches you've ever seen."

It was that kind of finishing that brought Adebola to the attention of Lawrie McMenemy, now in charge of Northern Ireland, who wanted to take advantage of the fact that Adebola can represent any of the home nations, as well as Nigeria. "He had the idea of playing me and Chris Armstrong up front together," Adebola said. "At first I was interested, but then when I thought about it I'd never even been to Northern Ireland - at least I've lived in England and my parents are from Nigeria. That might have been my only chance and I might never play international football, but it just didn't feel right."

Away from football Adebola spends most of his time commuting between his Solihull home and Liverpool, where he is setting up a property business with a friend. For the moment though his business is scoring goals for Birmingham City and attempting, among other things, to win a sponsor's car worth pounds 25,000 by scoring more than the 27 goals in a season that his manager once achieved for the club.

"I'm not even sure if it's all competitions or just league goals," a bemused Adebola admitted. "In fact, I'm sure the manager said the other day it was just league goals." Well he would, wouldn't he? Adebola might be making life easier for Francis at the moment, but it seems the old striker has no intention of letting his protege overtake him in the local legend stakes just yet. But it might not be long.