Akinbiyi thriving in Filbert Street's happy family

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The Independent Online

Life at the top has only intensified the Nigerian striker's eagerness to improve.

Life at the top has only intensified the Nigerian striker's eagerness to improve.

Ade Akinbiyi became so concerned in recent weeks about his ability to make the grade in the Premiership that he sought out his Leicester City manager, Peter Taylor, and asked him for a few pointers on what he could do to improve his game.

"I said to him, 'Peter, what am I doing wrong?'," said the 26-year-old striker this week as he prepared to face Manchester United today. "He just said to me, 'Don't worry. In the First Division you get quite a few chances but that in the Premiership that'll happen less often.' What he's trying to do is make me improve."

If that incident is illustrative of anything, it is firstly that Taylor - who was named Premiership Manager of the Month this week - is a man who knows how to instill confidence in his players. And secondly, that they believe in what he says. "Everyone can say that £5m [the amount Taylor paid Wolves to make Akinbiyi Leicester's record signing] is a lot of money but I know I can be worth it," said Akinbiyi.

Such confidence is commonplace at Filbert Street these days, and with some justification. They may have scored only seven times in the League (Akinbiyi's two goals make him the club's leading scorer) but they have conceded just twice. The upshot means they sit atop the League for the first time in three decades, and although no one is expecting them to stay there, they are enjoying the experience while it lasts.

"If we get anything at all out of the match against United, it'd be good for us," said Taylor after a training session this week. "Everyone here knows how good their players are. For me, I can't believe I'm managing a team that's playing Manchester United."

If Taylor is pleased with Leicester's situation then his players, and especially Akinbiyi, are doubly happy.

"Being top of the table for one day would have been amazing enough so two weeks is incredible," he said.

Akinbiyi's potential really became apparent four years ago after a move from his first club, Norwich City, to Gillingham, then managed by Tony Pulis. He had scored 29 times in 67 appearances for the Gills when an offer of £1.2m persuaded Pulis to sell him to Bristol City. He scored 25 goals in 53 games for the Robins, before Pulis - by then the manager at Ashton Gate - was again unable to refuse an offer. Akinbiyi thus moved to Wolves in September last year for a club record £3.5m, and then, 39 games and 16 goals later, to Leicester.

"When I came here I thought it would be difficult but it's got the atmosphere of a family club and it's been great," Akinbiyi said. "Coming into the Premiership from the First Division could have been a problem but it all started to gel quite quickly. It's goals that matter now and I know they'll come."

One thing Taylor will not have to worry about in the near future is Akinbiyi getting called away regularly on international duty. Although he has been capped by Nigeria - he was born in London but elected to play for his parents' native country when given the chance - he fell out with his national team coach, Dutchman Jo Bonfrere, earlier this year.

"I went to Greece for a match but when I got there he told me I'd turned up too late and should have reported much earlier," said Akinbiyi. "I told him that Wolves hadn't received the fax with the dates in time and he said he didn't believe me. That was that. I had to make my own way home from there.

"It's disappointing, but at least it's good for Leicester. I told them I'm not going to be off on international duty for a while, at least not while the same coach is there."

Luckily for Akinbiyi, there seems to be little chance of Taylor losing patience with him, not least because the manager has already had to contend with one problematic striker, Stan Collymore, who is now on the transfer list. Taylor also, crucially, has faith in his record summer signing.

"It's up to me to stay patient with Ade," Taylor said. "I knew what I was getting when I paid for him and my plan was to play him with Stan Collymore [for whom several unnamed First Division clubs have made loan inquiries]. That's not happening but we're moving on.

"Ade's pace and power is there but his touch could be better. We'll be able to work on it. I've never seen a player work so hard."

For Akinbiyi, the effort is worth it. "When I first arrived here I came off the training pitch with a smile on my face," he said. "Even the international players like Tim Flowers [who was named as the Premiership Player of the Month this week] made you feel like you were their equal."

For Taylor, such team spirit is everything. "We've got a set of honest, hard-working players with good ability," the manager said. "It's a real team effort, no doubt. Following Martin [O'Neill] is not an easy task, but it's lovely for the players what's happened so far."

Watch the players train, with Taylor in their midst, and you understand - from his encouragement during crossing practice to his players' almost grateful acceptance of a set of press-ups at the end of the session - why his name is high on the list as a potential England manager. And why, despite having known him just a few months, Akinbiyi already rates Taylor as one of the most influential people in his career.

"A lot of managers are very serious characters, 24-7, but he's a lot more laid back," Akinbiyi said. "He believes in me and now he's going to get the best out of me."

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