Home at last? The journeyman ex-Arsenal bagsman finally making his mark at Boro

John Nicholson
Chuba Akpom celebrates scoring for Middlesbrough.

Chuba Akpom bobbed around the divisions and popped up across Europe after leaving Arsenal. Now he finally seems to have hit his straps on Teesside. Johnny Nic is a fan…

Who’s this then?
Chuba Amechi Akpom is a six-feet-tall, Canning Town-born, 27-year-old striker who currently tops the goalscoring charts in the Championship for the noble institution that calls itself Middlesbrough FC with 13 goals in 20 games so far.

He got his start in football at Arsenal, joining the club aged just six and making his debut for the Under-18s when only 15 and was well-regarded enough to sign professional forms with them when 17.  Indeed, he was hailed as The Next Big Thing

In 2012 the Daily Mail had him down as one of the youngsters who would make a big impact at the 2022 World Cup along with Jordan Ibe and Jack Butland. Prediction is mug’s game, but it does show that he was looked upon as one of the brightest talents coming through.

However, despite this, he couldn’t actually break through to the Arsenal first team, apart from the occasional appearance in the League Cup and as a substitute, he made only 12 appearances over five seasons for the Gunners. For the most of that time he was out on loan. However, he did bag two FA Cup winners medals for being part of the winning squad in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

In 2013-14 he went to Brentford and then Coventry for four and six games respectively without netting a goal. The following campaign he went to Nottingham Forest for seven games but didn’t score. However his next loan was at Hull City where he played 42 games and this time he scored seven goals and did make an impact.

However, no-one could say his career was going brilliantly at this point. His early promise as an academy player was not being fulfilled.

He made his England Under-21 debut in 2016 against Norway. The 2016-17 season saw him at Brighton for 10 games and again no goals, though they did finish runners-up in the Championship. So he made a sensible decision to leave the country and headed to Belgium and Sint-Truiden. He scored six times in 16 appearances for them before PAOK came in for him and took him to Greece for a couple of seasons. Here at least he got a good run in the team and scored 18 in 79 games winning Super League Greece and the Greek Cup in 2018–19. He won the MVP for the Greek Cup too. Now he was making a significant impact and putting some silverware in the trophy cabinet.

And this was what attracted Boro to him in 2020. Steve Gibson coughed up £2.5million for his services. However, his first season’s five goals in 39 games impressed no-one and the club sent him back on loan to PAOK where he played in 52 games and scored 11 goals. His Boro career looked as dead in the water as all those fish, crabs and lobsters washed up at the mouth of the Tees.

But the future is always unknown and anything is possible and Chuba, now 26 years of age at the start of this season, on his return from Greece to Teesside, began to score like never before, especially when Michael Carrick took over. The player Arsenal thought was a great prospect emerged and all his early teenage promise suddenly seems to have come to fruition. He’s got 13 goals in 20 games so far, after 288 career appearances and 60 goals for nine clubs, scoring a hat-trick against Wigan on Boxing Day. God loves a journeyman.

Why the love?
Since Carrick took over as Boro boss, he has played Chuba in a slightly deeper role, off the main striker. This has meant he’s gotten more involved in the game, has been part of the build-up to goals and has also been holding the ball up really well. He’d scored four before Carrick’s arrival, nine after, so it does appear that this tweak to where he’s required to play has made all of the difference.

He seems to be a confidence player who just wants to be loved. The better he plays and the more he scores, the more the fans have grown to love him. He has reciprocated, is active on social media and generally seems to be loving life like never before, as a footballer.

Previously at Middlesbrough, he’d been bought by Neil Warnock, who seems to have gone cold on him quite quickly. Chris Wilder didn’t fancy him either and he was training with the Under-23s. He wasn’t even given a squad number initially but then Wilder struggled to get strikers in, so Chuba came in from the cold for the start of the season, although he probably still felt he was a stop-gap. Then he got injured. By the time he returned, Carrick was in charge, and it seems clear he has put an arm round him, given him a game and talked him up, saying the whole club just want to see Chuba smile. And to be fair, it has paid off in spades. Proof that football is at least as much about where your head’s at, as it is where your feet are at.

It is noticeable how often he scores with his first touch. There’s no dwelling on the ball, no taking a touch to control, just BAM! Now, that is a classic sign of a confident player. The doubter takes a second touch and weighs up their options and then loses the opportunity.

Previously, most of his goals were right-footed strikes, but this season six have been left-footed. Perhaps he’s been working on that too.

A long-time observer and Boro sage who always has great insight to all things Middlesbrough says: “Once he got a few you could see him come alive. Now he is demanding it all the time and with the team creating more chances (check those xG stats!) He is getting a lot of shots off. But he doesn’t just wait for the ball to be put on a plate, he works hard, does his share of the digging and sparks attacks too. He looks the business now. It is remarkable really. A week before the season he didn’t have a squad number and everyone expected him to be back off to Greece. Now he is a crowd hero and the Champo top scorer.”

His transformation of form is one of the more remarkable stories of recent years. When someone has played as a striker for nine clubs in 10 years and not been especially prolific at any of them, it’s natural enough to think what he can offer is set in stone. And it usually is, but not in Chuba’s case. Chuba is, if anything, getting better and better.

Three Great Moments
Arsenal’s new Thierry Henry? Not quite

The first time strikes against Wigan…

Good enough for England Under-21 in 2017…

Future days?
An extension clause in Middlesbrough’s favour, effectively means Chuba has another 18 months to run on his current contract. Given his failures in the past, the club is obviously going to be wary of this just being a one-off purple patch. They may also worry that it is the pressure of being in the last year of his contract (if Boro hadn’t taken up their option) that is driving him on to new heights.

However, that is to be somewhat cynical. And it’s not been the case previously. He has no form for such convenient performances. Not every player bursts on the scene at 18 and is immediately fantastic and some don’t respond well to the pressure of being marked out as a future star.  Maybe that explains his slow start. If Akpom can keep this form up, he can have a really successful second half of his career.

This great form of course comes with a downside – transfer rumours – not least because so far he’s hardly been the sort of player to break any club’s bank and presumably could be bought for relatively little. Reports suggest a couple of Bundesliga clubs are interested as well as Everton, Crystal Palace and Southampton. I doubt he’d go to Goodison or St Mary’s as both clubs are absolute basket cases. He surely owes Boro at least the rest of this season at least and if that ends in promotion via the play-offs, why move at all?

Boro have needed a 20 league-goal striker for the longest time and haven’t had one since Bernie Slaven in 1989-90, so he has the opportunity to make some sort of history at the Riverside. Why would anyone turn that down after wanting to find a home for so long?

He’s been a great prospect for 10 years, could everything finally be coming up Chuba? Boro certainly hope so.

Johnny Nic: Liverpool caught Man Utd napping over perfect Darwin Nunez alternative Cody Gakpo