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Kriss Akabusi MBE

Filed: Wednesday, 20th April 2005

By: Graeme Howlett

Prior to the recent fixture with Millwall at Upton Park KUMB caught up with former Olympic athlete and relay World Champion Kriss Akabusi, a West Stand season ticket holder and regular attendee at away fixtures, for a quick chat.

Firing the questions for KUMB were Gordon Thrower and Graeme Howlett.

KUMB: Thanks to agreeing to talk to us Kriss. Now - you came from Enfield, which is not naturally West Ham territory?

Kriss Akabusi: No, it's Tottenham territory over there!

KUMB: When did you start following West Ham?

KA: Well I was over there, and everyone round there is Tottenham and Arsenal. I went on holiday to Clacton with the children's home, and there was a guy there called Terry Fagg and he was West Ham through and through. His chalet was wall to wall West Ham, and I saw Clyde Best up on the wall, this was 69/70. At that time he was the only black player in the English First Division, and straight away I thought yeah, that's my team - and I've been there ever since.

KUMB: I read that you had a trial with Leyton Orient?

KA: Yeah, that's exactly right.

KUMB: So what happened there?

KA: Well running was great, running I could do - the only problem was that you had to take the ball with you! I think it was Alan Ball who was doing their coaching at that period, the selections for the schoolboys. Well, every third of the game they'd take somebody out and put some other guys in - but I lasted the whole game, so I thought 'gosh, I'm doing really well here'. But at the end when they gathered us all together he said 'nice one son, but don't bother coming back', so that was the extent of it really!

KUMB: So where did you play in those days?

KA: Well I fancied myself as a striker, but I played left-back. But now I know, having done professional athletics, I know that if I'd focused on it and understood what defensive responsibilities were I'd have been a good full-back, or good midfield holder because when I started playing basketball, as I got a bit older, and recognised how to use my strength, about timing, about tackling ... I was fine so know I could have been a good footballer if I'd have known what I was doing. But I always wanted to be 'up there', so although I was playing at left-back I'd always find myself up there somewhere, inside-right, inside-left; I'd always find myself doing that sort of stuff!

KUMB: It's interesting how many sportsman - footballers especially - are so well grounded in general sports ... but when did you realise that athletics was going to be your thing?

KA: 1977.

KUMB: This is when you were in the Army?

KA: This was when I was in the army, yeah. I joined in 1975, and in '76 a guy up in Newcastle really got me thinking about athletics. It was in 1977 that I met my German coach, and he told me 'stop playing football, stop playing basketball, start doing athletics - because this is something you can be good at'.

You know, when you're playing football you're always turning up on a Monday with knocks and injuries, little niggles. He'd say 'look - you come to training on a Monday and you can't do anything, but this is your sport, this is where you can have most success'. So I decided to stop the football, stop the basketball, worked on my athletics and before I knew it, I was there. Five years later I was an Olympic athlete.

KUMB: Sweet to beat the Americans at the World Championship, surely?

KA: Well the Americans were very good, they were number one in the world - and had been for 50 years, but they knew they were good. And they always told you they were good!

We had a bunch of guys at that time who weren't the best in the world but we were good, and we knew we'd give them a challenge. We came up with the ruse of putting our best man in the first leg, which was sort of new back then; no one had ever done it before.

Roger Black was the best runner on the first leg, we really reversed the order. I was probably the slowest quarter-miler - or maybe the second slowest. There was Derek Redmond, and Jon Regis the 200m runner and myself, a 400m hurdler.

But they put me on the last leg with the world champion and got me in the right position. But it was a great, great day; everyone was going mad, the photographers, other teams were going mad, the crowd were going mad. Everyone except the four individual Americans that weren't too happy!

KUMB: I think the whole country was going mad, it's one of those - especially in Athletics these days, where maybe we don't have as much success as we have in the past - it's wonderful, and especially when it's the Americans?

KA: Absolutely. I tell you, when I got back - I got back in the September - it must have been past Easter in 1992 before I paid for my first meal or my first drink. Every single restaurant, every single club I went into there were beers coming, there was Champagne coming; I'd go to pay for a meal - 'don't worry, that table's got it over there', you know, 'what are you drinking?' - it was just like Britain came out to play that day, in that period.

KUMB: Do you remember your first match at Upton Park?

KA: It's terrible, you know what I can't remember my first match here but I remember my first match at Tottenham - but I wasn't a Tottenham fan! I went to see Tottenham v Ipswich, I went to see QPR ... when did I first go to see West Ham?

See, my first few matches - to be very honest - I didn't actually pay for! Down in the North Bank, if you hung around there long enough and let them close the turnstiles you could climb over the back, you see? And I remember being there against Liverpool, and for some of the European matches. But to actually pinpoint the first game ...

KUMB: What sort of era are we talking?

KA: We're talking about '71, '72, '73 ... I used to go all the time, well, every time we played at home. I'd come down from Enfield, take the 123 to Turnpike Lane, take a tube down to Stratford and walk down from there with everybody else.

Then when I joined the Army I only came intermittently, I think I came about for about four or five years. I came throughout the 70's and then in the 80's, once my athletics started ... so my first game, it's very difficult - I can't tell you which one because I used to bunk in. I don't know if I should have said that!

KUMB: Must have been a right result!

KA: Yeah, free football, come on West Ham! Exactly!

KUMB: So free meals, free football ...

KA: [Laughs] Yeah, not bad!

KUMB: Obviously we saw you at Reading, and at Stoke - in fact you've been seen at a few away games; have you got to many away games this year?

KA: Yeah, I get to a lot; I'll be at Stoke again on Tuesday. I like to travel; I live up near Milton Keynes so it'd great.

KUMB: A good central position?

KA: Yeah, you can get to any midweek games, absolutely superb. Manchester's only an hour and a bit; you know, I go with my daughter, she's West Ham mad and she likes to accompany me so we'll go. And Saturday's, it's what Saturday's are for. Funnily enough - well, as you know - going away is a little bit more special than playing at home because there's a smaller group of you.

KUMB: Certainly at Reading, where the atmosphere was somewhat interesting?

KA: God, oh yeah.

KUMB: But it was sort of gallows humour, wasn't it?

KA: Yeah, absolutely. But the game that got me for that was when we went down to Charlton a couple of years ago and we lost 4-2 - I couldn't believe we were going to lose that. And our crowd were going 'back four, we need a new back four' and it was just West Ham taking the mick out of ourselves, it was just great to be a part of that, it was superb.

KUMB: That's one of the good things about West Ham, the self-deprecating humour, the ability to laugh at ourselves - God knows we've had enough opportunities.

KA: Absolutely, and it's great. But the spin side to that is, when we have a cracking result we're in seventh heaven. My daughter, all her mates are Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man United and Arsenal, they come back after winning 1-0 and they're not happy - we come back from Sheffield United, from Bramall Lane and win 1-0 and we are sky-high! It's a great trip back down the motorway, we're talking about it all - 'we're gonna be in the Premiership' ... it's just great.

KUMB: It's good that your daughter's remaining loyal despite all the pressure for kids to support Man United, and Chelsea these days of course?

KA: Yeah, but in a way she likes that.

KUMB: There's one thing I wanted to ask with regard to your motivational speeches. You must sit there sometimes listening to Alan Pardew talking and think 'you don't want to be saying that, you should be saying something else'. Have you ever thought about maybe getting involved with the club, or just football, or something similar to assist?

KA: It's really funny; we're playing Millwall today, but when we went down to their place I met a guy there and we - me and my daughter - were given the opportunity to see the ground and meet the players before the game. My daughter was really excited about seeing those guys, and we met Pardew outside the changing rooms. He was really nice, he said 'hang on, I've got a few things to say but then you can come in'.

We went in there - and he waited for me to give the motivational speech! You know, I felt like saying - 'mate, if you haven't done it by now, we're in trouble'! So I just said 'this is my daughter, she's a West Ham fan, really pleased to meet you guys' - and he turned round and said 'is that it? I thought you had more in your locker than that!'

But no, I don't know that it would be well received actually. I think that when you come to a football club like this - and I am a fan and a supporter - some of the things that you might want to say might not be well received anyway!

But what I do know is that the manager is a vital cog in this team, and if he can't do it - you're in trouble. There's nothing that an outsider like me can say, you've got to really work with them properly and have them respect you and want to listen to you to see the 'tick-tock' of a successful athlete. But there's athletes out there who have done it, so really it's up to the manager but I don't think I'd like to get involved in that side - as nice as it might be.

KUMB: I suppose in a way it might spoil the 'fan' side of things?

KA: Yeah, but I know plenty of people in this field who'd love to get stuck into West Ham. Because the talent base is there, but for me personally - you've got to be detached, you know, and I don't know that I would be.

You know - 'you've got to start RUNNING son!'

KUMB: Do you have anybody in mind for that?

KA: [Laughs] There's a few things I could say to that one!

KUMB: Well we've already got you on bunking in so ... but it must be kind of frustrating though, when you've got this background in motivational training when you see things from the sides which by your perception aren't right?

KA: Well when we were at Reading for example. Watching the game down there, and a blind man could see within the first five minutes that Mullins was mismatched against Kitson. Anyway, the first cross that come across, Kitson gets it, knocks it past the other side of the post. But we were already saying 'mismatch - sort it out'.

Second time, he goes past - 'mismatch'. Third time - bosh. 20 minutes into the game, we're 1-0 down. Does anything change? No. Took half an hour and a second goal before someone goes 'hmm, let's put McKay on there' - who's a little bit slow, but at least he's the same height as Kitson. So you know, I see simple things like that, and I think to myself ... I don't have the expertise, I'll leave the management staff and the coaching staff alone. But if I can see it, and the people around me can see it - why can't the people in charge see it?

But little things like that, on a regular basis ... for example, throughout the first half of this season for some reason we were playing Wimbledon-style football. Boot it up, from the back; we did it two years ago with Jermain Defoe and Connolly, booting it up for these small guys. Now with Harewood - lovely guy, got some great close control - but he can't head a ball. His timing is awful, and I get the feeling he's a little bit scared - so why are we booting it up to him? So we were kicking it up from centre-half, missing out our midfield. And I'm looking at that - and day in, day out we're doing that, getting no results, and we're losing 1-0, or drawing 1-1.

Well hang on - why don't we play it on the ground? Because that's what we tend to be better at.

KUMB: Do you think that's where a lot of discontent came from with the crowd, because they weren't seeing football played the West Ham way - the way it was played in the past?

KA: 100%. We're used to seeing Brooking, we're used to seeing Devonshire. Even someone like Billy Bonds who could play the ball, pass the ball. So we're used to that - passing and moving football, flowing football. And now we're watching this route one stuff. And route one is okay if you're winning. I don't like it, but if you're winning 1-0 all the time then alright, fair enough.

But when you're losing you say 'look, I'd much rather lose ...' If you look at the time we went down, okay - we were losing, but in the second half of that season we were playing football. I remember once up there, I saw a little 'give and go' between Di Canio, Sinclair and Cole. It must have been about ten moves in the corner, and it was just beautiful. I mean there was knock-backs, flicks, nutmegging and everything, it was just beautiful football. I've not seen that in two, three years.

I'm not a coach, but they will tell you that that sort of thing doesn't win you games - but the booting and running wasn't even football, so play football! But in the last couple of games we've begun to play football.

KUMB: Since Leicester I think, on the Friday night? We started knocking it about, and though it was only a two-all draw there was a good atmosphere, and people enjoyed it as you say.

KA: Yeah, and that's West Ham. We've never really had a team - okay, we talk about the boys of '86, we talk about the 1980 team, we talk about Bobby Moore, great - but we've never really had a team that's been challenging for honours on a regular basis. But we've always had a team that play football. We can take mid-table Premiership mediocrity ...

KUMB: As long as we're seeing the game being played properly?

KA: You know, you come down here, West Ham could beat Liverpool, beat Man United - we could lose to Norwich and Crystal Palace ... but we played football.

KUMB: Well let's hope we see a bit more of that.

KA: Yeah, that's it. You know, my little girl, she's hasn't seen much football. The first year she came down here was the last year we were in the Premiership and she saw a little bit of football and she got really excited. Now she's West Ham through and through - but she rarely gets to see good football.

KUMB: Do you think it's more difficult for the kids? Obviously the likes of you and me have seen good players, we've seen FA Cups won - the kids of today have never seen us win anything. Do you think we're having it tougher because we're used to seeing winning teams - or do you think they are?

KA: To be honest, I think we're the ones who have it harder. My daughter, she's never ever seen it. All she knows is West Ham, claret and blue, got a couple of cute players down there, your papa loves West Ham - I'm claret and blue. So all she's seen is cabbage-patch football.

I've seen Rolls-Royce football, I've seen Moore bring it out of defence, flick it over to Peters, cross it into Hurst, thanks very much. I've seen it. I've seen it with Di Canio, I've seen it - I know what West Ham can play like. You sit in the crowd, and we all know what it's like - you get that little rumble and grumble ... although I must say West Ham is a good crowd, we're a good crowd.

But in the last couple of years what I have noticed which I hadn't noticed before is how quick we are to turn on the team.

KUMB: Would you say that's since relegation?

KA: Well I think it's since we started playing this route one football. Gosh, we had some awful seasons but I never saw the crowd turn as quick as they do now - and we can't be helping when we're booing our team.

KUMB: I come to the press-conferences after the games here and every single week the opposition manager says 'we came here with a plan and we thought if we could actually keep it 0-0 or go 1-0 up the crowd will turn'.

KA: Yeah. See, that's terrible.

KUMB: The opposition know that. Every week we hear that.

KA: That's terrible, and we ourselves have got to sort that out. I think the way to sort that out is to play good football.

KUMB: We've been better in recent weeks, we should say.

KA: Yeah but I think we're alright. If they see the boys playing football, if they see us stroking it around. But some of the young kids that are coming in now are trying to play football. Anton Ferdinand gets a hard time from some people but actually plays football. He's not his brother - but he plays football.

KUMB: I think since having played in his correct position in the centre he's been a bit of a revelation. The pairing of him and Ward is one for the future, and it's almost a shame in a way that it was a last choice?

KA: But last year, Anton played a couple of games at centre-back and he looked good. But we never gave him a chance. Okay, all footballers make mistakes, but if you make a mistake at the back it's a goal and then all of a sudden its bosh, and he's shipped out. But I've always liked him, he's a good player. He's got an eye for the ball - he's not his brother but he's young, he's got time to get there, yeah? Like you say, you look at him, you look at Ward, you look at Noble - you know, this is West Ham again, we've got some good football players - if people allow them to play football.

But then again if we don't go up this year, Noble will be gone. Tottenham will have him for I dunno, 750,000 - gone. Would we take a million quid for him - you bet we would. We don't want to take it but we're going to take it. So that's the only problem; I hope we don't become a feeder club?

KUMB: So you think we really need to go up?

KA: Definitely. It isn't going to be easy because that's another thing with West Ham, and you never know what's going to happen on the day. Crystal Palace last year, they were not on the same level as us, but when it came down to it we all froze. What system we were playing I haven't got a dolly-blue - but it wasn't football.

KUMB: How does it feel when - like at Reading - the game is going so badly the crowd have got to chant something so they start on you?

KA: [Laughs]

KUMB: You're genuinely embarrassed, I can tell!

KA: I am! No, when I was a sportsman people used to cheer me for something that I'd done. Now they just cheer me because there isn't anything better to do!

I remember when I went to see West Ham v Derby in the Premier League and West Ham fans started singing 'we've got Akabusi, we've got Akabusi, la la la la' and then the Derby fans turned around and started signing 'where is your celebrity, where is your celebrity'! You know what I mean; that's the problem, before you know it you're starting to get caned! But that's football back then it was great banter. I was getting caned by their side, then our side started giving it ... oh, it was great!

But to be honest, deep down, it's nice. They start like 'Busi, Busi give us a song' [laughs] ... no, it's nice.

KUMB: It must be funny for your youngest daughter in a way because all the Olympics, World Championships, Commonwealth Games all happened when she was very small - so I suppose all she's got are old videos of you? It must be a bit funny watching her Dad who is the bloke who now runs his own motivational company?

KA: Well, my daughter did catch the back end of my career and probably more importantly for her she saw all the fame after it when I used to do Record Breakers and The Big Breakfast and all that sort of stuff, Daddy's teenage behaviour! At one time she was like 'Papa, I want to be famous, I want to be just like you. But now, because it happens so often, you don't hear people talking about you when you're just walking around. You know, people say 'that's him, look at him' - I don't hear it. but she'll say 'Papa, did you hear that? He just said ...' and I'll say 'well I haven't heard a thing'.

But it is strange to think that as a father I've got these girls growing up who recognise other people are close to their father as well - people who they've never even met.

KUMB: It must be a bit strange having a dad who's public property, in a way?

KA: Yeah. But everywhere she goes, she says 'Shakira Akabusi? Not the ...' and she says 'yeah', and they say' well let me tell you this story about your dad!' And then something comes out - and I'm 'what was her name again'!

KUMB: You must be protective of the girls, and you see with footballers there's a lot of pressure to follow in their footsteps. Is that something you want? Is that something they want, to go into athletics, or some other sport?

KA: It's very difficult because my daughters started off doing athletics and doing very, very well. My youngest daughter was a 100m champion. But the pressure to perform from everybody else was so great. When they would win, everyone would say 'well of course she'd win, she's Akabusi's daughter'. And when they would lose, people would say 'what's up with you, your dad never used to lose?'

KUMB: There's a big expectation there?

KA: Yeah; it was nothing to do with me but pretty soon they said 'I don't want to do this', and I'd never want to force them down that road because you need to find what the passion is within yourself, the thing that will make you great. So my eldest daughter is an academic, she's at University in California doing law; fantastic, off you go sweetie, your dad could never do that. My younger daughter is a singer and a performer, and you'll see her one day acting in some sort of film - it's your life girl, you go and do your thing.

KUMB: Can't she come and sing here, she must be better than the bloke we had at half-time here last week?

KA: [laughs] Yeah!

KUMB: Do you get on the websites much?

KA: All the time, to see what the latest news is - mainly I go on there to see what the latest stories are, what the managers have said at the press-conferences. The forums, you know - it's nice to see what the people at West Ham are saying.

KUMB: Well I suppose we better wrap it up so finally - how about today, Millwall. Three points?

KA: You know, funnily enough I think we're going to. We haven't beaten them for a long time, and it's a real big game for us. But I don't think we'll end up with 11 men on the pitch at the end of the game!

KUMB: Fingers crossed. Kriss, thanks again for talking to us. Enjoy the game.

KA: No problem.