Chuba Akpom’s redemption story is perhaps among the most astonishing in the EFL, let alone the Sky Bet Championship.
It’s well chronicled that, at the beginning of the campaign, the Boro forward wasn’t handed a squad number but now, the number 29 holds a greater significance to Akpom; it’s the tally of goals he’s scored in 38 outings and counting.
The 27-year-old was fully expecting to be heading for the door at the Riverside in the summer after being banished to the Under-21s – where he kept a diary to challenge himself – and seemingly not part of then-boss Chris Wilder’s plans.
But how his fortunes have changed drastically. On Sunday evening, the former Arsenal Academy graduate was named the Championship’s Player of the Season. Akpom’s contribution which has seen him fire Boro into promotion contention was fully deserving of the acclade.
“This season just keeps getting better and better,” he gushed. “To be acknowledged for all the hard work I’ve done this season, I’m super grateful.
“At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t sure what I was doing here. I started playing, got injured and missed seven games and that was difficult as well. Ever since I came back from injury, I’ve tried to push as hard as I can.”
Indeed, following his return from a stint in Greece with POAK last term, Akpom was forced to sit out seven weeks of the season after sustaining a knee injury. At that stage of the campaign, even he couldn’t have pictured himself suited and booted at a star-studded awards ceremony clutching the ultimate prize.
🤳 @cakpom #EFLAwards | @Boro https://t.co/Ukmn6MlLQD pic.twitter.com/jYfniA4yoq— Sky Bet Championship (@SkyBetChamp) April 24, 2023
And, according to the striker himself, he owes a lot of that manager Michael Carrick. Since his arrival in October, the former Manchester United star has reinvented Akpom as a number 10.
He described Carrick as ‘the manager he’s been dreaming of his whole career’ in the wake of Middlesbrough’s 3-1 win over his former loan team Hull City in midweek which saw Akpom become the first player to find the back of the net in a ninth consecutive home Championship fixture.
“The gaffer has come in at the perfect time and taken my game to another level,” he noted. “He’s let me by myself and express myself on the pitch; he doesn’t restrict me. He’s analysed the way that I play and found a way to get the best out of me.
“When he put me in there, I said, ‘let’s go’. Little did I know it would work out like this. Getting on the ball on the half turn, roaming around, and finding those pockets. He lets me play the way I want to play, coming deep and getting on the ball and express myself.”
It’s no surprise that Akpom’s upturn in form has coincided with the appointment of Carrick, who has enjoyed the best start to his career of any Boro manager, even surpassing the legendary Jack Charlton.
The prolific marksman became the first Boro player since Bernie Slaven in 1989/90 to hit 20 league goals and Akpom looks on course to claim the division’s Golden Boot as it stands, sitting eight strikes clear of Coventry City’s Viktor Gyokeres and Luton Town’s Carlton Morris, both tied with 20 goals apiece.
On a Club level, last month, he made further history when he bagged the 1000th goal at the Riverside in a 1-1 draw with Stoke City.
“It’s a top changing room with top lads,” he continued. “It’s a big responsibility to go and push the team forward – defending from the front and attacking from the front – and they’ve given me that responsibility and made me comfortable with it.”
And Akpom, who has won promotion to the top-flight during temporary stints with the likes of Hull and Brighton and Hove Albion in the earlier throes of his career, is hoping he can add another one to the list with Boro.
Middlesbrough occupy fourth place, with Carrick’s side all but guaranteed a Play-Off spot, and Akpom, who simply can’t stop scoring, is already dreaming of the famous arch.
“I hope we can finish off the season in a good way. I’m looking forward to it. We’ve got a few tough games then the Play-Offs start. We’ve done well towards the end of the season and brought things back to how we feel they should’ve been. The work keeps on going from here.
“I’m already thinking about it and trying to manifest us at Wembley getting the win and getting promoted!”