‘He reminds me of Ronaldo’: Che Adams brings Brazil to Birmingham

The forward known as ‘Chelé’ by fans is attracting Premier League interest after developing at non-league Ilkeston

The immediate threat to Sheffield United’s promotion push is a familiar one. It was November 2014 when Nigel Clough rang Kevin Wilson, the former Chelsea striker, about taking a talented Ilkeston teenager on trial at Bramall Lane. The player was Kieran Wallace, who has since reunited with Clough at Burton Albion, but another name on the lips of scouts up and down the country inevitably cropped up during that same conversation: Che Adams.

Within 24 hours the 18-year‑old striker had left Ilkeston to sign for United for £135,000. But on Wednesday evening at St Andrew’s, Adams will line up for Birmingham City, looking to derail his former club’s Premier League tilt, five days after denting Leeds’s automatic promotion hopes.

Not so long ago Billy Sharp and Chris Basham – key cogs in Chris Wilder’s freewheeling side – were teammates with Adams, who on a personal level has enjoyed his best season even though Birmingham are anxiously peering over their shoulder after being deducted nine points for breaches of the Football League’s profitability and sustainability rules. His 22-goal haul puts him in contention for the Championship golden boot, though Norwich’s Teemu Pukki leads the way with 26.

Adams’ form has not gone unnoticed; he was nominated for the EFL player of the year award alongside Sharp and the victorious Pukki, and Alex McLeish has confirmed he wants the Leicester-born forward, who has represented England at youth level and is eligible to play for Antigua and Barbuda, to switch his international allegiance, via the grandparent rule, to Scotland.

Released by Coventry at 14, Adams was picked up by Ilkeston at a Leicester City trial day. Wilson and Phil Waller, the former Derby player who scouted for the then Northern Premier League club, had done their homework but could not believe their luck. Adams made an immediate impact in the seventh tier, scoring nine goals. “His turn of pace always caused problems,” Wilson says. “He stood out, so physically strong and powerful. I think for one game we had there were 40 clubs watching him and something ridiculous like 15 or 16 agents looking to sign him up. I always remember a goal he scored against FC United of Manchester, when he took the ball from inside his own half, slalomed past a load of players and slotted it into the bottom corner.

Che Adams with Sheffield United in 2015, scoring against Tottenham in the League Cup semi-final.
Che Adams with Sheffield United in 2015, scoring against Tottenham in the League Cup semi-final. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

“It was a big commitment for him. He lived in Leicester and it was not just a case of jumping in the car. At 16 it cost him and his parents money to get him there. He was not being paid because he was on like a YT course, a BTec they were doing at the college. You have to give him a lot of credit for getting on a bus at 6.30am and coming in to do the education. He deserves everything he gets because he has worked so hard to get to this stage.”

Matt Baker, who has since returned to Ilkeston Town (the phoenix club after Ilkeston were wound up two years ago), recalls his first memory of playing with Adams at their New Manor Ground. “We were 3-1 down and he came on with about half an hour to go and he scored two and set one up,” Baker says. “That was when everyone knew he would be starting. After about a month of him being a first-team player, it was not a matter of if he was going to go, it was when. Che played just in behind the striker, in a free role where he was prolific. Every time he scored people were saying it would add an extra few thousand pounds to his transfer fee.”

Three years ago Adams was keeping Dominic Calvert-Lewin out of the Sheffield United lineup before the latter joined Everton. Wilder said in the same way that Calvert-Lewin made it plain he wished to move on, Adams also wanted to depart when Birmingham came calling with £2m in August 2016. After a slow start under Garry Monk, Adams eased into double figures this season and it is no coincidence that Birmingham’s recent five-match losing streak corresponded with his barren goalscoring run.

The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

Those who have worked with Adams concur with comparisons to Callum Wilson, who also started with Coventry and spent time in non-league, in his case with Kettering, while Omar Bogle, who played alongside Adams earlier this season, says Adams’ instinctive finishing reminds him of Jermain Defoe. “A more physical version,” Bogle says, “because he is a sharp-shooter on the turn. Che has more physical attributes but in and around the box he is like Defoe, so quick at getting his shots off. He is an all-round striker. It does not just happen overnight. He has always been a great player but now he has the belief and backing from the manager. And now he is delivering the goods.”

Those at Ilkeston are proud of – but not shocked by – his rise. The Premier League looks likely to be his next destination; Southampton and Burnley showed their hand in January. “I used to teach in the academy and on recruitment days Che was the poster boy,” says Baker. “It was: ‘This can happen.’ He is a player the next wave of players can look up to.”

Adams has been affectionally dubbed ‘Chelé’ by some Birmingham supporters but Baker says his former teammate evokes memories of another Brazilian great. “He reminds me a little bit of the old Ronaldo. He had that raw ability. I wouldn’t say he was electric quick but he was powerful and strong. He would brush people off and he could go through people. And he always had a finish at the end of it.”

Talking points

• Six months after taking over a Macclesfield team eight points from safety, Sol Campbell has hauled them out of the relegation zone with five games to play. When Campbell was appointed his first task was to watch his side at Exeter and, after doing the double over the Devon club, they sit two points clear of Yeovil and Notts County.

Sol Campbell celebrates one of the Macclesfield goals in the win over Exeter that took them out of the League Two relegation zone.
Sol Campbell celebrates one of the Macclesfield goals in the win over Exeter that took them out of the League Two relegation zone. Photograph: Philip Oldham/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

• This time last season Norwich were in mid-table with two wins from their previous 12 matches, yet their faith in manager Daniel Farke did not waiver. “The club had a plan and sticking by him was a big part of that,” said Max Aarons, 19, winner of the EFL young player of the year award. “It has proved a brilliant decision.” Fast forward 12 months and Norwich are determined to not only win promotion but to go up as champions. “It would be the icing on the cake,” Aarons said. Victory over lowly Reading on Wednesday would certainly help.

• The sight of match officials queuing at the Subway branch over the road for a pre-match bite to eat speaks volumes about the bleak situation at Bolton, where there is no complimentary food or drink amid their financial crisis. They are staring relegation in the face after nine defeats in 12 matches. “It has a draining effect on everybody and a lot of the lads are struggling with the situation, because of mortgage payments, etc,” said manager Phil Parkinson.