From the Robins’ nest to global stardom: The rise and rise of Che Adams

Che Adams celebrates his first goal against Tottenham. Below: Adams is pictured scoring for Ilkeston earlier this season. (Photos by Martyn Harrison and Craig Lamont)
Che Adams celebrates his first goal against Tottenham. Below: Adams is pictured scoring for Ilkeston earlier this season. (Photos by Martyn Harrison and Craig Lamont)

Imagine the scene: It’s November 1, 2014 and an 18-year-old footballer scores for non-league Ilkeston FC at St Neots Town in an FA Trophy first qualifying round tie.

Fast forward just 89 days and the same 18-year-old emerges from the Sheffield United subs bench in a Capital One Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur at Bramall Lane. Within five minutes he has scored two goals against the Premier League giants to announce himself onto the big stage in dramatic fashion.

It’s the stuff most young players’ dreams are made of, but it was all incredibly real for Che Adams.

This was a sudden ascent to stardom that caught the eye of people all over the world who were watching the game on television that night, even for a time making him the top global trend on Twitter, and although it ultimately wasn’t enough to help the Blades progress to a Wembley final, it crowned an incredible three months for a youngster who had already wowed the non-league world with some dazzling displays for Ilkeston in the early part of the season.

And it wasn’t just the watching public who were stunned.

“It was unbelievable,” said Adams.

“Had I missed the first chance that came to me it could have affected my confidence badly but when it went in I didn’t know what to do.

“In the end I got told off by (manager) Nigel Clough for running off and celebrating in the corner when we still needed more goals - if anything I did it the wrong way round because when the second one went in I hardly celebrated at all!

“When I came on, I heard the Spurs fans shout ‘who?’ when my name was announced. I’m glad they knew who I was by the end!”

Adams’ composure and quality that night would have come as no surprise to those who saw him progress through Ilkeston FC’s thriving academy under the tutelage of Kevin Wilson and Steve Chettle, having previously been released by Coventry City.

The first few months of the season saw him score several stunning goals and produce many impressive performances, meaning there was an air of inevitability that one of the many clubs watching him would finally put an offer on the table.

“I wasn’t really aware of which clubs were putting bids in even though I knew of the interest in me,” said Adams.

“Eventually I was told Sheffield United were keen and I went up on a Thursday to talk to them and look around Bramall Lane before going back to the hotel and thinking over a few things with my representatives.

“I went back to Bramall Lane on the Friday, signed the forms to complete the transfer and the following day I was on the bench for the game away at Doncaster Rovers. It all happened so quickly.

“I felt it was the right move as I was confident I’d get some football here. Nigel Clough is known for believing in young players and that was emphasised by him putting me straight in the squad at Doncaster.”

Despite having been training full-time at Ilkeston, the differences between that regime and one at a club the size of Sheffield United were quickly apparent.

Adams said: “It was hard. I trained on the day I signed and the tempo was something else. I never knew you could get quite so tired just in a training session.

“I’m getting used to it now and it’s much easier, but it was certainly very different to what I’d experienced at Ilkeston!”

The dramatic change in surroundings and suddenly being thrust in front of up to 30,000 people rather than a few hundred would be enough to unnerve many a teenager, but Adams was determined to take it all in his stride.

“The people at Sheffield United were really good,” he said.

“They told me to carry on doing exactly what I’d been doing at Ilkeston as that was what got me here, and in the end I took everything in quite easily.

“It was what I’d been dreaming about and working so hard for and I didn’t want to end up being starstruck by those I was suddenly sharing a pitch with.”

The settling in process was helped by the arrival of Kieran Wallace, a team-mate of Adams at Ilkeston who had also impressed Nigel Clough enough in his three months at the New Manor Ground to earn a move to Bramall Lane, with Adams adding: “I was just picking up my kit before training and he suddenly walked in out of nowhere!

“I knew he’d had a trial here earlier in the season but I didn’t know he was due to sign so it was a nice surprise and we helped each other settle in.”

Having been an unused sub for several games Adams was finally plunged in at the deep end in the Capital One Cup quarter-final against another Premier League side in the shape of Southampton.

Brought on at half-time, Adams impressed many that night and helped the Blades to a 1-0 win which set up the clash with Tottenham.

He said: “I thought I had a chance of getting on as I’d been doing quite well in training but it was quite a surprise to get 45 minutes. I enjoyed playing against some great players, most of them internationals.”

That display helped earn him his first start against Walsall three days later where he played 84 minutes in a 1-1 draw, then followed a brief substitute appearance at MK Dons just four days before the first leg of the Tottenham cup tie at White Hart Lane.

“Going to Spurs was an amazing experience and although I was disappointed not to get on, I loved just being there and part of it,” he said.

“As a team we were underdogs and didn’t have any pressure on us, and in the end it was a good display that meant there was only a one-goal deficit for the return leg.”

That deficit became two goals in the return tie at Bramall Lane before Adams’ sudden and dramatic entrance resulted in the aggregate score being 2-2 in the blink of an eye.

Christian Eriksen’s late goal eventually denied Adams and his team-mates the chance to get to Wembley, but the teenager’s input was one of the main talking points and unsurprisingly propelled him into the starting line-up for the win over Swindon last Saturday - Adams’ first 90 minute stint in the Sheffield United team.

“It was horrible to lose the semi-final as we’d given ourselves a real chance, but it wasn’t to be,” he said.

“I had messages from loads of people afterwards, including from Ilkeston, and even got former Blade Kyle Walker’s shirt having battled with him for 20 minutes!”

“Overall it’s been a fantastic experience so far. I’m playing against cleverer players than before and it’s been a huge learning curve but I’m determined to keep working and do my best all the time.”

Adams now has his own pad in Sheffield and gets regular visits from family and friends. He’s even used to cooking for himself thanks to time spent living with some of his Ilkeston team-mates before making the move north.

And Adams was keen to remember his time at the New Manor Ground and just what it had done for his career.

“It was a massive stepping stone for me and I’ve so much to thank the staff and the fans for,” he said.

“Playing first team football against grown men at 17 made me stronger in both a mental and physical sense and gave me the chance to impress those who eventually came to watch me, whether fans or scouts.

“I still speak to lots of people there and I’m hoping to get to a Robins game when I get a chance.

“But for now I’m just thrilled to be at Sheffield United and really working hard to help us achieve our aim of promotion, which would cap an incredible season.”