Sowunmi: Panther tried to pounce for me

FEW Hibs fans had probably heard of Thomas Sowunmi before he arrived at Easter Road - but John Collins' latest signing comes with the stamp of approval from no less than Eusebio.

The Portuguese legend, known as the Black Panther, was keen to take the striker to Benfica after watching him play in Lisbon for Hungary, but his hopes of a dream move fell through when his club dug their heels in and refused to let him go.

Although he remains philosophical as he recalls the story, the 28-year-old admits it was a major blow although one not unfamiliar to him as previously Greek outfit Olympiakos had a bid for his signature blocked in similar circumstances. Sowunmi, capped ten times by Hungary, said: "The game against Portugal was the most memorable of my international career.

"It was a European Championship qualifying match five years ago and although we were beaten 3-0 I spoke to Eusebio, who said he wanted me to go to Benfica.

"But my club wouldn't let me go, that's the way it was in Hungary, if they don't want you to go, you don't go.

"The same sort of thing had happened when I was just 18, Olympiakos were interested in me but my club wouldn't let me go to Greece."

Even so, Sowunmi has enjoyed a somewhat chequered route to Edinburgh, playing for Dunaferr (twice), Vasas and Ferencvaros - where he made a 25-minute appearance as a substitute as they beat Hearts 1-0 at Murrayfield in the UEFA Cup - in his homeland, Ajaccio in Corsica, and the Czech Republic where he starred for FC Slovacko.

Sowunmi spent the first nine years of his life in Nigeria, his Hungarian mother Maria having met his father, also Thomas, while he was a student in Budapest before they returned to his mother's homeland.

And it was not until the age of 13 he began to play football.

He said: "I used to play volleyball but my friends played football and I found I liked it and wanted to be a professional player although my grandfather always wanted me to be a pilot for some reason." If he is new to Hibs, Sowunmi is already familiar with the Edinburgh club, hearing all about life at Easter Road from his good friend Janos Matyus and arriving in the Capital to find former team-mate Attila Grof's son David already on the books.

He laughed: "It's certainly a small world.

"I was a team-mate of Janos' in the Hungarian national side although we never played together at club level, we were always opponents. Janos told me told me lots of good things about the club although, obviously, at that time I never thought I'd follow in his footsteps. It's strange, too, to find David here.

"His dad, also a goalkeeper like David, was a team-mate of mine at Vasas and I've known David since he was a kid. I remember him as a small boy, he's certainly a bit taller now and doing very well with Hibs."

Grof junior also remembers Sowunmi well, describing him as "my hero" from that time. The young goalkeeper, who has just signed a three-year deal with Hibs, said: "I remember Thomas' first season at Vasas. He came with just nine games of the season remaining and he was on the bench but he still scored seven goals for us."

Sowunmi came to Hibs boss John Collins' notice via contacts who tipped him off that the 6ft hitman might help bolster his squad, a few days trial at Easter Road confirming that recommendation with the player signing a deal until the end of the season.

However, he revealed that being available as a free agent was far from straightforward, his contract with FC Slovacko ending with a police and FIFA probe.

He said: "I'd signed a one-year deal but I was then shown a contract which did not resemble mine. It was very complicated. I was the innocent party but from June I wasn't allowed to go near the stadium even to train.

"I went to the police and in December FIFA set me free. It was a rather traumatic time to suddenly find yourself as a professional football player without a club. They still owe me money."

Sowunmi. though, is now intent in looking to the future rather than back, hoping that over the next few months he can not only help Hibs to the silverware which everyone at Easter Road hopes will be their's over the next six weeks, but to persuade Collins to extend his short deal.

He said: "It's an exciting time to be joining the club with the CIS Cup final coming up, the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup in a couple of weeks' time and the team also doing well in the League.

"I've watched the team play three times already and I've enjoyed what I see. They play good football with the ball on the ground which I like, it's much better than fighting for it in the air.

"Hopefully I can help the team and improve my own game. I'm just getting to know John Collins as a manager but I know he played at the top level in Europe with Monaco.

"The style of football Hibs play was the major attraction to me but also having someone like him as manager. Hopefully I can do enough over the next few months to persaude him to offer me a longer contract."