From non-league to the Championship, Akpo Sodje's past managers recall 'raw talent'

Idoro AKPOEYERE UJOMA SODJE - Akpo to his growing list of Easter Road admirers - has a natural inclination to make things brief.

Chopping his forename by 15 letters, trawling through short stints at 12 clubs throughout a decade-long career, and making an impact at Hibs in double-quick time since his January transfer - it all comes as part of the package.

Now 31, Sodje is finally settled, a first pick under Colin Calderwood, and scoring at a rate not seen since his days at a modest non-league club. A circuitous route from youngster at Queens Park Rangers ten years ago to Edinburgh earlier this year took in the outpost of Erith and Belvedere as well as the role of hero in the Steel City derby with Yorkshire giants Sheffield Wednesday.

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After Sodje this week labelled his move from Charlton to the Capital as one of the best of his career, Hibs fans and boss Calderwood will hope his talisman stays put for longer than usual.

After starting out as a youngster at QPR, Sodje dipped into non-league football with Stevenage, Margate, Gravesend and Northfleet, and Heybridge Swifts before eventually finding his niche as a fearsome frontman at Kent club Erith and Belvedere and winning a move to Huddersfield Town. That was followed by a subsequent successful spell at Darlington, then Port Vale, by now commanding a transfer fee of 250,000, which Sheffield Wednesday were only too willing to pay. He may have struck single figures during two seasons in Yorkshire, but wrote his name into Hillsborough folklore with two goals in a Steel City derby against United that helped secure Wednesday's first "double" over their city rivals for 95 years.

From a famously football-mad family, Akpo had partnered brothers Sam (while at Stevenage), Steve (Erith and Belvedere), and Efe (Huddersfield) at various points throughout his football years. After failing to find form at The Valley, Sodje chose to move north to open a new chapter in a colourful career.

The Evening News spoke to the managers who played the biggest part in shaping the Sodje that Hibs fans savour today.


Sodje played under Laws for Sheffield Wednesday from 2007-2010

Laws introduced to Sodje's career a piece of the big time: The Championship, the Sheffield derby, and a 40,000-seater stadium. The former Burnley manager, out of work since leaving Turf Moor in December, recalls a striker whose work ethic was second to none but whose bad luck with injuries put paid to a more productive spell at Hillsborough. "I knew a lot about Akpo for a few years prior to buying him for Sheffield Wednesday, and I had come up against him as Scunthorpe manager," said Laws, latterly Burnley manager and now out of work. "He had always been a threat but was a bit raw. We decided to take a plunge and bought him for a quarter of a million pounds.

"I've got to say he is one of the nicest lads I've worked with: his manner, his professionalism. He had a difficult time at Wednesday, something of a talisman and outstanding when he was fit. But he went through an awful period of just getting fit and then his hamstring would go, and he had a massive block of injuries.

"He's very unique, an athletic lad, and he loved chasing the ball. He wouldn't give up on anything - if there was an empty crisp packet blowing in the wind, he'd chase that. He had too many injuries and I felt for him, otherwise he would have been a regular in the team.

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"The fans loved him. With Marcus Tudgay or Deon Burton, he formed a really good partnership when he was fit he was playing. His energy and commitment took us ten yards further up the pitch. Pleased to see he's gone to Scotland and with a smile on his face, when he's like that it makes a big difference to his game."

The youngest of ten children, Sodje, Laws says, would always keep the Wednesday ticket office busy with requests for match tickets so his extended family could come to watch him in action. There were few empty seats for Sodje's piece de resistance while at the club, a brace in the derby breaking a record nearly a century long.

"It was one of the first games for me as a manager," says Laws. "The Steel City derby is massive here - as big as Celtic and Rangers - and the fans adored him from that moment on. He was a major key in our success in that game, and we were fortunate to do the first double in 95 years. He can handle the pressure - he thrives on it."


Sodje played under Jackson for Huddersfield Town from 2004-2005

Jackson, now Bradford City manager, gave Sodje his first opportunity at league level at Huddersfield Town. Like Laws, Jackson is left with a lasting impression of a grafter, but admits his former striker was certainly one of the "ones that got away".

"I came to hear about him through his brother, Efe, who was at the club at the time," said Jackson. "Akpo was playing non-league, and we invited him up for pre-season. He did well and we gave him a contract until the end of the season.

"Everybody that's come from non-league lacks fitness and touch, and we worked on both. He conducted himself well, he was polite and pleasure to work with. He must have worked extremely hard at his game to get to the level he's at now. He was a bit raw, hadn't been in the professional game or surroundings before and needed ten chances to score. Look at him now - he's done well.

"We knew he'd probably would have come good and has done. Who's to say where he would've ended up (if Sodje had been given more opportunities] - he probably ranks as one of the best. I can't afford him now - he's gone out my (transfer] bracket. It's nice when players come through, and Akpo deserves everything he gets."


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Sodje played under Acland for Erith and Belvedere from 2003-2004

A local league in the Home Counties of southern England is perhaps where you would last think to find a Hibs regular, but Erith and Belvedere really was where the rise of Sodje began. After frustrating attempts at finding his feet in non-league football elsewhere, Sodje was offered a contract by one Mick Acland, now a 75-year-old builder retired from football.

"We had Steve Sodje already and he told me his brother wasn't playing anywhere," said Acland. "He, got to the stage where he became disillusioned. We brought him in for training and you can see he's got ability. We had him in the side, but we let ourselves down we should have won the league."

Acland remembers, the striker took time to get over an inferiority complex at Park View Road. "He was a bit temperamental in his early days, a very quiet lad who had that 'I've not made it, I'm giving up' sort of thing," said Acland. "He was raw, had a load of pace, but lacked a bit of control. But then he sparked himself into life.

"He was a great lad, no trouble. I knew he was going to be a good player and he left for Huddersfield. The club got something for him, but not enough."

Erith developed something of a habit of grooming prolific goalscorers for higher league football, with Sodje's successor at centre forward, Chris Dickson, enjoying a similarly prolific spell before signing for Charlton, the club from which Sodje arrived in the Capital.