He WAS the toast of Leith as his goals helped Hibs string together six wins – and suffer just one loss – from nine games to lift the club from the SPL basement towards the climax of last season.
The green-clad support chanted his name from the Easter Road stands as he continued his scoring streak even when Hibs went the final six matches of the campaign without victory. These days, he’s aching just to hear his manager call on him as he warms the bench.
After the adulation that comes with being a goalscoring hero, Akpo Sodje is succeeding in remaining upbeat while his restricted role in the team is defined by sporadic cameo appearances.
If first picks Garry O’Connor, Leigh Griffiths, and Junior Agogo are currently á la mode in Colin Calderwood’s eyes, Sodje is desperate to avoid the tag of “so last season”.
“I’ve been involved in the first team, coming off the bench, but I’m disappointed I haven’t been involved as much as I want to,” explains the English striker, momentarily bereft of his customary beaming smile.
“When I came in January, I was involved in every single game and had a good run in the team. I’m just waiting for my chance to come so I can have a good run. The first game I started, I scored, which was a big boost coming back from injury. I just have to wait and be patient, and hopefully my chance will come soon.
“I had a really frustrating start to the season, getting injured and missing the first four games. Since I’ve been back, I’ve enjoyed being in training and involved in first-team football again. The team has been doing well, so I’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
Sodje is accustomed to learning patience when inside he is hungry to play. After a promising start at previous club Charlton Athletic, his ratio of substitute appearances to starts measured almost three-to-one. Colin Calderwood eventually rescued Sodje from his London nightmare and, initially at least, awoke a sleeping scoring sensation.
“It’s every striker’s dream – you want to get a regular start and hit the ground running,” said Sodje. “When the chances come, you have to do the right things, and since I’ve come here I’ve done the right things. I was playing well, the team were creating chances for me, and I scored a couple of goals. I was really pleased with myself.
“I’m looking for a run in the team, but all the strikers who have played have been fantastic – Garry, Junior, and Sparky [Griffiths]. All of them have done really well. I’m just waiting for my chance to get back into the team and hopefully once I’m there I can go on a good run again and score goals like everyone knows I can.”
While Sodje attempts to uncover an opportunity for first-team action, he will, for the time being, go back to his roots during the international break. Keeping in touch with his sprawling family – he is the tenth of a string of siblings, including three footballing brothers – is by no means a “close range tap-in” for the 6ft 2in target man, but this weekend he will relish the chance to get round the dinner table with as many Sodjes as will fit.
“Everybody’s got a couple of days off to go and have a rest because it’s been hard work in training,” said Sodje, 31.
“I’m planning to go and see my family and my mum and dad back in London, just spend a bit of time with them and my brothers who I haven’t seen in a while. They’ve been to Edinburgh a couple of times, but it’s hard for them to come because they’re playing as well. My sister’s been a lot because she gets the weekends off, but none of them have seen me playing.”
Behind his laid-back, friendly complexion lies a palpable, steely determination to claim a starting jersey. This gritty sense of purpose is evident by Sodje’s plans to undertake a strict, self-imposed personal training schedule while his team-mates may enjoy more time to relax at home.
He jokes that the details and location of his workout remain private so as not to alert fellow players of his plans to break back into the team.
“That’s my secret weapon so I can’t really say!” he laughs. “I’ll wake up, go to the gym and do a little bit of work. Not at the club because everybody else will be with their family. You stay away from there for a little bit and get yourself going. We’ll come back refreshed, but I’ll still keep my fitness up. In your couple of days off, you do a bit of work just to keep your fitness going. It’s a long season and we have really big games coming up, so we have to be nice and sharp.”
O’Connor has assumed the title of talisman from Sodje, temporarily at least, and his ten goals in 11 starts this term represent the fruits of a blossoming relationship between the clinical former Scotland internationalist and the creative talents of Leigh Griffiths and Junior Agogo. Calderwood sees space for just one out-and-out striker in his side, but could two goalmouth predators, in the shape of O’Connor and Sodje, prove double the trouble for Hibs’ opponents in future weeks?
“That’s not left to me – it’s up to the manager to decide,” is Sodje’s diplomatic answer. “At the moment he’s playing Junior and Garry, which is working. Garry has been fantastic – he’s been just unbelievable since he’s been here. People have been saying good and bad stuff about him, but he’s a decent person, he’s a decent man. He’s a changed man as well. He’s working really hard on the pitch and off the pitch as well. The goals he is getting are not flukes – he is a natural goal- scorer. For him to get ten goals before Christmas is fantastic for Hibs. All the strikers and the whole team has been fantastic and we all support Garry.
“He’s a really good character for the team. He’s brought a really good spirit to the club. He’s been here before, he’s won trophies. He’s brought all that experience of playing in the Premiership.”
Sodje is generous with his praise for a man rivalling him for an attacking place in the team, but his choice of words for his fellow forward is borne purely out of a desire to see Hibs flourish. Whether or not he himself plays, Sodje is not blind to the obvious benefits currently offered by O’Connor, although you get the sense he will be ready to rip-roar back into goalscoring duty as soon as circumstance permits.
“Now you can see our team is looking quite tight as well,” he said. “We had a really bad start, but now we’ve lost one game in five and we’ve scored loads of goals. We know what our problem is, but we’ll come back from our little break and kick on from where we stopped.”