Goal Nigeria's UK correspondent runs the rule over the progress of six Super Eagles in England's second tier as the season nears its endANALYSIS
By Ed Dove
Earlier in the year I wrote an article previewing the year ahead for some of the Nigerian players populating the Football League. Now, as we head into the year’s final furlong, I update readers on the progress of those stars in the Championship, and look to their objectives and aspirations for the last few months of the season.
Things haven’t worked out so well for Wolverhampton Wanderers this term. Fallen giants of the English game, they have fallen on hard times of late, dropping out of the Premier League after dismissing manager Mick McCarthy. After appointing Stale Solbakken in the summer, this year was to be one of consolidation and rejuvenation for the Old Gold.
Instead, it is turning into a disastrous season, and upheaval and a lack of conviction have seen the West Midlanders plummet down the table.
For their Nigerian keeper, Carl Ikeme, who was called up to the Super Eagles under Berti Vogts but never made his debut, it has been a decidedly mixed year. Since making the first team squad at Wolves back in 2003, Ikeme has struggled to hold down a place between the sticks—this has meant that he has undergone no less than nine loan moves.
This season, with injuries ruling Wayne Hennessey and Dorus de Vries out for long periods, he has had his chance to excel, and has certainly seized the opportunity, often being a pillar of strength when those around him have fallen.
Unfortunately, his luck was to run out again in March when he conceded a horrific own goal in a ‘must-win’ relegation clash with Bristol City, letting a soft backpass sneak through his legs and across the line. Furious with himself, and frustrated at the ease with which he blundered, Ikeme took out his anger during the interval—punching a wall in the changing room.
Devastatingly, for both player and club, the force of the punch managed to break the keeper’s hand, ruling him out for the rest of the season. It is a dismal change of fortune for one who has waited so long for a chance to regularly represent his local club—still only 26, Ikeme has the time to prove, to both Wolves and Nigeria, that this stupidity is merely one isolated incident.
Sone Aluko, at Hull, is another who has endured injury woe this season. He was the North East club’s star player in the first half of the season, and was looking like an outside bet to muscle his way into Stephen Keshi’s Cup of Nations squad at the end of 2012.
Unfortunately, Aluko’s season was all but ended by injury in January, with a return to training only planned for April at the earliest. On the bright side, Hull’s diluted forward options haven’t affected their form, and Steve Bruce countered the loss of the Nigerian by signing Egyptian forward Gedo among others. With Hull sitting pretty in second place, their top scorer may well be demonstrating his Super Eagle credentials in the top flight next season.
For Aluko’s compatriot, Lagos-born Seyi Olofinjana, the pressure of a promotion chase has been swapped for the tempestuousness of a relegation battle, as he has moved on an ‘emergency loan’ deal from Hull to struggling Sheffield Wednesday.
'Oli', a favourite of Wednesday boss Dave Jones from his time at Cardiff, has been recruited to cover for a shortage of midfielders, and to add some experience and grit to a season finale which will doubtless test everyone associated with the Owls.
The midfield anchor man was one of the more consistent players in Nigeria’s 2004 run to the Afcon semi-final, and despite leaving the international setup in 2010, he has continued to show his ability and his power in England’s lower leagues. A reunion with Jones, and the prospect of an end-of-season battle to stay up, will doubtless appeal to the Super Eagle warrior.
Olofinjana’s fellow central midfielder Dickson Etuhu was part of the Nigeria squad for the 2008 Afcon and the 2010 World Cup, but despite being recalled by Stephen Keshi for some of his early friendly games, has been out of the international fold in recent times.
His luck looks unlikely to change any time soon, with the Kano-born player enduring a season replete with injuries. A current concern with his knee will keep him out of Blackburn’s fixture with Oli’s Sheffield Wednesday side—so the prospect of two Nigerians clashing in the centre of the park will have to wait!
Etuhu is one of a number of players at Ewood Park whose reputations have been tarnished due to a perceived connection with the deeply unpopular owners, the Venky family; it remains to be seen how long the Nigerian will remain at the club beyond this season.
Kelvin Etuhu, brother of Dickson, is another enduring a tricky season down at the wrong end of the table. However, his club Barnsley continue to defy critics who forecast that they would be nailed on for relegation. Instead, the club lie in 20th place, still in trouble, but potentially with enough wind in their sails to escape the danger zone.
Kelvin has cited the unifying arrival of new boss David Flitcroft as a key reason behind the Tykes’ recent improvement. A terrific win against Leicester, in which Etuhu scored, will give the side much needed confidence. The midfielder has previously declared his intention to star for the Super Eagles, and Stephen Keshi may want to invest in watching him ply his trade before the season is done.
Finally, Super Eagle stalwart Danny Shittu is enjoying a second successful spell at Millwall—another club tipped for relegation, and another who defy the critics. The Lions’ vice-captain made Stephen Keshi’s provisional 32-man squad for the Afcon, without actually travelling to the tournament, after requesting not to be considered.
With the Big Boss looking to youth at the expense of seasoned performers such as Joseph Yobo, I doubt whether the veteran defender has a future with the Super Eagles.