By Ed Dove
The Championship kicked off last weekend with an enormous swathe of teams optimistic about their chances of claiming the holy grail, ascending to the Land of Milk and Honey—the Premier League.
Clubs up and down the division feature Nigerian stars primed to make an impact or poised to make a return to the top flight; others have never been there, but have surely harboured dreams of flourishing at the elite level.
There will doubtless be some players fostering aspirations to cap a productive season with a call-up to the Super Eagles squad and a summer in Brazil. The road, between then and now, will doubtless be both long and winding.
Nedum Onuoha remains a divisive figure among Super Eagles fans.
When supporters wrote into Goal in December 2012 recommending players to make the Nigeria squad for the 2013 Cup of Nations, no one’s name came up more than the Q.P.R. defender. However, while many of you were begging for the established stopped to get the nod from Keshi, there were others who saw no place for a defender who struggled even to command a place in a dismal Rangers team.
Now in the Championship, Onuoha has come a long way from the speedy youngster who broke into the Manchester City team back in 2004.
His stock is nowhere near as high as it once was, but a drop down the divisions gives Nedum the opportunity to again prove his worth. Entering his prime, there is no reason why a triumphant season with the West London side doesn’t end in a trip to the World Cup next summer.
Nedum: Aspirations aplenty
His compatriot Hope Akpan will be hoping for a similar conclusion to the year.
It has been a rollercoaster few seasons for the young Liverpool-born Nigerian. Having been released by Everton, he dropped down to League Two Crawley Town before working his way back up, initially through a promotion and subsequently following a transfer to then-Premier League Reading.
While the dynamic midfielder looked comfortable in the Premier League, and made an exciting start to life in Berkshire, he was unable to stop the Royals from descending to the Championship and endured a few injury troubles.
It may be that the step down will help Akpan find his feet and establish himself in a Reading side likely to be battling near the table top.
The examples of Sone Aluko and Danny Shittu last season demonstrate that Stephen Keshi is willing to look outside the top flight in order to secure the right talent for his squad.
Shittu: Hope for Others
Two veterans of the division look unlikely to add to their caps tally. The aforementioned Shittu continues at Millwall, where he is club captain and adored by the fanbase.
Over in Blackburn, Dickson Etuhu has endured a frustrated pre-season due to injury, but despite the presence of similar players in the Rovers midfield, could still be a useful asset to the side this season.
Dickson’s brother Kelvin will once again be battling to keep un-fancied Barnsley in the division. The Tykes only secured their safety on the last day of last season, and Etuhu and co. may well face a similar struggle this time around.
One Nigerian looking to finish near the top of the division is Ikechi Anya.
After a loan stay at Vicarage Road last term, Anya is one of a number of players to join on a permanent deal from one of the two clubs in partnership with the Hornets.
Ikechi Anya: Watford for Keeps
Eligible to play for England, Nigeria, Romania or Scotland, Glasgow-born Anya has expressed a desire to represent the land of his birth. However, would he be able to refuse the invitation to bring his versatile talents to the World Cup with Keshi’s Super Eagles should he enjoy a successful year with Watford?
Athletic midfielder Tom Adeyemi was signed by Birmingham this summer, following several formative years at Norwich. A bright prospect on his break-through, the Tottenham fan perhaps suffered as the club clambered so quickly up the divisions.
Having enjoyed some loan spells in the lower divisions, Adeyemi now finds himself at Birmingham permanently, where manager Lee Clark—himself a defensive midfielder in his day—will look to mould the youngster into a talent worthy of the top flight.
Yeovil Town are in the second tier for the first time in their history and will need mammoth performances from their whole team simply to keep afloat. Following a loan spell with Hearts last season, Liverpool forward Michael Ngoo faces an entirely different challenge at Yeovil. Still only 20, this year will force a steep learning curve upon the young Nigerian if he is to prosper at Huish Park.
Lower down the divisions there is a litany of would-be Super Eagles vying for promotion or attempting to avoid the endless menace of relegation.
Carl Ikeme’s disastrous end to the season was well-documented and the Wolves goalkeeper will be hoping his fortunes improve this time around. Unable to halt the team’s inexorable roll into League One, the stopper let his temper get the better of him at half time during a crucial battle with Bristol City.
Ikeme: Better Luck Next Time
In frustration, Ikeme lashed out and expressed his anger on the dressing room wall. A broken hand and a premature end to the season was all the ‘keeper received for his troubles.
Ikeme has started the new term as Wolves’ number 1, but any more rash decisions and expect fit-again Wayne Hennessey to retake his shirt.
The best of the rest is possible Peterborough forward Nicky Ajose.
A product of the Manchester United academy, the talented striker struggled to assert himself after initially moving to London Road two years ago. After various loan spells he now finds himself in prime position to make an impact and potentially emulate Dwight Gayle, the young forward who was sold to Premier League Crystal Palace after an effective tutelage in Cambridgeshire.
Look out for these other Nigerians up and down the pyramid
Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading)
Chuks Aneke (Crewe), Jon Otsemobor (MK Dons), Jabo Ibehre, Magnus Okuonghae, Freddie Ladapo (All Colchester), David Amoo (Carlisle), Elliot Omozusi (Leyton Orient), Enoch Showunmi (Notts Co), Kayode Odejayi (Rotherham), Akpo Sodje (Tranmere)
Adebayo Akinfenwa (Gillingham), Chris Iwelumo (Scunthorpe)