Published: Onome Sodje in When Saturday Comes

Updated 13th January 2010: Scroll to bottom of this post for the full article.

I’ve got my first bit of writing in a proper publication. After about six years of writing bits of journalism for fun it’s an honour to see something I’ve written in When Saturday Comes, one of the few magazines that’s still worth reading and on the shelves of every WH Smugs in the country.

At the very least go and thumb through a copy on your lunch break.

I was photocopying my own fanzine aged sixteen, got to interview the likes of Anton Corbijn and Robyn for Manchester Uni’s Student Direct a couple of years later and still trundle out the occasional epic piece for Incendiary when I remember. That’s in addition to god-knows how many interviews for the York City F.C. programme, trying to coax a half-interesting comment on anything from loan signings and talking about allotments with the assistant manager.

But while print might be dead and online content more widely spread there’s nothing like the thrill and pleasure from knowing that people are bothering to pay for a paper copy of what you’ve typed up. In this case it’s a tale of Onome Sodje who spent two frustrating years as a York City player before leaving for Barnsley on a free transfer. In the aftermath it transpired that he had essentially been an illegal immigrant and that York City (along with local MP Hugh Bayley and Archbishop John Sentamu) had fought for his legal status only for him to screw them over at the finish. The gory details are in the publication.

The man in question.

Sodje was an odd character, his flashes of skill at the start of his time with the club declining with an absence of any application. A televised Boxing Day appearance at Burton Albion last season was the final straw for most fans: sporting a carefully coiffeured afro to impress the viewing public he forgot that he also had to play the odd bit of football. The piece in When Saturday Comes hints that there are doubts about his background; on this blog and without the risk of the magazine getting sued it’s fair to say that there are pretty big question marks about his real age and exact relationship to the rest of the Sodje family.

In person he was a softly spoken, nice enough bloke. I just found a transcript of an interview I did with him in the Bootham Crescent carpark after a game over two years ago. Ignoring the purple prose in this excerpt there’s a reminder of how he really could have been (and initially was) a good player with a bit of application. Although ‘mature’ may have been a little prescient…

Nineteen year old Onome Sodje is not fazed by the prospect of upstaging his cousins. Since arriving at KitKat Crescent the former Charlton trainee has been a rare beacon of light during the patchy start to the season, his incredible pace and finishing ability making the difference in many key matches. Already installed as a fan favourite, he has managed to score eleven goals in only sixteen starts.

All three of his famous relatives worked their way up from non-league football through hard graft and pure talent. It’s easy to imagine Onome moving up the leagues at some point, hopefully taking York City with him. We took the chance to have a short chat prior to Saturday’s game at Ebbsfleet. He’s softly spoken, friendly and very mature, especially when discussing the backroom changes that have followed Billy McEwan’s departure:

Sodje played forty seven times for the then Gravesend & Northfleet and managed to score eleven times from the Kent team. However it was the extended periods on the subs bench that caused him to move up to Yorkshire:

“It wasn’t that I felt I was on the sidelines but that I was on the sidelines. It was an experience for me but now I’m just glad to up here doing my best for the team. York made me feel wanted right from the top to the bottom. The chairman made me feel really wanted and he was on my case, ringing me all the time and trying to get me up here. He made me feel that I was in demand and that I was part of something. At Gravesend I didn’t get those words from the people in control or feel that connection.

“Before Gravesend my Charlton days are forgotten now, they were while I was still developing and learning how to play. I’d say that the set-up at York could be compared to Charlton although obviously the training facilities are a little different. But the club is run in a really professional manner that’s up with the top teams and it’s brilliant to be a first team player here. I prefer to play serious football where you aim to win points. At York it’s fantastic to turn up at the stadium and have the whole crowd behind you and obviously it’s great to hear everyone chanting your name.”

Updated 13th January 2010:
There’s a new issue of When Saturday Comes in the shops. You probably ought to buy it – it’s a refuge for readable and alternative writing on football. So please support Andy and the various writers who are far more talented than me and need a few quid to make a living. But for the sake of internet archiving here’s the full text of my piece on Onome Sodje that appeared in WSC 275.

And because you can’t stop anything being distributed for free online here’s a scan of the page as it appeared in print, uploaded by an Oxford fan to photobucket – click the thumbnail for the full view. As for Onome? He went on loan to Oxford, proved himself to be average and was promptly bought a off-peak single back to South Yorkshire. So it goes.

When Onome Sodje signed for Barnsley from York City this summer it was considered a coup by both sets of fans. Tykes supporters were happy to have snapped up the youngest member of British football’s most reliable family while York fans looked forward to a hefty tribunal payout for the out-of-contract twenty year old. But as more details emerged it became clear that there was little hope of compensation changing hands due to a mix of immigration policy, a long-running legal case and blatant opportunism.

Unlike the rest of the footballing family Onome was born in Nigeria. He grew up in Warri on the west coast; other details on his background are scarce. He seems to have moved to the United Kingdom as an adolescent and soon afterwards started playing for Charlton’s Academy, progressing to reserve grade before for signing for Conference side Gravesend & Northfleet. Aged eighteen he was a regular for the club during the 2006/07 season before moving north to York.

At the time York fans were pleasantly surprised by their club’s ability to sign a promising striker from a rival team, attributing the transfer to budget cutbacks at the Kent club. But it is now clear that Onome wasn’t just out of contract but that he had possibly never been on one. Having overstayed his visa he had been lost to immigration officials and had no legal status. This meant he could not pay tax and was unable to receive a wage from any reputable business. For two seasons York instead provided unspecified “expenses” to cover basic living costs while he stayed with other family members.

Behind the scenes the club board were trying to untangle the mess. According to director Sophie McGill, “We said that we’d help him achieve his status because he didn’t have any money – he had been turned down before.” To this end they approached the immigration officials and began the eighteen month long process of applying for permanent residency. “It became clear when we talked to the immigration officials that he had gone off the radar. If we hadn’t pursued the case then there would have been a great threat of him being thrown out of the country. It was only because we initiated contact that they were sympathetic to the cause.”

But nothing was particularly simple in this case. Onome’s relationship to the rest of his high-flying family is confusing at best with all affairs being handled through his aunt. Even his real age has been questioned by some within the football club. McGill says that the one thing that they can be sure of is that there was a real bond between the player and the rest of the family. “They always came to watch him when they weren’t playing, took a great interest and did seem to care about him.”

At the end of last season an agreement was reached whereby Onome would be granted permanent residency on the understanding that he would be offered a two year contract from York. The football club kept their side of the bargain, in spite of the player’s increasingly disinterested performances. But Sodje had other ideas and cut all contact with the club. A month later Onome appeared wearing a Barnsley shirt on their website, the first that York had heard of him since he played for the club in their FA Trophy final at Wembley Stadium.

It later emerged that Barnsley had offered £100,000 for the player in January, only to be rebuffed by a club that could not sell a player who did not have a contract. Barnsley’s general manager was later quoted as saying “the player wanted to move on and we didn’t approach him”. It appears that, having heard of the interest, Sodje’s advisers made direct contact with the Championship club and offered them a player that would be free of any responsibility by the end of the season. He had his legal status, Barnsley had their man and neither side had to pay a penny; York’s directors were left with a £5,000 legal bill and no transfer fee for the club.

With immigration rules being tightened up cases such as this will become increasingly regular. But it is part of a wider narrative that sees bigger clubs exploiting contractual loopholes in the lower leagues for player recruitment. Sophie McGill complains that York’s directors “took a genuine approach to helping him and were left feeling disappointed and betrayed”. But the real casualty could be Onome Sodje himself: since signing he has been restricted to a single substitute appearance at Oakwell and is currently lingering in the reserves. Yet if he were to leave at the end of the season Barnsley would be entitled to a fee. The club that fought for his legal status would receive nothing.

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2 Responses to Published: Onome Sodje in When Saturday Comes

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