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Edinburgh derby preview: Akpo Sodje ready to bring Sheffield steel to Hibernian

Published Date: 28 August 2011
By Richard Bath

THEY don't arrive by the barrowload any more, but even now, almost four years after the event, Akpo Sodje still receives little tokens of affection through the post. …
At the age of 31, the Hibs striker should be a little bit beyond getting love letters, but then it's not every player who scores a winning goal in a derby, as the Englishman did when Sheffield Wednesday beat United in front of almost 40,000 screaming fans at Hillsborough in January 2008.

"I still get letters and things sent to me because of that goal," he laughs. "I was a local hero at Sheffield Wednesday. I'm glad they appreciate what I did down there, even though it was four years ago. Everyone always remembers derby goals, so it would be nice to get one against our rivals here. To do something that would make people here remember me. Those letters mean a lot to me so, hopefully, that will happen here too. It would be nice to get a goal against Hearts."

As a relatively-new player about to become embroiled in his first Tynecastle derby, a little apprehension would be forgiveable, but Sodje views the prospect with an undisguised sense of excitement. But then, in a peripatetic career that has taken in nine different clubs, he has seen more than his fair share of derbies. Although he has yet to play in the bear pit that Tynecastle will be this afternoon, he has braved some pretty fearsome venues.

"Sheffield United's Bramall Lane is the most hostile ground I've ever been to," he says. "That day was a tough one but we managed to come away with a draw.

"That's the biggest derby I've played in, but I've had the Charlton-Millwall derby as well. That's a crazy one. Everyone hears about the Millwall fans, and some of the things you hear are not great when you play against Millwall. I've been involved with Darlington and Hartlepool as well.

"I've been involved in a few derbies and I've been victorious in most of them so, hopefully, I can get my first win against Hearts."

If Sodje's memory plays tricks on him - he was part of the Charlton side which secured a fractious 4-4 draw with Millwall at The Valley, but he was also in the side hammered 4-0 at the New Den - then at least he doesn't have to think back too far to remember his involvement in last season's derby against Hearts. Partnering Derek Riordan up front in that 2-2 draw at Easter Road ensured that he has had a taste of what is to come this afternoon.

"I saw that it's everything, that both sets of fans don't like each other," he says. "Both sets of players were up for the game, we were on fire that day. It was a great game, especially the way it finished. It was a fantastic day."

Sodje's chances of experiencing another similar high this afternoon appear bleak. Hearts' travails against Spurs and a rocky record of just five points from five games might suggest that Paulo Sergio's side are vulnerable but the Gorgie men have faced several of the best sides in the SPL while Hibs have played the weaker ones and emerged with just a solitary win. More to the point, history is not on Hibs' side. They haven't won a derby of any description for over two years and have only won three times at Tynecastle in the last decade. Neither John Hughes nor current boss Colin Calderwood have ever won there as Hibs manager.

Sodje may not have been part of the problem over the past decade, but, if Hibs are to improve their record at Tynecastle, then he will almost certainly have to be part of the solution. One of the reasons that Hibs have laboured so badly this season is a lack of goals, with the prolific Garry O'Connor's four in four games including the only three league strikes registered by a Hibs player this season. Returning from a six-week lay-off with a knee injury, Sodje, who has scored seven goals in 14 games for Hibs, carried on where he had left off with a League Cup goal against Berwick Rangers on a night when he admitted that, had he been sharper, he could have had a hat-trick.

However, only Calderwood knows whether the striker will get the chance to improve upon that tally. The Hibs manager has played with O'Connor as a lone striker before, and may do so again this afternoon. The striker has a superb record against Hearts, having scored six times against them in 14 matches, and, like Sodje, the Hibs manager was certainly singing his praises ahead of this match.

"I'm really pleased with Garry," said Calderwood. "He's getting stronger (with every game]. You could see it after three weeks and, after another three weeks he went to another level. His appetite for scoring goals and being the leading light in this team is huge, and he's a good character who galvanises the dressing-room. He doesn't want to get beaten in training and sometimes we have to put the reins on him because he is so important to us. But he enjoys that mantle."

Calderwood believes that the impact of Hearts' new manager makes the way they will play today difficult to predict but adds that shoring up his own defence is central to getting a positive outcome this afternoon. He refuses to accept inexperience as an excuse, despite admitting that his defence have made a "whole host" of mistakes that need rectifying.

For Sodje, however, it's all about facing up to the challenge of yet another derby encounter, about becoming an honorary local hero once again. "It's going to be a good one. I've never played at Tynecastle but I know the stadium is very tight and that's even better because you're face to face with the fans," he says.

"We're not going to let the hype affect us but, for the fans and the players that are from Edinburgh, it's very tough. For me being here, I now know how important it is to the fans and the other players. Hopefully we come out victorious and be the pride of the city."

Which would be just like old times for Sodje, and very old times for Hibs.

Taken from the Scotsman

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