Sam plays it again as higher level beckons - to a whole new level

The Sodje dynasty will have pride of place at The Valley as Brentford's quick, strong defender displays his coveted class
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The Independent Online

It was one of the more memorable lines delivered by a Match of the Day commentator. "He ain't Efe, he's his brother," said Guy Mowbray in reference to another noteworthy moment involving Sam Sodje during Brentford's defeat of Sunderland in the FA Cup's fourth round.

Except the adaptation of the Hollies' song wasn't particularly original. Indeed, Hudders-field Town fans were singing it a few years ago in reference to Efe, now at Southend United, and Akpo Sodje, now at Darlington, who were both strikers at the Yorkshire club.

Sam also could have joined the Terriers, but the then manager, Steve Bruce, moved on, while another brother, Steve, turns out for non-League Hampton & Richmond. And then there's Bright, who played Super League rugby for Sheffield Eagles, winning the Challenge Cup in 1998.

It is some sporting dynasty, and even extends to Charlton Athletic, Brentford's Cup opponents next Saturday. Sodje's nephew Onome is a 17-year-old striker there. "They do rate him," says Sodje proudly.

He's not doing too badly himself either. A latecomer to professional football - he was almost 24 before he was taken on - the 6ft defender, now 26, has quickly caught the eye of bigger clubs, not least in the Premiership itself.

Brentford had to fend off a £1.4m bid from Birmingham City, managed by Bruce, in the January window, while Southampton also wanted Sodje and offered £800,000. That the League One club felt able to turn down both offers not only showed their ambition - automatic promotion this season is the goal - but also how highly they rate the Nigerian who, although aware of the growing interest, is content where he is. "I'm like every-one else," Sodje says. "I want to play in the Premiership and I know I can handle a higher league. But I'm just happy to be able to prove myself."

There is no sense of envy over DJ Campbell, who did make the move to St Andrew's. "He's gone - and we won 5-0 the other day," Sodje says. "It's about the squad, not the individual. He's a great player and he got the move that he deserved. I just hope that he does well. But it wasn't a surprise to see him go."

Sodje's ascent has been almost as rapid as that of Campbell, who last season played for non-League Yeading, although he doesn't see it that way. "Some people think, 'Oh, he needs more time'," says Sodje. "But I have been playing football since I was six." And with his brothers as ideal role models - "They've been through everything and done everything for me" - he is well prepared.

Born in London, Sodje, his parents, six brothers - the other two, Dafe and Solonmo, are not sportsmen - and three sisters moved back to Nigeria when he was four. The family lived in the Delta State, to the south. Football was - is - an obsession there. Half the Nigerian national team are from the region. "Where we came from," Sodje says, "if you didn't play football it was, well, strange."

Sodje, who won his first full cap last November, played for the Under-21s and in the "top flight in Nigeria", but felt he had to come back to England. After the disappointment at Hudders-field he went to Stevenage Borough. A strange move? "It wasn't a step down because I knew I was going to make it. That's the reason why I came back. I'm a strong character."

And a strong player. Non-League football was a harsh lesson. "You can't be a boy," Sodje says. "You have to be physical to survive." He moved on to Margate where, in a match against Barnet, then managed by Martin Allen, he made a distinct impression. "I didn't know anyone in this country, the names of any of the top players," Sodje says of his first encounter with the former West Ham United and Queen's Park Rangers midfielder who is now his manager at Brentford. "I was playing as normal and he didn't like it."

Allen marched on the pitch at half-time. "He just came up and said, 'Stop kicking my players'," Sodje, who earned four red cards in one run of 13 games, laughs. "But I think he also saw something else in me and knew there was nothing nasty in me."

Allen signed him for Brentford. "I don't think I'll ever work for someone else like him," says Sodje. "He's a one-off. When you are on his good side he's the best man you can ever meet. But don't get on his bad side! But he's straightforward. That's what you want. He tells me exactly what he thinks about me to my face."

But he can - occasionally - be devious. "I'll never forget when we were paintball shooting. He was on my side but was bored. He shot me in the backside. I couldn't believe it. It hurt a lot. I had to stop because he was laughing so much. Maybe he was getting me back for what happened when he was at Barnet."

There is a strong bond between the two. "We get on really well because I hate losing. Even in training," says Sodje. "It's a game, but sometimes it's not a game. He's like that too."

There is a fierce determination to succeed for both player and manager. "I didn't start wearing boots until I was 15," says Sodje. "I grew up the hard way and it's different for me than it was for other players. People understand where I'm coming from and that's why I'm serious. I'm the best person in the dressing room, but when it comes to the pitch..."

Despite his uncompromising style - "I earned a reputation as a strong man who wouldn't lie down to anyone" - his disciplinary record is now exemplary. Powerful, athletic and a threat in the air, Sodje is also quick. He has all the attributes to succeed and is already been managed by agent Chris Nathaniel, who has an impressive roster of clients.

Sodje's greatest debt is to Allen, however. "He's a person who takes chances and took a chance on me," he says. "I'm not saying that because I play for him now, because if I leave I will still be saying it. He's made me believe I'm the best in the world anyway."

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