Moses Ashikodi had the world at his feet. Limbering up on the sideline in a pristine Millwall shirt, the teenager was set to become a record-breaker, the protégé who epitomised the potential of a generation.
At just 15 years and 240 days old, Ashikodi was making his professional debut for the Lions against Brighton – becoming the youngest player to turn out in the Football League since 1988. It was a feat that wouldn’t be beaten for another five years.
Yet as the England schoolboy entered the field to make his debut in the First Division, little did he know that his breakthrough moment would also be the peak of his career.
Nearly 16 years on and the Nigeria-born forward’s career has taken a rapid decline. At 31 Ashikodi might have expected to be living off a reputation as one of English football’s most-feared hitmen: strong, powerful and deadly in front of goal.
Only Ashikodi hasn’t troubled Football League defences for a long time. Instead, as 2018 comes to a close, he’s sat on the bench for VCD Athletic in the Isthmian League South –England’s eighth tier.
“Making my debut at the age of 15 was definitely the highlight of my career so far. It was amazing and the best ever feeling,” Ashikodi told The York Press in 2011.
“I wasn’t scared of anything and I didn’t sleep the night before because I couldn’t wait to play. It was a great experience and, at school the next day, I was the most popular boy around. I was in the papers and, all of a sudden, all the girls wanted to know me.”
Ashikodi’s emergence wasn’t just news around his school’s corridors. The young forward’s appearance for a Millwall side who counted the likes of Steve Claridge, Neil Harris and Kevin Davies as attacking options meant Ashikodi’s name attracted national interest too.
After making four further substitute appearances as the Lions finished ninth in the First Division and picking up Millwall’s Schoolboy of the Year award for the second successive season, it seemed the youngster was destined for big things.
However, he failed to kick on in 2003/04. Without a single first-team appearance to his name by early February, Ashikodi celebrated a year since his debut by hitting the headlines again – but this time for the wrong reasons.
A training ground bust-up with fellow striker Mark McCammon might have gone without much more than a footnote in the local newspaper, until the teenager rushed back into the canteen to confront the Barbadian with a knife. Following a club investigation and calls from the Supporters’ Club to “set an example”, Ashikodi left the Lions by mutual consent two months later – although the striker later claimed he was being bullied at the time of the incident.
Ashikodi’s talent meant he wasn’t without a club for long: he was snapped by Millwall’s rivals West Ham by the beginning of the following season, with Hammers boss Alan Pardew saying: “Moses is getting a last chance with us. He is a major talent and hopefully he’ll have learned his lesson.” A last chance at only 17.
Despite his ability – and subsequent goalscoring call ups for England’s under-18s and 19s sides – Ashikodi failed to get a chance at Upton Park and after two years, he left without making an appearance. There was still time for the youngster’s questionable temperament to again rear its ugly head, though, after he picked up two yellow cards in 19 minutes to end a four-game loan spell at Gillingham with a sending-off.
It took several months for Ashikodi to surface again following his release from West Ham, although a period in the wilderness didn’t reduce the now-18-year-old’s staying power. This time, he traded England’s capital for Scotland to sign for Rangers in January 2006.
A debut away at Celtic in an end-of-season Old Firm clash may have indicated that Ashikodi was ready to finally settle at one club, but he was soon packing his bags again to move south to Watford. A goal on his first Hornets appearance in the FA Cup against Stockport earned him the chance to appear in Watford’s subsequent 2-0 Premier League defeat by Aston Villa.
Once more, it proved to be another false dawn; Ashikodi never pulled on the yellow shirt again, and instead bounced between several loan spells and the Vicarage Road treatment table as he recovered from a broken leg. By the time he left the club in 2009, Ashikodi’s transformation from promising starlet to forgotten man was complete.
If eight employers – and only three goals – in the first seven years of his career didn’t make for ideal reading, Ashikodi wasn’t about to give up his nomadic lifestyle. While some of his former England youth side team-mates, including Micah Richards and Joe Hart, were making names for themselves in the Premier League, Ashikodi was collecting clubs down the levels.
It wasn’t long before Ashikodi had dropped into non-league. And although that did signal the discovery of his goalscoring touch, it also brought more controversy.
In 2011, while enjoying a fruitful second stint with Conference Premier outfit Kettering Town, Ashikodi was given his marching orders in the closing stages of 5-3 defeat by Hayes & Yeading following an altercation with strike partner Jean-Paul Marna about a late penalty. After a squabble over who would take the spot-kick, Ashikodi eventually prevailed but missed, with Marna scoring from the resulting corner.
The goal wasn’t enough to placate either man, though, with an on-pitch fight between the pair leading to both men receiving red cards. Afterwards, Poppies manager Mark Stimson was indignant and told BBC Radio Northampton: “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and I don’t want to experience it again. We’re not saying they won’t ever play for the club again, but we’re saying if they are fortunate enough to, ‘don’t do something twice’.”
Moves to York City and Ebbsfleet came and went with little success, and Ashikodi soon slipped into further anonymity, making a pen-worrying 22 transfers since leaving the Kent club in 2013 to take him up to his current side, VCD Athletic.
Even though many of Ashikodi’s stops have been brief, he still found time to leave his mark. In 2014 the transient star was investigated by the FA after allegedly biting an opponent during a heated encounter with Billericay, while he left more than one club after reportedly being unhappy at being named as a substitute.
Perhaps the most puzzling incidents were still to come, as he stormed off the pitch while playing for Chatham Town in 2016 following another argument with a team-mate, leaving the Chats with only 10 men for the final 15 minutes. Then, only last year, Ashikodi was involved in a post-match scuffle with a fan after a match for Three Bridges, in which the striker is claimed to have punched the supporter after a row about a stolen mobile phone – although the club defended their man, insisting he was acting in self-defence.
Still only 31, Ashikodi’s chequered path shows no sign of hitting reverse. But with his career moving backwards since his much-celebrated debut for Millwall in 2002, there’s a real sense of what might have been.
Ashikodi once had the world at his feet, but he wasn’t quite able to keep it there.
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