Moses Ashikodi had the world at his feet. Limbering up on the touchline in a pristine Millwall jersey, the teenage starlet 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 against Brighton and Hove Albion, becoming the youngest player to turn out in the Football League since 1988. It was an achievement which wouldn’t be beaten for another half a decade.
Yet as the England schoolboy entered the pitch to make his First Division bow, little did he know that his breakthrough moment would also be the pinnacle of his career.
Ever since that memorable day, the Nigeria-born forward’s career has been in decline. At the age of 31, Ashikodi probably expected to be living off a reputation as one of the most feared marksmen in the English game: strong, powerful and clinical in front of goal.
Yet in reality, he hasn’t locked horns a Football League defence for a long time – let alone got the better of one. Instead, he is currently plying his trade for VCD Athletic down in the Isthmian League South, the eighth tier of England’s football pyramid.
“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 youngster’s outings for a Millwall side who counted the likes of Steve Claridge, Neil Harris and Kevin Davies among their number meant Ashikodi’s name attracted interest on a national level. He made four more appearances off the bench to help the south London side finish ninth in the First Division, while he also won Millwall’s Schoolboy of the Year prize for the second season on the bounce. At that point, it was inconceivable that the teenager wouldn’t go on to achieve big things in the game.
The warning signs were there as early as 2003/04, however, as Ashikodi hit the headlines for the wrong reasons having failed to add to his tally of first-team appearances. In normal circumstances it would have been easy enough to brush a training ground bust-up with team-mate Mark McCammon under the carpet, but that wasn’t possible when the teenager grabbed a knife and confronted the Barbadian in the canteen.
Following a club investigation and calls from the Supporters’ Club to “set an example”, Ashikodi left the Lions by mutual consent two months later. Ashikodi later argued that he only acted in such a manner because he was being bullied, but the incident clearly harmed his prospects.
It was impossible to argue with his ability, though, which is why it didn’t take long for Ashikodi to find a new club. It was West Ham United – Millwall’s fiercest rivals, no less – who offered the youngster a contract, although then-Hammers boss Alan Pardew admitted it was the player’s “last chance” despite the fact he was still only 17 years old.
Ashikodi made progress at international level, playing and scoring for both England’s Under-18s and Under-19s after earning, but his club career at Upton Park failed to get off the ground. By the time of his exit two years later, he had not made a single appearance for the West Ham first team.
Even despite a lack of action, there was still time for the youngster’s questionable temperament to again rear its ugly head. During a loan spell at Gillingham which amounted to no more than four matches, Ashikodi contrived to pick up two bookings in less than 20 minutes, bringing the curtain down on his brief stay at Priestfield with a red card.
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 maiden Hornets appearance in the FA Cup against Stockport earned him the chance to appear in Watford’s subsequent 2-0 Premier League loss to Aston Villa.
Once more, it proved to be another false dawn; Ashikodi never played for the club again, instead going on to flit between various loan stints and the Vicarage Road treatment table as he recovered from a broken leg. By the time he left the club on a permanent basis in 2009, Ashikodi’s transformation from promising starlet to forgotten man was complete.
If eight employers and 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. At the same time as some of his former England youth side team-mates – a group which included Joe Hart and Micah Richards – were making names for themselves in the top tier, Ashikodi was collecting clubs much further down the pyramid. The forward soon dropped into non-league, where more controversy awaited him.
During a second stint with Conference Premier side Kettering Town in 2011, Ashikodi was sent off in a 5-3 defeat by Hayes & Yeading after an altercation with team-mate Jean-Paul Marna. The pair argued over who would take a late penalty; Ashikodi eventually prevailed but failed to score, although Marna did convert from the subsequent corner. The goal wasn’t enough to placate either man, though, and an on-pitch fight between the duo saw them both dismissed.
“I speak about professionalism and it was totally unprofessional and unacceptable,” manager Mark Stimson said in an interview with BBC Radio Northampton. “The club is bigger than any individual and I’m sure the right things will be done. We have to move on, look forward and the most important thing is to make this new ground ours, start winning football matches and get points.”
Spells at York and Ebbsfleet brought little success, and Ashikodi soon slipped into further anonymity, making 22 transfers since departing the latter club in 2013 to take him up to his current team, VCD Athletic.
Even though many of Ashikodi’s stops have been short, he still found time to leave his mark. In 2014 the transient star was investigated by the Football Association after allegedly biting an opposition player during a fiery game against Billericay, while he left more than one club after allegedly being irritated after failing to make the starting XI.
The most bizarre episodes were still ahead of Ashikodi, who 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 last quarter of an hour of the game. He later got caught up in a scuffle with a supporter after a clash with Three Bridges, in which the forward was accused of striking the fan during an altercation involving a mobile phone. The club defended their man, however, pointing out that he wasn’t the aggressor and was merely acting in self-defence.
Ashikodi is still only 31 years of age, but his career has continually moved backwards since his record-breaking bow for Millwall back in 2002. Regrettably, the striker who once had the world at his feet wasn’t able to keep it there.