Signed from Brentford in the summer of 2004, Ibrahima Sonko was part of the record breaking squad in the 2005-06 season, when he helped achieve 106 points in the Championship. The Senegalese centre-back played in every single game during that campaign, scoring three times.
He would go on to make 136 appearances for the Royals, but ended his spell at the Madejski Stadium on a sour note after a row with Steve Coppell. In an exclusive interview with The Tilehurst End, Sonko revealed all about that incident, the spirit of the 106 squad and his career after leaving Reading. Here's part one of our conversation with 'Superman'!
At what point during the 2005-06 season did you realise that you part of something really special?
"I would say maybe after the fifth game. We lost the first game against Plymouth at home 2-1, and we literally all walked in so disappointed because we conceded two poor goals. In the past we had had trouble against Plymouth, they were a hard team to play against. The manager came in and said ok, let’s forget about it, but you can’t let this kind of performance happen again if you want to have a chance of getting promoted. From there we went five games unbeaten and suddenly you’re thinking, you know what, if we stay unbeaten for a while we can put ourselves in a good position. From there we took it game by game, and before every one we just thought ‘win the next match, win the next match’ or at least don’t lose. That was the philosophy of the manager, he always said to us not to look at the table and just focus on the upcoming match."
Can you pinpoint one factor that made that side so good or was it a combination of things?
"I think it’s a combination of things coming into place because the year before that we went to Wigan on the last game of the season, we had a chance of getting into the play-offs and Wigan could get promoted by beating us. Within the first 30 minutes the game was over, they were all over us. I remember it was painful, you know. Don’t get me wrong, we were happy for Wigan – they deserved it and were there the whole season. The manager asked us to come back outside and applause Wigan, and once we’d done that we went back into the dressing room, he [Steve Coppell] went to us ‘just remember that feeling’. ‘That disappointment of today, not getting to the play-offs, especially the joy of Wigan, because that could be you guys if you really want it’.
"That really set the ball rolling to be honest. From there, every little mistake we had previous to that we erased. We were stronger defensively, we were working hard every day, with Wally Downes, working so hard to improve defensively. No nonsense football really. As long as the ball doesn’t go behind us, just kick it. Don’t try to over look at some solutions – the best way is to just get rid of the ball. We adapted to that kind of defending and ground down strikers . When they thought they were about to score, we just came and booted the ball away. We didn’t get about anything, just the determination to not concede and not lose the game."
How did Adam Federici sleeping on your sofa come about, was he your best friend at the club?
"When he first joined I was already in the team and everything was going well for me with some very good friends in the team. Adam came in, he was young and from Australia, living in London. He was travelling every day and working his socks off. I’ve got a soft side for people who really work hard and I was watching the kid at training and I like his attitude. So I started speaking to him and then when he told me he was living in London with his sister, it seemed like a very long way to come so I said to him that he could stay at mine sometimes if he fancied. The first couple of days he hesitated a bit, so I asked him again and then we got closer and he stayed for a bit until he started earning his own money and making his own life. But yeah, he was one of my very, very close friends at Reading. I’ve got plenty of them, but Adam was one of the good ones."
Who else were your closest friends at the club and do you still keep in contact with them?
"I speak to most of them. Not on a daily basis but I speak to most of them a lot. I speak to Steve Sidwell, Graham Stack, and Nicky Shorey – the ones I’m very close to. I text Dave Kitson as well. I would like to get in touch again with Marcus Hahnemann and Bobby Convey because I haven’t heard from them a lot. I do sometimes send a text to Shane Long and Stephen Hunt, as I’ve known him since my Brentford days so we’re quite close. Ivar Ingimarsson I talk to as well, so yeah I do keep in contact with a lot of the boys close to me. I was actually on the phone to Graeme Murty a month ago. It was some years that we are never going to forget, and it would be silly to just let everyone drift away."
Do you ever feel that you were the same player again after your cruciate injury in 2007?
"Maybe four years later. I have to say, mentally it did affect me a lot. Everything thing I achieved, everything I had football wise was something I worked to get. To have that break of eight months without playing football, I lost my rhythm. I was good at what I was good at because I was working my socks off and I was working every day to maintain that standard. To have that break for so long, I probably first thought it was going to be easy, to get back in the mix. Then I realised that it’s not like you’re exceptional, you work hard to be exceptional.
"I couldn’t work it out and I was getting more and more frustrated, making so many wrong decisions, trying to rush some stuff I shouldn’t have been rushing. It did go wrong, and by the time I realised I had gone through Stoke, Hull, Portsmouth – where I realised I was a different player. When I went to Ipswich, and I thought I was back to my old self, I hurt one of my ribs, dislocated it. I had a month on the sidelines, but from then on I wasn’t playing anymore which was the manager’s choice. It was harder to get back on the pitch so I decided to go abroad, just to start a fresh, which I did when I went to Turkey. Everything was so good in Turkey because I was able to get back to myself again. It was a new start, nobody knew me and could only judge me on what they saw. I did extremely well there."
In part two tomorrow Sonko speaks about his controversial departure from Reading, what he is up to now as well as plans for the future.