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Reading FC's 106 Point Team: Whatever Happened To... Ibrahima Sonko

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On this day of 106 related celebrations, let's look at what happened next to a man they called Superman, Ibrahima Sonko.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

I try to be a cultured football fan, I really do. I pretend to be one of those hipster types who fawns over tiki-taka football and would rather die than see their keeper kick it long. But let's face it, this ‘knock it around the back until an opening presents itself' is dull, and quite frankly a little terrifying when you have Jake Cooper struggling to stay upright.

No, give me fast wing play and no-nonsense defending any day of the week. Give me scrappy goal poachers and tough tackling centre backs.

Give me Ibrahima Sonko.

Who was he and where'd he come from?

The above summary isn't a slight on Sonko's playing style, and I don't think he'd take it as one. Indeed if you've read this website's interview with him then you'll see he attributes a lot of Reading's 2005/06 success to the Wally Downes philosophy of ‘as long as the ball doesn't go behind us, just kick it'. As Sonko explains:

"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."


Few were more suited to doing that than Sonko. An incredibly strong, athletic centre half, with a great leap and a determination to make every stray ball his. He came to England in 2002 after a spell at French side Grenoble, joining a Brentford side reeling from missing out on promotion the previous season with just minutes to spare, because some bloke called Jamie Cureton scored to put a team wearing blue and white hoops up instead.

Brentford struggled to recover their previous form and in both of Sonko's seasons at the club they finished in the bottom half of the third division. However, the defender impressed with some domineering displays, missing only a handful of games in those two years. It was enough to convince Steve Coppell to recruit the Senegalese on a Bosman when his contract was up at Griffin Park in summer 2004.

It was a few weeks before Sonko got his chance to make a mark at the Madejski Stadium, spending the majority of August and September 2004 on the bench behind club legend Ady Williams. But when Williams left for Coventry that autumn, Sonko slotted into central defence alongside Ivar Ingimarsson - ironically the man he'd been brought in by Brentford to replace at Griffin Park.

Ingimarsson and Sonko made a fearsome partnership. One cold and calculated, the other bold and brash. If a striker felt comfortable playing against one type of defender, they'd struggle against the other.

A settled defence of Hahnemann, Murty, Shorey, Ingimarsson and Sonko led Reading to the verge of the play offs in 2005, and despite still being (or in fact maybe because he was) a little raw, Sonko was soon becoming a fan's favourite. His crunching tackles would take the ball, but often the man too. He'd stop at nothing to win an aerial battle. And his clearances were the first to clear the Madejski Stadium roof.

His 2005/06 Golden Moment

It says a lot about the character, fitness and excellent relationship between Ingimarsson and Sonko that meant neither missed a game in our record breaking 2005/06 season. That really is some achievement.

And both played to such a high standard every week. The pairing conceded only 32 goals all season - and chipped in with five league goals on the way too. Sonko's first of that year came in possibly the best game of the season - an 87th minute headed winner at home to Crystal Palace - and he also notched against Cardiff and up at Turf Moor.

But it was preventing goals that we'll really remember Sonko for. There were games where you just knew nothing would get passed him. Even when the opposition had clear shots at goal, Sonko would be there - witness his goal-line clearance against Ipswich, where he deflected a thunderous shot wide with his face.

And then there were the 0-0s and 1-0 wins littered throughout the season that are now so easy to forget, but were just as vital in preserving our stunning unbeaten record. Who knows what would have happened if the 0-0 early in the season at Watford had been blighted by a defensive slip, and suddenly left Reading with two defeats in our opening five games?

Luckily Sonko was imperious that day. But not as imperious as he was in a game at St Mary's a month later. That game was perhaps as close as Reading came all season to giving up that unbeaten run. We were under the cosh for much of the match, but were dragged through it by our Senegalese superstar. Despite being bombarded with countless long throws, Sonko was first to them all. Whenever a striker had a sniff of goal, he was there again to make a block. And indeed, when we did get up the other end of the pitch, our best chance of the game was almost converted by - you guessed it - Ibrahima Sonko.

That game was really Sonko's crowning moment, because it also saw the generation of an iconic picture. With the rain pelting down and another long ball hoisted into the Reading box, seven Southampton players are left flat footed as Sonko rises metres into the air to win a header. No-one else even gets close.

It's a great shot, one that sums up the man, and one that really gave birth - or at least reaffirmed' - the chant 'Sonko is Superman'. On some occasions, like that game at St Mary's, it was impossible to argue otherwise.

What Happened Next

Sonko's time with Reading thereafter wasn't completely one of fairy tales. Don't get me wrong, he still enjoyed some great times in the Premier League, proving himself more than capable at the top level with some fine displays against some of the league's top strikers.

But there were more than a few disappointing moments too. Some were issues of his own making - he was sent off in only the second game of our inaugural Premier League season, away at Villa Park. But some were just unfortunate incidents, and one at home to Sheffield United, was one of the worst of the lot. I remembering hearing Sonko's scream from the back of the North Stand as his knee twisted awkwardly.

It would spell the end of Sonko's season - in fact he wouldn't return to action for nine months - and the defender speaks movingly in the TTE interview as to how it really affected him mentally too.

So although he appeared 16 times in the Premier League in 2007/08, standards had slipped, times were tough, and he struggled like much of the squad did that year. He played in the 3-1 win at home to Liverpool - easily the highlight of that season - but also in the 6-4 loss at Tottenham, and frustrating defeats at home to Bolton, Aston Villa and Portsmouth (where he was sent off after three minutes).

Frustration tipped to anger for Sonko towards the end of that year, and an ill advised bust-up with the manager resulted in him effectively being frozen out of the Royals squad for good. Again, the great man explains the situation far better than I ever could in the interview.

And that, pretty much, was that for Sonko's Reading career. He moved to Stoke City for around £2 million early in 2008/09, but more frustration followed and he made only 14 appearances for the club - 7 of which as a sub, and only five of which the Potters won. A loan move to Hull City offered chances of new beginnings the next season, but here was another side on the decline, and playing in 6-1 defeats to Liverpool and 4-1 defeats to Sunderland and Burnley blotted Sonko's copybook some more.

If the atmosphere around a struggling Hull side was hard for Sonko to handle, then a spell at Portsmouth during the club's real problem period could only be worse. Having struggled from the off to win over Pompey fans, Sonko was dropped for the second half of the season, not even making the bench for 14 games of the run in. Various rumours were spread regarding the absence - Sonko himself gave an interview to The Sun blaming 'red tape', but ultimately he was kept out of the side week in week out by Ricardo Rocha and - shudder - Greg Halford.

It came as no surprise that Stoke did not renew Sonko's contract when it ran out at the end of that season, or that Portsmouth didn't want to turn the loan permanent. The Senegalese looked for alternatives and almost found one in Reading, but an unsuccessful trial put an end to the hope of a glorious return.

Instead, Superman pitched up at Portman Road, playing 20 games as he started to get his footballing career back on track. Again he featured for much of the first half of the season - even returning to the Madejski Stadium in a game the Tractor Boys lost 1-0. But injuries would be cause more problems, and a broken rib signaled another spell out of the side, and Sonko failed to reclaim his place.

That was it; it was time for a much bigger change. Sonko waved goodbye to the Championship after a difficult few years, and found solace in Turkey, joining newly promoted side Akhisar Belediyespor. With his career coming to a close, it was the perfect move. Sonko enjoyed three seasons with the club, playing 58 games as they established themselves in the top Turkish league. As the man himself says: "It was a new start, nobody knew me and could only judge me on what they saw. I did extremely well there."

Where is he now?

The Isthmian League Divison One North. Sonko returned to England in August 2015 and pitched up at Harlow Town. It may not be the glamour of the Premier League, but he's since played 44 games for the club and become a popular figure, picking up man of the match awards 9 times already. This comfortably stands him in line for the Player of the Season award, as the club (at the time of writing) fights for promotion. The legs may be going but the towering headers continue to be won, and you'd still never bet against him in a 50-50 challenge.

Because some things never change. Whilst a lot of the 'What Happened Next?' section of this piece makes for some pretty uncomfortable reading, Sonko was still always Superman. He still always just wanted to do the job that defenders do: 'when the striker is about to score, you just come and boot the ball away.' For the Royals, few have ever done that better.