Dan Udoh is a young man on a mission.
Having come close to making the big stage on both a domestic and international level, he is hoping that, like many others, Ilkeston FC will provide the stepping stone he needs to propel him into the professional game.
At 19-years-old, Udoh has already had something of a nomadic existence. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, he moved to the UK at the age of nine but it wasn’t until his teenage years that football became something he wanted to take part in.
“Coming from Africa, football was a big interest of mine but it wasn’t until I was 13 and living near London that I really had the chance to play,” he said.
“Some friends and I saw in a newspaper that a team called London Colney, near where we lived in Hertfordshire, were looking for players. We went along and I ended up playing for them for three years.”
It was there that Udoh was first spotted by talent scouts. A move to the development squad at Luton Town soon materialised and Udoh continued his progress there until he was once again spotted, this time by Stevenage.
Udoh said: “They ended up signing me and I spent a spell in the U16s before being taken on for a two-year scholarship.
“Things went really well and I scored 21 goals between October and the end of the season in my first year.”
Udoh’s progress hadn’t gone unnoticed by those back in the country of his birth. A call-up to the Nigeria under-17 squad followed, but that soon posed a dilemma for Udoh that he believes played a big part in Stevenage not wanting to sign him on professional terms.
He said: “It was a huge honour to be picked in the Nigeria squad but the problem was that due to the changing weather systems they tend to want players out there for a month or so at a time so that they can train us properly.
“I ended up going out there three times and obviously being away so much affected things with Stevenage and they put it forward as one of the reasons they hadn’t taken me on, despite having done well there.”
Coming so close to a deal with Stevenage wasn’t the only ‘so near yet so far’ scenario Udoh would have to deal with.
“I’d played for Nigeria U17s against Togo and then I was picked for a 30-man squad for a training camp in Spain ahead of the U17s World Cup. In the end, the squad had to be cut to 21 for the tournament itself and I didn’t make it,” Udoh added.
“Incredibly, the team then went on to win the tournament, which was fantastic as I obviously knew all the players involved. It was a shame I wasn’t part of that squad but I was proud to have been involved in the team initially.”
Back in the UK, and having been released by Stevenage, Udoh was signed on non-contract terms by Kidderminster Harriers.
A loan spell at Worcester City followed, but Udoh was left frustrated by a lack of match time in the senior game, something he wasn’t used to.
He said: “I learned that in the senior game managers tend to have their preferred teams and it’s hard to get in. At Worcester I was getting 20 minutes at a time and I didn’t really have the chance to develop and score goals that might have made me an automatic choice to start. I wanted to play and express myself.”
Further loan spells followed with Wingate & Finchley and Grays Athletic, both proving frustrating for Udoh as he again struggled to get enough game time to show his quality.
Then came the call that would prove to be Udoh’s biggest break so far.
“Moving around so much hadn’t been ideal but it had taught me a lot and matured me too. A coach I had at Stevenage knew Gavin Strachan very well and Gavin also knew me through having played against his Peterborough youth teams,” he said.
“He invited me for a trial at Ilkeston and after a good few pre-season games they decided to sign me on a one-year deal.
“I was impressed by the fact I could train full-time and with the way the club are intent on getting young players back into the pro game. Sometimes you have to drop down first in order to make your way back up, so it appealed to me a lot and I’ve really enjoyed being here ever since.”
Despite Strachan having since departed, Udoh has remained a regular fixture in the Robins team under Andy Watson, particularly since what Udoh feels was a huge turning point when Ilkeston faced Stamford earlier this season.
He said: “I’d started the opening game but then was dropped to the bench for a few games. I just knew if I kept my head down and working hard my chance would come. Then Jack McKay got injured at Stamford and I came on as sub and scored my first goal.
“That gave me a real confidence boost and I never looked back. I’m grateful that Andy Watson has kept his belief in me and things have gone really well since. I enjoy playing up with Lee Ndlovu as we work together really well and I want to continue in the team and keep scoring goals.”
Udoh now has five goals and several assists to his name in a Robins season which he feels still has plenty to offer despite some inconsistent team displays.
As for his own future, Udoh naturally has high hopes but remains well focused on Ilkeston for now despite the regular appearance of scouts at the NMG casting an eye over the club’s young talent.
He added: “To be honest, if the scouts are there I’d rather not know as I don’t want my head to be turned.
“If a chance to move higher comes then I’ll be grateful for that, but for now I’m focused on Ilkeston and helping the team here.”