Hull City's Sone Aluko returns to Birmingham determined to prove how far he's come
FOR OVER a decade Sone Aluko held Birmingham City at the heart of his every ambition. As the club that first spotted his precocious talents at the age of eight and then offered him a maiden professional deal nine years later, the Blues were the designers of a path that led Aluko to the brink of footballing stardom.
It has taken moves to Aberdeen, Rangers and now Hull City for Aluko to fully come of age, and 15 years after first joining Birmingham, an unfulfilled dream is about to be realised.
"It's a special game going back to Birmingham," said the City forward.
"I was there for 11 years and it will be nice to go and play at St Andrews.
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"That's the place I wanted to play at all the time when I was growing up. Eventually I'm getting that chance."
This grand day out has been a long time coming for Aluko.
Although born in London to Nigerian parents, a move to the Second City at the age of four saw him settle in the suburb of King's Norton, two minutes away from Birmingham's training ground. Between eight and 19, that became his second home.
Four years spent living in Scotland fails to mask Aluko's mild West Midlands accent, and the Tigers forward heads home this afternoon still "an adopted Brummie."
Such has been the clamour for tickets from family and friends, Aluko claims to have turned his phone off. He has bigger things to command his thoughts.
"I'm just concentrating on the game, but it's a club that will always be close to my heart," he said.
"Birmingham was where I got my football education. It was the only club I knew for a long time.
"There's an awful lot of happy memories from my time there, including my debut, so it's obviously a big game for me."
Aluko returns having fulfilled the potential he first promised during his teenage years.
Steve Bruce, his manager then and now, heralded the arrival of Birmingham's next superstar when handing Aluko a Premier League squad number at the age of 16, and that billing was only heightened by continual call-ups to the England youth ranks.
"I didn't really know what other people were saying at the time," said Aluko.
"You knew there was no one else your age in the first-team, but it never really struck me that I was anything special.
"It was all that I'd wanted to do and I can remember how proud my friends and family were. Looking back it was a big achievement, but I didn't really take it in at the time."
In October 2005, a top-flight debut almost materialised at Highbury against Arsenal.
"I was 16 when I made the bench for the first time when we played Arsenal away. I'd only just made my debut in the reserves a couple of weeks before but I progressed pretty quickly," Aluko recalled.
"I can remember being told to warm up and I was thinking 'I could be on here.' Then Kenny Cunningham got sent off and that was that. I was devastated on the sidelines!"
The bar, though, was perhaps set too high.
A 16-minute substitute appearance in the Blues' League Cup win over Hereford in August 2007 was the only time Aluko sat at Birmingham's top table before his permanent switch to Aberdeen followed an initial loan 12 months later.
Asked why he felt a decade with Birmingham eventually came to nothing, he said: "There were a lot of reasons. Football doesn't always work out how you want it to.
"I had a lot of injuries that held me back for a couple of years and we were a Premier League team, so it wasn't easy to break through.
"Every time you felt you were getting close, a manager could go and sign someone else because Birmingham are a big club.
"I wanted to play regularly so I went out on loan and I've never really looked back."
Aluko's achievements since waving goodbye to St Andrews alleviate the need for regret.
Three years at Pittodrie brought his first taste of regular football, a step up to the European stage and a Nigeria debut. Nine months with Rangers then confirmed his standing as a star of the SPL.
Financial meltdown at Ibrox was the cue for his return to English football this summer, and six goals from his 15 Championship starts this season sees him returning to Birmingham as the one that got away.
"It's night and day," said Aluko, comparing his current self to the 19-year-old that left St Andrews.
"Then it was all about potential. People would say about how you might turn into a good player, but then I was more of a one dimensional player. I would get the ball and dribble, but now I'm a lot more intelligent in the way I try and play.
"That's the big thing but I've also grown and got stronger. I'm completely different.
"I think everything happened for the best. I wouldn't have gone to Aberdeen, I wouldn't have gone to Rangers, I wouldn't be here.
"Who knows how it would have worked out if I'd have stayed with Birmingham, but I'm more than happy with how my career is going."
Birmingham's loss is City's gain and you suspect Lee Clark would dearly love to have Aluko at his disposal as he attempts to make amends for a sluggish opening third.
A fourth-place finish in the Championship under Chris Hughton last season is a fast-fading memory for Birmingham's supporters looking enviously up at the high-flying Tigers, but Aluko will feel no sympathy.
"We respect all our opponents but we don't fear anyone," he said.
"If we play to the best of our ability we can get results against anyone, and that's what we'll be looking to do."