A lot has been written about the difficulties young English players have when trying to break into senior football. For Udoyen Akpan, a young forward from Liverpool, it was no different but his chances of a breakthrough were further hampered by the struggles of his club at the time, Tranmere Rovers. Despite that, the 19-year-old has found a way to turn it into a positive.
“I can’t really say I was disappointed [not to get a chance in the first team] because as I got older and started my scholarship, the club were in difficulty after being relegated two years in a row and the team needed players that would turn around the season for them, and honestly as a young lad with not much experience, I was not going to be that guy.
“It would have been great getting more exposure with them but it wasn’t meant to be for me and it has made me more hungry to get to the elite level.”
Akpan did make the bench for Rovers on one occasion, during a 1-0 away win over Maidstone United in April 2017 but he had already learned so much at the club way before being involved with the first team.
“I played Sunday League football up until the age of about 11 when there was interest off three of the big Merseyside teams, Tranmere, Liverpool and Everton.
“Tranmere was the first trial I went too, it took me two weeks or maybe less to get my two-year contract at the age of 12. Before finishing that contract at approaching my 14th birthday I was then offered a pre-contract for my scholarship which would take me to 18.
“I did well in my years at Tranmere, I scored and learnt a lot about the ins and outs of football.”
Having spent six years at the academy, Akpan left the club in the summer of 2017 at the age of 18. Instead of attempting to find a new club in England, the forward decided to look further afield and when an opportunity in Europe arose, he was ready to take it.
“My agent got in contact with a friend who is also an agent who knew the ins and outs of football in Italy,” he says. “He referred me to a coach, who was the manager of a team called Siderno.
“It was a move to help me broaden my horizons about the tactics and way of playing Italian football. It wasn’t about trialing for the best teams out here because I would have looked out of place, it just worked as a stepping stone to help me for the coming seasons.”
The team Akpan joined were Siderno, a fifth-tier club based in the very south of Italy. His new surroundings were a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Liverpool but this was something which the former Tranmere man used to his advantage.
“Settling in in Italy was tough because of the obvious lack of English they speak here, so that made me learn the language a lot quicker.
“Compared to my life back in England this is very different. I don’t socialise much, it’s literally 24/7 focus which, at this point in my life, I feel is important – football with no distractions.
“When the success happens, things will be back to how you like them, as in being close to your loved ones.”
So the foward kept his head down and focussed on his game. It would be his first season in men’s football and and it proved to be a very important learning curve.
“My first season at Siderno was a great stepping stone. I learnt a lot, played most games and got some goals and assists. The team went to the play offs and it was the experience in men’s football I needed.
“But the difference in football was very difficult for me to take to with all the defensive tactics. In England it is very offensive, physical and high paced so I’m still adjusting.”
His side were knocked out in the promotion playoffs, missing out on a spot in Serie D for this season but that has not prevented the 19-year-old from making the step up as he had joined newly promoted side SEF Torres in the fourth tier.
Despite making progress just a year into his Italian adventure, Akpan, whose cousin is former Everton player Hope Akpan, is not satisfied yet.
“I’m happy to have made the step up,” he says. “But it’s all about performing well and getting even better to take me into next year.”
So far this season, he’s made five league appearances scoring once and as he continues to play on the continent, his path is one that he would advise fellow English players to follow.
“I would recommend to most players to go abroad. I feel like it makes you find yourself as a person and as a footballer and makes you grow helping you for any obstacle this tough game puts in your way.
“It also teaches you to adjust to different styles of play, which is important for your future.”
As he looks ahead to what may be in store for his future, and at 19 he still has a long career ahead of him, the forward sets his sights on further improvement.
“My ambitions for next season are to hopefully make another step up in the leagues, hopefully a couple steps up, not only in Italy but to make another step up and keep on getting better.
“But next season, I’m definitely going to take into consideration keeping my loved ones close and accessible for regular visits.”
It’s a powerful quote to end on. The move to Italy may have done a world of good for Akpan’s football career but there is always the bigger picture to consider. That said, he is showing no signs of stopping his pursuit for the top any time soon.