Odion Ighalo: From alternative to front man


When Odion Ighalo arrived in Manchester on the weekend of transfer deadline day, it was a shocking tribute to football beauty.

While it served as a transfer trading dish fed on by many, it was the story of how it all unfolded that made it surreal.

But it happened regardless, and by the next Monday, he was already seen at The Lowry Hotel, United’s team hotel in the company of friends.

A boy’s dream had happened thanks to an incredible backscene story that can qualify for an Oscar.

Days prior to his arrival, Ighalo’s agent Atta Aneke was constantly on the phone with United’s Executive Vice Chairman Ed Woodward.

Aneke was hopeful a deal would come through but was often left doubting everything around it, from his personal instincts and intuition to the dynamics of a decision that may take more than Ed to decide.

The process was ongoing. By stroke of luck and a possible backroom debate of whether Ighalo was fit and proper, things took an unexpected turn on the Friday of deadline week. Suddenly, there was interest in the Nigerian. A move may happen after all.

The phones kept ringing, and deep into the night. It was “hectic phone business,” Aneke has said of the drama.

Across two continents, a deal was being worked on frantically. Aneke, and the team in Shanghai had not slept a wink all the time, sometimes staying up late till 6:00 a.m..

The hard work paid off. A deal was reached. Ighalo got on the plane to Manchester. Local, regional, national and global media got in on the action; the most unimaginable transfer deal in recent memory had taken place. No one saw it coming.

Ighalo would go ahead to score four times in eight games, an impressive start for a new recruit as far as the story for signings at United goes.

Ighalo’s move to United is a dream one. It is a childhood obsession finally reached, and a man’s insistence to be great.

“I’m happy to be in Manchester first and this is a great opportunity for me.

“I’m grateful to God and to my agent and to the coach who’s given me the opportunity to be here, to walk out with the team and finish very well this season.

“It’s a dream come true because since I was a kid, I’ve always dreamed about Man United. But this is reality now, so I can’t say much until I get started.”

And, started he did, banging in those goals. Today, he’s become a fan favourite at United.

Originally brought in to bolster the United squad due to Marcus Rashford sitting out as a result of a double stress fracture to the back, he has more than proven how much of a front liner he is than one going to be used as an experiment. This is true for the many reasons he has given.

In May, his five-month loan deal at United run out and was left with a choice of staying on or returning to China.

Officials in Shanghai had been served with a bait that was convincing to the core and were not going to have it. They needed him back. The talks started. Ighalo kept his cool.

On the table was a tempting 400, 000 Pounds-a-week deal with the Asian club, and another choice to stay at Old Trafford. A deal of sorts was reached; Ighalo stays at United until January 2021 after which he returns back to Shanghai to see through an extension to 2024.

Ighalo has journeyed quite across Norway, Italy, England, Spain and in recent times China but none of his professional stints generated the top-level conversation the United one has given him.

It makes sense. Beyond getting in the news for his goals, it is the fairytale of how he’s always wanted to be in the traditional Red jersey, and how he is now living it beautifully – from dream to reality – that fascinates onlookers. It is a rare story.

When I interviewed Ighalo in April for #InConversationWith, the United affinity was obvious. Nothing was going to stand in his way. It was a bond made from above.

“When my agent told me about Manchester United, I was waiting and waiting. When Manchester United said we could do the deal, the other clubs started calling my agent saying they could give me whatever I wanted. I told my agent I don’t care what anybody else can do, just make Manchester United happen. This is who I really want to play for.”

When he realized his doubts were not consistent with what was happening between Aneke and Ed, he pushed and gave it all clear. The gloves were off. All systems go.

“Is it true Manchester United really want me? If they do then that’s where I’m going. I don’t care what they’re offering, I don’t care about the pay cut, I just want to go there. Just make the deal happen. I wanted to play for Manchester United because it was the team I supported as a child. If I have the opportunity to play, money is not going to stop me. This is my dream. This is what I play for. Even at my age, I don’t want money to stand in my way.’

Odion Ighalo was the Golden Boot winner at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations

The Ighalo story ignites many things for a young man who has a lot of fire in his belly. It is also a story of perseverance and determination, one proudly made in Nigeria.

Ighalo carries the Nigerian spirit through and through. It is a badge he has worn to many battlefields including the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup.

Despite a not-too rosy affair in the national team due fan threats over claims he led the team down at the World Cup in Russia, he’s gone ahead to prove how much of a true Super Eagles he is.

On the wings of the Super Eagles, Ighalo has taken too many leaps of faith, growing in confidence and availing himself as a full bouquet the team can latch onto.

At the last Africa Cup of Nations, after giving off so much, he called it quits. Talk of, leaving when the applause is high. Despite calls from colleagues to return to the national team, he’s kept his gaze on club football hence the beauty he is showing off at United.

There is more to the Ighalo story. It certainly won’t end at United.

By Juliet Bawuah

The writer is with TV3 Sports


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