Nigeria watches on as Odion Ighalo's Man United dream begins
“He’s a fantastic human being. He is a professional, but people love him for the other things he has done, the people he wants to help.”
In the bustling Lagos slum of Ajegunle, they are preparing for a party next Monday. Plans are still a little sketchy, but a big screen - possibly several big screens - will hopefully be erected by then. Locals will gather around them; there will be food, drink, music and dancing - a celebration for one of their own.
That night, on another continent, thousands of miles away, Odion Ighalo is expected to realise a dream. After completing a surprise six-month loan deal with boyhood club Manchester United in the final hours of the January transfer window, his debut is likely to come in their Premier League visit to Chelsea.
Ighalo was born in Ajegunle, playing some of his earliest football on its dusty side streets. The widely circulated photograph of him wearing a United shirt as a boy is said to have been taken there. That he will now wear a United shirt as one of the club’s players has sparked considerable excitement in his old neighbourhood.
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“There is already going to be a party,” says Toyin Ibitoye. “Can you imagine what the reaction will be like there if he scores a goal?”
The sense of pride at Ighalo’s move permeates far beyond Ajegunle and the outermost limits of Lagos’ vast urban sprawl. In a football-obsessed nation such as Nigeria, where Manchester United can already boast a substantial fanbase, his transfer is a significant one. Over the course of the last three decades many Nigerian players have plied their trade at some of Europe’s grandest clubs, yet never before has one represented United.
“We’ve never had anyone, who grew up and played football here, play for them,” Ibitoye adds. “That makes it even more special for us.”
Ibitoye is the press officer for the Nigerian national side and has known Ighalo for years. He exchanged texts with him as his switch to Old Trafford from Shanghai Shenhua was being finalised.
“He’s a very spiritual person,” he says. “He works hard and believes prayers can play a role in getting him where he needs to be. He was very positive [when he knew he was going to United] that he will make the right impact.
“As the press officer for the Nigerian team I’m interested in the clubs where all our boys play - Leicester, Everton, Watford, Brighton… I’m excited. I watch them and I celebrate their goals. When I messaged him, I told him I’d never supported United before because there’s never been a Super Eagles player. Now, the story’s going to be different. I’m going to be watching his every move, cheering his every goal. I hope there’s a lot of them to celebrate.”
News of the transfer was met with a similar reaction in Ighalo’s homeland as it was in England. Ole Gunnar Soslkjaer’s need for an extra striker intensified following the injury to Marcus Rashford last month, with Bournemouth’s Josh King looking likely to be the short-term solution only a matter of hours before United confirmed their move for the former Watford player.
“I always thought Odion would come back to Europe,” says Ibitoye. “He’s spoken to me about that. But I never knew it was going to be United. I thought he’d maybe come to Spain or Italy, maybe a mid-table club in the Premier League. It’s a big surprise.”
“I’d say the right word was ‘stunned’,” adds Babatunde Koiki, Sports Anchor and Producer at Lagos-based News Central TV. “Ighalo finished as top scorer at the last African Cup of Nations and was top scorer in the qualifiers too. He retired from international football after that and continued playing in China. As much as he’s loved over here, I don’t think there is anyone who saw this move coming.”
Ighalo had left Nigeria for Europe aged 18. After a season in Norway with Lyn, he moved to Udinese in Italy. A series of loan spells followed - two in Spain, with Granada - before he began his first stint in England with Watford in 2014. 20 goals in his first season helped the club to promotion from the Championship. The next campaign, his transition to the Premier League was near seamless: scoring 15 in his first season and being named Player of the Month in December 2015.
Barely a year later, he was gone. His scoring form deserted him at the start of the 2016/17 season. With just a single goal to his name, at the end of the January window a deal was agreed for him to move to China’s Changchun Yatai, who he would later depart for Shanghai Shenhua.
A return to Europe may have come a year ago, when he was offered the chance to join Barcelona on a similar short-term deal to the one he has agreed in Manchester. Not wanting to be a back-up striker, he rebuffed the LaLiga champions’ approach.
Though his qualities offer Solskjaer something different to the other attacking options at his disposal, many will question if, aged 30, Ighalo is able to quickly reacclimatise to the rigours of Premier League football after his three years in China.
“We joked about Barcelona last year when we were in camp for one of our tournaments,” remembers Ibitoye. “That one passed but I know him, I believe in him and I think he’ll make a big impact at United. Yes, he’s been playing in China, but he’s always been someone, for as long as I’ve known, that's been hard working. In his house, he has his own football field and a personal physical trainer who helps keep him in shape. He’s still top-notch physically, despite his age.”
Successful or not, Ighalo’s presence at United for the next six months is guaranteed to generate plenty of attention in Nigeria. As well as his footballing exploits, he is admired throughout his homeland for his charity work. Aside from regularly donating money to numerous causes, his own upbringing in the poverty-stricken Ajegunle slum inspired Ighalo to pay for the construction of an orphanage in the Lagos suburb of Ijegun.
“He’s a fantastic human being,” says Ibitoye. “He is a professional, but people love him for the other things he has done, the people he wants to help.”
While playing at Vicarage Road, Ighalo would regularly ship replica jerseys back to Lagos for local children. Even now, three years on from his departure, children can be seen on the streets of Ajegunle in Watford yellow.
“I don’t think Watford really capitalised on that in terms of building a presence over here on social media and so on,” says Koiki. “United will probably do things differently. It’s a huge platform for them and they’ll do things that Watford haven’t done. If he scores a few goals there then, wow. Don’t be too surprised if United get back in touch with Shanghai Shenhua and talk about a permanent transfer.”
Whether he helps ignite a surge towards to the Premier League’s top four for his new club remains to be seen, but come next Monday night, plenty will be watching to see how the man from Ajegunle gets on. Back on the streets where he grew up, it promises to be quite a party.