28th November 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
Kelechi Iheanacho’s meteoric rise from playing on the streets to joining one of the biggest clubs in the world is undoubtedly an inspiration to many back in his homeland of Nigeria.
Born in 1996 in Ogogwe, he developed his love for the beautiful game playing in the streets and watching his stars play in local sports centres on TV. Without a television in his house and with money not in abundance, Iheanacho admitted candidly to the Guardian that he found it tough to watch many Premier League games, which led him to instead spend his time honing those impressive skills that he so expertly showcases today.
“We didn’t have a television at home,” he said. “Even the people who did have televisions wouldn’t have the right channels to show the games. So if you wanted to watch football you had to pay to watch the games at the local sports centre. You would get hundreds of people paying to watch, all at the same place.
“The problem was I didn’t usually have the money to go. It didn’t cost much – something like 50 naira, about 20p – but I still didn’t have it. It was a poor area where I grew up and you can use that kind of money to buy other stuff – biscuits, cookies or bread.”
Courtesy of his sensational talent, he joined the Taye Academy as a junior, where he would soon begin to be selected for Nigerian youth sides, starting at U13 level. After roughly five years of tirelessly working on his development, his big break came when representing Nigeria U17s, firstly at the African U17 Championships and then at the U17 FIFA World Cup. While his five goals in the regional competition got people talking, his dazzling performances on the world stage really caught the eye.
In a tournament where his six goals in seven matches were instrumental in the Super Eagles taking out the U17 World Cup, he also deservedly took home Player of the tournament and the silver boot.
Unsurprisingly, following his electric displays, the dynamic attacker attracted interested from some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Arsenal, Manchester City, FC Porto and Sporting Lisbon. Although he was initially keen to move to Porto, believing he’d be afforded far greater playing time, a conversation with his father changed his mind, instilling in him the confidence that he indeed had what it took to join the Sky Blues of Manchester. “City are such a big team with so many fantastic players, I didn’t believe I’d have a future here,” he explained.
“But my father did and he gave me the confidence I needed. I’m happy I took his advice.”
Issues surrounding him being granted a work permit arose upon the completion of the deal in 2014, though, meaning he wasn’t officially cleared to play until February of 2015. His City debut came in the UEFA Youth League against Schalke 04, but unfortunately he would only last 11 minutes, with him succumbing to injury.
Once fully recovered, the gifted attacker finished the season by gaining some vital experience in City’s U21, reserve and FA Youth Cup sides.
Fully aware of his talent, Man City’s manager at the time, Manuel Pellegrini, duly including in him his team’s preseason tour of Australia ahead of the 2015/2016 crusade. Following a series of encouraging showings, with the highlight being his goal vs Stuttgart, Pellegrini was convinced in Iheanacho’s quality and immediately propelled him into Man City’s first-team squad for the season ahead.
“I see him working every day so I know what he can do. Maybe I received some criticism why we didn’t replace Jovetic and Dzeko and I answered we had Kelechi,” stated Pellegrini.
“I am not thinking about money, I am thinking we have a young player who is very important for our club. We have good players who are ready to play and you must keep the options. I know we have a player who deserves space in the squad,” said Pellegrini.
While he was forced to wait out the opening few weeks before making his Premier League debut, his patience was finally rewarded when he came on as a substitute against Watford at the end of August. Shortly after, he announced himself emphatically by scoring his first ever goal when he slotted home a late winner just 54 seconds after being introduced in City’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.
Even though his opportunities were limited throughout, Iheanacho’s breakthrough campaign gave many glowing indications of what an exceptional prospect he undoubtedly his. Aside from scoring an impressive 16 goals in all competitions, he also scored his first ever hat trick, made his senior debut for his country and obtained his first taste of Champions League action.
Despite the deadly finisher, whose instinctive movement in the box always sees him get into dangerous positions, feeling a huge deal of sadness at the departure of Pellegrini, it was refreshing to hear him show his gratitude for everything the Chilean manager had done for him. “He is a special manager for me and has done great things in my life – he brought me into the first team, introducing me to work with the squad right from pre-season last year,” he noted.
“I am happy for him, for everything he achieved with this team, and happy that he made me a part of it. I won’t forget him, no matter where he goes.
“I am not quite happy that he is going, but this is the football world and anything can happen. I just wish him good luck wherever he goes, and will be praying for him and hope to see the future.”
With the magnificent Pep Guardiola taking over the managerial reigns ahead of the 2016/2017 term, Iheanacho’s continued to show his class in the limited game time he’s received. With Sergio Aguero suspended for the derby against Manchester United, Iheanacho’s outstanding shift, which saw him score and supply an assist in City’s 2-1 win, aptly illustrated just how far he’s come and that he can handle the pressure on the big stage.
“The most important thing with Kelechi is his sense of the goal in the box. Last season and this year, [he played] not too many games but the average rate for goals is high,” commented Guardiola after the derby win.
“He’s a young player whose come through here, through the academy. He helps us a lot. It’s not easy to go to Old Trafford and play in that moment but what happened with Sergio happened. He’s a young player, he has a lot of things.”
Playing behind the extraordinary Aguero is never easy, but the versatile attacker, who’s capable of playing as a striker, out wide or as a number 10, has done a tremendous job of finding the back of the net whenever called upon.
So far, his three Premier League goals and three assists, plus one Champions League strike, have been a wonderful return by the 20-year-old hotshot. The challenge now will be to simply keep doing what he’s doing, and grasping every opportunity he gets with both hands.
Blessed with sublime technical ability, an underrated passing game, rapid pace and an enviable understanding of space, the sky really does appear the limit for Iheanacho. He’s not one to rest on his laurels, however, for he possesses a relentless desire to keep learning and improving.
“Our manager has confidence in me and has been encouraging me. All I want to do right now is to keep learning under him and work hard for the club,” he vehemently said.
“It’s been a very progressive period for me at the club, but playing alongside stars like Sergio, Yaya [Toure] and other great players provides a big chance to keep working hard. I’m definitely learning, quietly listening and watching others closely every day.”
Working under the stewardship of the legendary Guardiola day in and day out, combined with his marvelous attitude, there’s absolutely no reason to suggest that he won’t reach the top of the sport one day.
Humble yet ambitious, he’s certainly a fantastic inspiration for so many back in Nigeria who dream of having a career in football just like him.
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