Odion Ighalo may play in his first Manchester derby today, having signed for the club in the January transfer window, which is a moment he has dreamed of since being a little boy in Nigeria.
Speaking with Sky Sports, Ighalo has spoken what his life was like as a young United fan and the efforts he went to in order to watch the team play from the ghetto in Ajegunle.
I know many footballers say that, when they sign for a team, this is my dream team. Respect to that but my own case was different. Anyone who knows me back from when I was young knows me and my siblings supported Man United, we would pay to go and watch Man United play. In Nigeria, you have to have sports channels to watch that but not everyone can afford it. My parents couldn’t afford that so you have to pay a viewing centre to watch that. We would pay to watch that.
I grew up in Ajegunle, which is like a ghetto and it was very difficult there. When it would get to the weekend, everybody was excited because they wanted to watch Man United play. You start saving the money they would give you to go to school. You would eat at home and they would give you some pocket money to go to school and maybe eat lunch there. But you would be saving it bit by bit and when you get to the weekend, everybody is ready.
You have your jersey and you wash it before the weekend. You put them on and go to the viewing centre and it’s crazy there. Some other fans want Man United to lose then you’re a Man United fan and you want them to win and you start arguing, shouting, screaming and all of that. In some there are 200 people in this small room. You go to another one and you see 500 people in there. Some people would stand, you’re paying but even then, you’re standing and watching it from afar. There’s a big screen and a little screen and you have to watch there.
Back then, Manchester United were the best team in England. They won every game, every season you’d see them winning the Premier League when Sir Alex Ferguson was here. Everybody wants to associate with a team that’s winning and that’s how I associated myself. I was very young then and growing up, I followed the team to today.
Back then, they also had an association of Man United fans so there would be a meeting once a week to talk about Man United, like a little fan forum. When I remember all that now, I laugh and say ‘wow, from Ajegunle to the Theatre of Dreams’. It’s a great moment for me and I’m enjoying every bit of it. It is the happiest moment of my life, playing for my dream team, the team I supported when I was young.
Ighalo spent two and a half years playing in England for Watford, scoring 39 goals in 99 appearances, but any dream he had of playing for United looked impossible to achieve. The dream died when he gave up on his Premier League career to play in China.
But with United having failed to sign a replacement for Romelu Lukaku and suffering from an injury crisis up front, we went in to the January transfer market looking for a striker. Bournemouth Joshua King, someone who had played for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in our youth team, looked to be the favourite but the relegation battling club weren’t interested in parting with him unless for a huge sum. So United surprisingly turned to Ighalo.
The Nigerian striker has reflected on what those couple of days were like for him.
I was in my hotel room in Shanghai where we were doing pressers and training. Two days before that, I heard some news about Man United and [my agent] called me about it, but I was thinking ‘Man United? I’m in China’ and with the coronavirus and everything, how is it even possible with two days until the end of the transfer window.
People started calling me back in Nigeria asking what was going on and I said ‘I don’t want to go crazy about this but if it is God’s will, it’s going to happen.’ So one of my brothers said ‘it’s going to happen, just believe’ and I said ‘I believe but I don’t want to get too carried away so if it didn’t happen, I would get disappointed’.
I was praying about it but didn’t want to show my emotions and just kept calm. Every time I would text my agent ‘have you heard from them?’ and there was nothing. On the last day of the transfer window, I called my agent and he said he hadn’t heard anything.
Then in the evening, I texted him and he said Man United were looking at other strikers, your name is still among them but they have not given me anything concrete and I lost hope. I said ‘this isn’t going to happen’ because the last text I had from my agent was 8pm or 9pm in the evening Shanghai time so I went to sleep.
Then my phone rang and my agent said ‘it looks like Man United are coming for you, where are you now?’ and I said ‘I’m in my bed, I’m sleeping’ because this is about 11pm there. He said ‘where is the director [of Shanghai Shenhua]?’ and he was in his room.
I was already in bed so I got up, tied my towel around my waist and firstly, I went to the translator’s room because the director doesn’t speak English. I said ‘Man United want to speak to [the director], we have to go’. We banged on his door and we started calling him, I think his phone was busy and I was going mad.
I was telling my agent I was going to say yes, say that we want to discuss with [United] and the director what is going on. Then [the director] picked up his phone and we connected them with my agent, who was talking with Man United and the people in Shanghai.
I didn’t sleep until 6am in the morning because of everything, from paperwork to trying to exchange that to trying to agree the fee. Even my agent was shaking because this is very big for Man United, with all that is going on, they have the trust to bring you in. I said ‘now you have to make this happen, I don’t care what it has to take, just make it happen, I want to sign’.
So it was back and forth with the people working on it and they sent the document I had to sign. Even my contract with Shanghai, I hadn’t signed it yet, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to sign the one with Man United and everything will be OK.
When I signed that and my agent said he had received everything OK, I was shaking on my bed, like ‘is this really happening?’. It was a big dream that was finally coming to pass. I didn’t believe my eyes until I landed in the UK, then it was real. I don’t know how to explain it. You dream about it, you watch it, you see these things on TV and now, you’re doing it. It’s crazy, it’s great, I’m happy and I want to keep going because this isn’t finished.
Firstly, I achieved this dream of playing for Man United and scoring for them but now there’s even bigger work to work hard, to finish well this season and make sure this team finishes where they’re supposed to be and win trophies hopefully.