Football

From Nigeria to Norway: The Curious Career of Odion Ighalo

From growing up in the ghettos of Lagos to outscoring Sergio Aguero, Odion Ighalo’s career is a curious one. The Nigerian Striker has had many ups and many downs but his attitude is infectious, whatever happens on the pitch.

For some, the name Odion Ighalo won’t ring any bells. For others, he’ll be known as a one-season wonder. At 28 years old, Ighalo has played in 6 countries across 3 continents scoring 111 goals (and counting) for club and country. He is one of those players loved wherever he goes.

From Nigeria to Norway

Born in Lagos, raised in a ghetto Ighalo played for Nigerian side Prime before moving to Julius Berger in 2006. His mother sold sachets of clean water to pay for the essentials he needed to chase his dream. His senior career in Nigeria saw him bag 5 goals in just 15 appearances despite living and training amidst police-gang rivalries and regular gun violence.

The striker impressed FIFA agent Marcelo Houseman who brought him to Norway to play for Lyn Oslo. It was a monumental environment change for a young man, but he relished the challenge and understood that it could lead to bigger and better prospects. His one and only year in Scandinavia resulted in 9 goals in 20 games, including a brace on his debut, at just 18 years of age.

Big Break

Once again, interest in Ighalo was rising; the beady eyes of Gino Pozzo and his network of scouts were watching. Udinese signed the Nigerian for £1.71m with faith in his ability and a plan to send him on loan to gain experience.

He enjoyed spells at Granada on either side of an unsuccessful stint at Italian side, AC Cesena. His Granada ‘loan’ spanned 4 seasons which culminated in promotion to the top-flight under the ownership of the Pozzo family. He sported a Granada shirt 103 times scoring 21 goals. It is his lack of clinical form that makes what happens next so brilliantly confusing.

England

Another loan spell saw Ighalo sent to Watford in their fight to retain Premier League football. His name was completely unknown to Watford fans and, at the time, was simply another footballer sent from above by the Pozzo network. The striker was 1 of 19 players that came through the doors of Vicarage Road that season.

After a few months, Ighalo settled into life in England. He had worked his way into the team playing in an exciting, attacking team rotating with Troy Deeney and Matej Vydra. But, in January, Ighalo wanted to leave…

“the team wanted me and I said no, because I believed this loan thing must end,” he said.

It is hard to imagine what it must feel like to be owned by one team but playing for another. I’m sure the idea is quite exciting as a youngster gaining valuable experience, but at 24 years of age Ighalo wanted a home. In January 2014, just a matter of months into his Watford spell, the Hornets made his move permanent. Watford made Ighalo their record signing for £7.2m and it was clear that the Watford hierarchy had great faith in the centre forward. They were right to trust their instincts.

The Hornet’s number 24 scored 14 goals in 10 games after Christmas and was certainly proving his worth to the side. 4 of those 14 goals came in 34 minutes of the second half vs Blackpool in a frankly unbelievable game.

Ighalo adapted his game in England, morphing into a prolific poacher with a killer instinct. The Nigerian scored important goals in Watford’s promotion charge in one of the tightest Championship campaigns for decades. This was the situation with 10 games to go…

Ighalo scored an important equaliser away to Derby as Watford clawed their way back with 10 men. He then went on to score against promotion favorites Middlesborough with an outrageous left-footed strike. Watford secured promotion away to Brighton and that young Nigerian boy’s dreams were realized – Premier League football.

The 2014/15 season was successful for Watford and for Ighalo individually, scoring 20 goals in just 35 games – a goal every 96 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, teams came calling for the striker’s services. Hebei China Fortune offered Ighalo a lucrative contract, but he opted for a new 5-year-deal with the Hornets instead.

“When I said I don’t want to go, they offered me more money — almost £300,000 a week. I told them it’s not about the money.”

Premier League

Watford were favourites to go down in the 2015/16 season. Many of their signings were unknown and they had replaced the head coach that took them there. Despite the change the club experienced in that Summer, it was an older face that kept them up.

Ighalo started on the bench at Goodison Park in Watford’s first game back to the top flight. Quique Sanchez Flores started with a 4-2-3-1 system that meant selecting Deeney OR Ighalo, not both. On the 83rd minute the number 24 picked up the ball 20 yards from goal, breezed past Jagielka and put Stones on the floor before sliding the ball into Tim Howard’s net. It was a goal that announced both the player and the club to the modern Premier League era.

Realising quickly that his two best attacking outlets were strikers, Sanchez Flores adapted to a traditional 4-4-2 formation that thrived from improvised, old-fashion link-up play. Nothing illustrated this more than Ighalo’s winner against Swansea in the first win of the season. A Gomes goalkick met the head of Deeney who flicked on to his strike partner, for the game’s only goal.

“If you leave two defenders against me and Troy, you’re going to have problems.”

The partnership rattled Premier League defences, winning plaudits as well as games. Ighalo continued improving, his instinct for being in the right place, at the right time seemed to grow. He ended 2015 with 7 goals in 6 games including a brace against Klopp’s Liverpool.

14 goals in his first 20 Premier League matches.

Those goals meant that Ighalo was England’s top scorer in 2015 and earned hi, Player of the Month for December. His stunning form coincided with the opening of the transfer window and the Watford forward was the topic of much conversation. Although the story only surfaced some months after, Watford received interest from China, Arsenal and Manchester United. Gino Pozzo, the man who showed such faith in Ighalo, the man who brought him from Norway to Italy to England, batted away those bids.

Both Watford and Ighalo struggled in the second half of the season; opposition teams adapted by playing 3 centre-backs against the 2 forwards or limited the supply from the middle. The Hornets finished comfortably in the Premier League in 14th place, a testament to Ighalo’s success. The summer break brought more attention, including a spectacular offer from Shanghai SIPG of £37.5m – that too was rejected.

His Premier League dream wasn’t over yet. He and Deeney featured in a new-look 3-5-2 formation under Walter Mazzarri but without much success. Ighalo scored just 1 goal in 18 Premier League games and he looked a shadow of the player he was before.

 2014/15  Championship  35 games  20 goals
 2015/16  Premier League  37 games  15 goals
 2016/17  Premier League  18 games  1 goal

The attention, offers and price tags must have had a hefty weight to the Nigerian’s shoulders. In January 2016, Ighalo got a third offer from the Chinese Super League, and this time he took it.

His destination was Changchun Yatai in a move worth £20.97m.

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