The young striker was not expecting to be in City’s first team so soon but his success means there is much greater attention when he goes back home to Nigeria
In the city of Owerri, the capital of Imo state in Nigeria, Kelechi Iheanacho’s old friends will be queuing up on Sunday outside one of the social centres where they charge the locals to watch English football – and where they can now keep in touch with his emergence as the up-and-coming star of Manchester City.
Growing up, those events – sometimes with hundreds packed around one screen – were pretty much the only way those in Iheanacho’s neighbourhood could follow what was happening in the Premier League.
“We didn’t have a television at home,” says Iheanacho, in his first in-depth interview. “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. I can remember going to watch one final, Manchester City against Sunderland [in the 2014 Capital One Cup], but I’d usually stay at home, or be playing football, and I didn’t know what had happened until my friends came back after the match to tell me the score.”
This partly explains why Iheanacho grew up as a follower of Barcelona, with Lionel Messi his idol, and more attuned to the goings-on in La Liga than English football. “I watched the Spanish league more because it was cheaper at 30 naira,” the 19-year-old says. “Sometimes I’d watch the Premier League if I found the money or I’d go there anyway without the money and try other ways. Sometimes I’d beg them to let me in. At other times I would try to sneak in for the second half and pay half the money.”
More often than not, he would head to the local pitches or play in street games to hone the skills that led him to join a local team, the Taye Academy, and represent Nigeria at every age level from under-13 upwards before coming to City’s attention during the Under-17 World Cup in 2013. Iheanacho scored six goals in that tournament, including one in the final, to win the Golden Ball and was being lined up to join Porto until City’s scouts got wind of the move. “There were other clubs as well but Porto in particular,” Iheanacho recalls. “I was really ready to go. It was very close.”
Gazumping that deal, to the tune of £350,000, may prove to be one of the outstanding pieces of business City have carried out in recent years given Iheanacho’s impressive introduction to the first team this season. After scoring a hat-trick in the FA Cup fourth-round tie at Aston Villa three weeks ago a dressing room filled with seasoned internationals serenaded him with the “Iheanacho” chant that had been heard in the away end – “I think Joe Hart started it,” he says – and his stylish finish against Tottenham last Sunday was further proof why Manuel Pellegrini recently cited the youngster’s potential while explaining why the club did not bring in another striker to replace Edin Dzeko.
“I was happy to hear the manager say that and for him to introduce me to the team,” Iheanacho says. “It means he has confidence in me. He’s given me the chance to prove myself, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so quickly because I was working with the youth team. First of all, he told me I was going with them to Australia in pre-season and after that we came back and I was in the first-team squad. I was a bit surprised and sometimes early on I did feel a bit nervous because these are great players. But when you keep training with them every day you get used to it. I just have to keep my head down, listen to everyone and work hard.”
These are still early days and the receptionist at City’s training ground looked slightly perplexed when informed someone had arrived to interview Iheanacho (“Ian who?” she replied). Yet Iheanacho – meaning “what we are looking for” – is rapidly making a reputation for himself with his instinctive finishing and ability to play as either an orthodox striker or in a slightly more withdrawn role, with quick feet and an eye for a pass.
Nwankwo Kanu, one of his heroes and also from Imo, came to the game against Leicester City a fortnight ago to meet him and there was a culture shock for Iheanacho the last time he was in Nigeria. “It’s amazing when I go back now and how different it is for me than before. All the people are calling my name, shouting. I get mobbed by the kids. Everyone comes around, they want to see you, want to know you. They all want their kids to play football.”
His father, James, who made his living selling men’s clothes, joined him in Manchester for the early months to help the settling-in process and though there is the obligatory mention of the city’s weather, Iheanacho does not seem to have struggled too badly with homesickness. “It’s different from the place where I grew up, but I really wanted to play football. I would have gone anywhere for football. It’s a bit cold here, but I would have done anything to have a chance.”
His current mood can probably be summed up by the fact he uses the word “happy” half a dozen times, but there have been some difficult times, too. His mother, Mercy, died a few months before his move to Manchester and he says his career is dedicated to her. “It was hard when my mother left us. I said to myself: ‘You must keep working hard for her.’ She was a teacher, a big influence. She made me work harder. So when I’m not doing something right or when I’m not playing or working hard enough, I remember what she used to say to me. She gets me moving. She pushed me to work hard.”
He wears the No72 shirt for City but it would be no surprise if he takes the vacant No9 next season to signify his increased importance at a club where Brian Marwood, the academy director, has said they want three to five of their own products eventually to become first-team regulars. Iheanacho is the first to break through and is expected to lead City’s attack in their FA Cup tie at Chelsea on Sunday. He will be a difficult opponent and, back in Owerri, it is probably fair to say they will be getting one of their bigger crowds.