Sheffield United: ‘He had three bloody lungs’ – How Senegalese Iliman Ndiaye reached the World Cup
“It was like the kid had three lungs, three bloody lungs,” said the former Sheffield United academy manager. The star, recalling the youngster’s first session at the Randox Health Academy. “He could play. We already knew that. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have brought him here. But he just kept on going and going and going. So, so fit.
Three years later, with 57 senior appearances to his name, Ndiaye has become one of the most talked about players not just at United but in the entire English Football League. And after being parachuted into the Senegal team which begins its World Cup campaign with a match against Holland today, its name is now whispered by some of the most famous managers on the planet. Should the reigning African champions decide to let him go, those who know Ndiaye intimately suspect it will be his defining moment.
The story of how the skinny teenager, whose frame was initially overshadowed by his mop of dark hair, got quickly became one of United’s most famous talents contains a number of important characters. There are his parents, whom Ndiaye thanked for their “support” which allowed him to turn professional. Samy Bougern, president of his first club Rouen Sapins, helped showcase the talents that once prompted a Dakar newspaper to describe him as ‘the next Lionel Messi’ after being offered a place on the famed program youth of Marseilles. And then, following the move of his family to the Senegalese capital, where Ndiaye’s father was born, the technical staff of the Association Dakar Sportive Sacré-Coeur entered the intrigue. But England, where he represented Boreham Wood and Rising Ballers, a social media-savvy Sunday morning outfit based in the west Londonserves as the setting for the most important chapters of this sports fairy tale.
“We first heard about him through an agent, called Rodney, who had mutual contact with (United owner) Prince Abdullah (bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud,” continued Binnion, now in charge of Manchester United’s Under-18 programme, as he traces Ndiaye’s journey since South Yorkshire in Qatar. “Straight away you could see he had it. Steve Holmes, our recruiting manager, deserves all the credit because he always insisted on how we had to recruit this boy. Steve just wouldn’t let him rest and you really have to remember that.
“Boy, Iliman could play. He needed work, to learn the intricacies of the game if you like and he clearly did. But what really struck me, apart from his ability of course, was the fact that he had a bit of a lead. He always got slammed there, and he just got up and carried on. But if someone really caught him, he wanted to stand up and argue. Obviously, that had to be smoothed out a bit as he rose through the ranks, but I liked that about him. I really loved that spirit. »
Although the exact details remain shrouded in mystery, United are believed to have paid between £40,000-50,000 to sign Ndiaye; the lion’s share of which, after a slice was diverted to another of his former clubs, went to Boreham Wood.
“It’s my favorite little project,” said their manager Luke Garrard, after appointing Ndiaye to the bench for a game against Harrogate Town. “To see his face, when he walked in and saw his name on the back of the shirt, it was unforgettable.”
Ndiaye completed a brief loan spell with Hyde in the NPL Premier Division shortly after joining United. It was a sign that perhaps not everyone at United was immediately as convinced of his potential as Holmes and Binnion. However, former coach Chris Wilder had a policy of asking promising players to experience life at the non-league and semi-professional level, believing that this kept them humble, hardened them and sharpened their competitive instincts.
“For all the tricks and individual elements of genius,” notes United manager Paul Heckingbottom, “there’s a point, an end product to what he’s doing now. It’s worth something. And, below all this, he is also a winner.
“He had that lovely air, which you can still see now, of someone who loves playing football. There’s a joy about Iliman. You can tell he loves having a ball at his feet and the gift of being able to make him do what he wants.
Although his command of the English language is better than he thinks, Ndiaye can express himself with absolute ease on the pitch. A number of the 16 goals he scored for United, since his debut against Leicester City two seasons ago, were works of art; the 22-year-old translating the images he sees in his mind into priceless bits of brilliance.
Like Heckingbottom and his predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic, tasked with deciding the contract policy that briefly stalled Ndiaye’s progress at Bramall Lane, Senegal’s Aliou Cissé was also won over by Ndiaye’s ability – awarding him the first of his two international caps in June. With Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane ruled out of the tournament through injury, that tally could soon increase to five with the Teranga Lions also set to face. Ecuador and Qatar in the group stage.
“I’m not surprised to see him go to the World Cup,” Binnion admits. “People might think I’m saying that in hindsight, but no. The talent was still there and, of course, the ability to listen, learn and improve. When you put all those things together, well, I think you know the rest.