Manchester United new boy Odion Ighalo has explained the circumstances behind his dramatic deadline-day move to Old Trafford. The Nigerian discussed what it means for him to sign for his boyhood idols in an exclusive interview with MUFC, as he looks forward to wearing the red shirt with pride
You’ve admitted before that you’ve long dreamed of joining United, so how does it feel to be here as a player?
I’m very happy. First, I want say thank God for making this happen and it’s just like a dream come true for me, because I know many people used to say when they join a team, they say that they dream of playing for that team. Mine was not the case. I supported the team when I was young. People that know me, even back in Nigeria, and even when I was playing at Watford, my teammates, knew that I loved Man United, I support them. When I played against Man U, that emotion is there, because it is my dream. It is a nice reality, so I’m very happy and I’m looking forward to start.
And what was it that started your love affair with Manchester United?
Yeah, when we were young back in Nigeria we used to watch the Premier League on TV a lot, when the likes of Andy Cole used to play. People support Man United a lot back there in Nigeria, so I developed that love, because all of my siblings, they are Man United fans. I never thought this was going to happen, but dreams do come true, so I’m very happy to be here and this is going to be a big and good challenge for me in my career.
Of course, the deal to bring you here came to an exciting conclusion on transfer deadline day. Can you just give us an insight into your emotions on what was a very dramatic day in the end?
Yeah, it was very dramatic. My agent called me the day before and said, ‘Man United.’ A few other clubs had shown interest, I said, ‘please, just pick United, if it’s going to be possible.’ At 11pm in Shanghai, my agent called me that United wanted to do the deal, so I woke up that night and started looking for a translator to go to the directors’ room and hit his door and all that. ‘My agent wants to speak to you, United are coming for me, you have to make this happen’, and all that, you know. So, they started talking and discussing. I didn’t sleep throughout that night, because it was going to end at 7am, Shanghai time, and the transfer window was going to close there. So, from 11pm, there was paperwork, negotiating for the loan deal, and all that. So, we were talking and other teams were calling them, wanting me, but I told my agent that this is what I want. I want to come here. He said you’re going to get a pay-cut to go to United. I said I don’t care. Make this deal happen. I want to go to United. I don’t care how much is the pay-cut; I know that, make it happen. So the director and everybody didn’t know what to say anymore, because I had already made up my mind, so my agent started putting it in order, and, at 5am, we finished. My agent said he’d forwarded all the papers to United, they will confirm for me if everything is okay. I think, around 5am-6am, he said everything is okay, it’s done. I was excited. I called my mum and she was happy, crying and all that. This is your dream and all that and I’m happy for you. It was dramatic, I didn’t sleep through, I was very happy that finally we got the deal done.
You’re here until the end of the season. So what are your ambitions?
My ambition is to work hard with the team and make sure we finish well in the season and above where we are today, because I saw the table and I know Man United are a big team, they are there at the top and now things are not going the way they should go. So my aim is to contribute my own quota to the team and make sure we finish well.
You’re going to wear the No.25 shirt for United, previously worn by Antonio Valencia, who was a great player for the club. Why did you take that number?
“No.19 was available. When I was at Watford, I put on 24 but it wasn’t available. In Shanghai I wear 9, it wasn’t available, so, I said, ‘24 + 1 is 25, okay, let me go for 25 instead of 19.’
And of course that was the number worn by Quinton Fortune, the first African to represent United. So was that part of the inspiration a little bit as well?
Yeah, because I watched Quinton Fortune play for Man United, he’s a great player. So, I said, ‘25 is good even though I didn’t get the number I was looking for.’ Twenty-five is a perfect number. One above what I wore before when I was in the Premier League.
You’ll be the first Nigerian to play for Manchester United. Is that something that will make you feel very proud?
I’m really proud. I’m happy because people keep sending me messages, I know that this is very big, ‘you’re going to be the first Nigerian to play for United, it’s a good record for you in your career,’ I know that. I know that after you finish football, you are going to know what we are talking about, because I’m just so emotional right now, so I don’t think about those things too much. I just want to get started and get playing and start helping the team to do well.
What’s the reaction been like back home from family and friends?
It was crazy, because, all over the news in the last few days, it’s about my deal to Man United. Even the street I grew up on (in Ajegunle, Lagos), they were having parties, celebrating Ighalo signing for United. They sent me the video, I was just laughing and happy, because many of them support Man United and some of them are supporting some other teams in the Premier League. But they said, because of me, they are moving to United, because they have a very big fan-base in Nigeria. So, I’m happy about all this and they are rooting for United from now on.
How much are you looking forward to linking up with United’s other strikers Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood as well?
They are great players. Greenwood is a very good player; young, very good left foot, I’ve watched some of his games. Martial is very skilful, he can do so much magic with the ball and Rashford for me, is one of the best, if not the best player in Europe right now. He’s doing well, scoring goals; he’s fast, he has good technique. Unfortunately, he is injured now and hopefully I am looking forward to playing with him, because he is a good player. So, for me, it’s just a plus to the team, to work hard with these guys and make sure we end the season very well.
In terms of the different qualities that you can add to the striking line-up at United, what would you say you bring to the table that’s important?
They have a striker that stays mostly in the middle, but Martial likes to come from the side, even Rashford and all that, so you need someone in the middle that can keep the ball, hold the ball, because I’ve watched so many United games. They need physicality upfront to keep the ball, to give and to make some movement, which I believe, if everything goes well, I can add to the team.
At Watford you had a great partnership with Troy Deeney. Do you prefer playing with a partner like that or as a lone striker as you did in China?
“I’ve played in different positions as a striker. I played with Deeney, we understood each other, because we played together when we were in the Championship, from there to the Premier League. In China, I played like a lone striker. Even in the national team I played like a lone striker, so it depends what formation the coach is going to play, I’m okay with anyone.
You’ve talked about your love for United as a team. How did you find it when you played for Watford against Manchester United? What was that like?
“Yeah, I could remember the game at Old Trafford, we lost 1-0. The game was so emotional for me. I remember Troy telling me, ‘you have to calm down,’ because I was eager to score against Man United. Even some of the balls that I had close to the area I was supposed to pass but I wanted to shoot, I wanted to score myself, so Troy was not happy. You have to pass the ball. There was that passion, because I wanted to create history that I scored against my boyhood club, the club I was supporting when I was young. That is the passion I had when I played against United and now I will be playing for United, so I just hope I just gel well and don’t let emotions take the better part of what I am going to do.
You scored a double for Watford against Liverpool in a famous 3-0 win and you also scored to knock Arsenal out of the FA Cup. In Spain, you netted against Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Do you have a favourite goal that you have scored from those or from others perhaps?
“Yeah, I would say scoring against big teams is always good. But one of the goals I would say is my first in the Premier League was on my debut against Everton at Goodison Park, I came on and I scored. I dragged the ball and then I shot it. That was one of my favourite goals, I would say.
And as a Manchester United fan, scoring two goals against Liverpool has got to be pretty special too…
Yes, we played against them at Vicarage Road, I scored two goals and we won that game 3-0. It was fantastic because nobody could imagine that Watford was going to beat Liverpool because they are a big side. It was one of the best moments of my life and my career.