Football’s default position, whenever the subject of a young player’s performances gets raised by journalists, is to talk down their importance or provide the most anodyne of answers before steering the conversation in a different direction.
But as he prepares his team to face West Bromwich Albion at Bramall Lane on Wednesday night, Paul Heckingbottom is happy to break with convention and discuss the 21-year-old’s talents. Indeed, after being impressed by Ndiaye’s professionalism and dedication to his craft, United’s manager actually volunteered a few lines on the attacking midfielder - describing his display during last week’s win over Birmingham City as proof he “belongs” at Championship level and maybe even above.
“Iliman is so strong,” said Heckingbottom, tacitly admitting he has no concerns about Ndiaye’s ego. “The way he maneuvers the ball off both feet, he’s catching a few people out still. He’s playing with a belief and a confidence that shows he belongs at this level.”
Ndiaye made his debut for United towards the end of last season, after Heckingbottom had been placed in caretaker charge following Chris Wilder’s departure. So although it is no surprise to see his profile continue to soar since the former Barnsley chief seized the reins again three months ago, this time on a permanent basis, perhaps the best measure of Ndiaye’s importance is the fact he also impressed under Slavisa Jokanovic. Appointed following United’s relegation from the Premier League, the Serb was so convinced of the Frenchman’s potential that he went out of his way to find a solution to the contractual dispute which had stalled his progress. Ndiaye, who made 14 appearances under Jokanovic before he was sacked in November, has impressed two managers with very different ideas and personalities. And that, Heckingbottom said soon after replacing Wilder, is the sign of someone not only with genuine ability but also the right attitude to succeed after he arrived in South Yorkshire from FA Cup heroes Boreham Wood.
“Iliman is always one of those who steps up no matter what is put in front of him,” Heckingbottom said. “That’s one of the things I really like about him.”