Sheffield United: Iliman Ndiaye on his life, footballing mission and that goal against Fulham

For around eight beautiful seconds he was back in the playground, emulating Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi and his hero Ronaldinho.

Well, that’s what it felt like anyway. In reality, Iliman Ndiaye was competing for Sheffield United against Championship leaders Fulham and busy scoring a goal so alluring, to paraphrase the commentator narrating events inside Craven Cottage, it would better be described as a piece of art.

“As soon as the ball came to me,” says Ndiaye, revealing what persuaded him to try and create it in the first place, “I could see all of their players back towards their box. Because I like dribbling, I just thought ‘let’s get forward.’ When I was running, I felt I couldn’t stop. Afterwards, when it happened, I was so happy with myself.”

A month has passed since Ndiaye’s superbly crafted effort propelled United to what, by some considerable margin, is their finest victory of the season so far. But the fact he can still recall every facet in pin-sharp detail - including the gear change which did for Jean-Michael Seri and perfectly placed finish past Marek Rodak - serves as a reminder, even if his career lasts for another 20 years, the young midfielder might struggle to better it. Either in terms of quality or impact.

Iliman Ndiaye is looking forward to playing at Bramall Lane again, for Sheffield United: George Wood/Getty Images

But because Ndiaye recognises football is ultimately about entertainment, he is definitely going to try. The positional exercises United’s squad perform daily will make him a more complete professional. Yet, although he is too humble to speak in such grandiose terms, the 22-year-old is on a mission to remind people that flair, imagination and a devil-may-care attitude are what really get supporters out of their seats. Even at an unashamedly blue collar club like United where, as manager Paul Heckingbottom recently reminded, a tackle often gets a bigger cheer than a piece of creative brilliance.

“There’s two sides to football,” explains Ndiaye, “Well there is for me anyway. You have the tactical side, which of course is really important. But then you also have the individual players. Sometimes, that side is going to come out.

“It definitely brings me joy to see the fans enjoying themselves. That’s what they come to watch us for. That’s why I love football, because of all the players who used to really excite me. There’s too many to mention but some of the ones I used to look up to were Ronaldinho for his dribbling and then of course there was Zidane and Messi. They were something else. When I was smaller, I used to watch them and try to do the things they were doing, even though it was often impossible.”

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Iliman Ndiaye is one of Sheffield United's most exciting players: George Wood/Getty Images

Expected to make his 19th appearance for United when they host Luton Town tomorrow, Ndiaye’s route to Bramall Lane was every bit as unconventional as that display of skill in west London. Hailing from Rouen, he initially enrolled on their youth programme before joining Boreham Wood when his Senegalse father moved to England for work. It was there where scouts from United were first alerted to his talents. Having entered their development system Ndiaye, who also spent time in Marseille and Dakar, made his senior United debut during last term’s Premier League trip to Leicester City. That was under Heckingbottom who, after stage-managing an orderly’ish exit from the top-flight, took charge on a permanent basis in November. Two months earlier, Ndiaye had marked his first senior start by claiming one goal and engineering another during a thrashing of Peterborough.

“He gave me that opportunity and he’s been amazing for me,” Ndiaye says, stressing he also enjoyed working under Slavisa Jokanovic. “He’s always trying to push me and trying to help me reach my best.

“Obviously because of the things he knows I like to do, he tells me to try and get on the ball a lot.

Former Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“Even when he wasn’t (manager), he was always dragging me to one side and telling me things. He’s always been right behind me.”

A hard taskmaster, Heckingbottom earlier this week claimed Ndiaye’s shift during Tuesday’s draw with Preston North End was better than the one he produced at Fulham. Even though the final scoreline, as United surrendered a two goal advantage against opponents down to 10 men, dealt a blow to their chances of reaching the play-offs.

“There’s been some ups and downs but, for me personally, it’s been good,” Ndiaye admits. “The group is the most important thing but, for me, it’s all positive.”

On the pitch and also off it, where he is enjoying being a father to his young daughter.

Paul Heckingbottom, the Sheffield United manager, has been a constant source of advive for Iliman Ndiaye: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“I take her outside and do some stuff with her. Is she going to be a Sheffield United fan? I hope so, but that’s her decision isn’t it.

“I’m settling into the city well. I don’t do much else except for football. That doesn’t matter because I love football as well.”

United hope Ndiaye will bring his magic to the table when they face Nathan Jones side; the first match Bramall Lane has staged for two months following a series of postponements over Christmas and New Year. Eleventh placed Luton are directly above United in the table and travel north on the back of wins over Bournemouth and Reading.

“Since I’ve been here, I’m more professional in everything I do, I’ve learned a lot,” Ndiaye says, revealing Rhian Brewster and compatriot Lys Mousset have been “real helps” because “they’re around my age, they understand.”

“I’m getting stronger on my positioning. But goals and assists, those are the main things I want to add to my game. A few more like the one at Fulham I suppose, that wouldn’t do any harm.”