Sheffield United: 'He had three bloody lungs' - How Senegal's Iliman Ndiaye reached the World Cup

Travis Binnion always remembers the first time he saw Iliman Ndiaye.
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“It was like the kid had three lungs, three bloody lungs,” Sheffield United’s former academy manager tells The Star, recalling the youngster’s maiden session at the Randox Health Academy. “He could play. We already knew that. We wouldn’t have brought him in otherwise. But he just kept on going, going and going. So, so fit.”

Three years later, with 57 senior appearances now under his belt, Ndiaye has become one of the most talked about players not only at United but also across the entire English Football League. And having been parachuted into the Senegal squad which begins its World Cup campaign with a game against Holland today, his name is now being whispered by some of the most celebrated coaches on the planet. If the reigning African champions decide to let him off the leash, those who know Ndiaye intimately suspect this will be his breakthrough moment.

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The story of how the scrawny teenager, whose frame was initially dwarfed by his mop of black hair, has rapidly developed into one of United’s most celebrated talents contains a number of important characters. There’s his parents, who Ndiaye has thanked for lending the “support” which enabled him to turn professional. Samy Bougern, president of his first club Rouen Sapins, helped showcase the talents which once prompted a newspaper in Dakar to describe him as “the next Lionel Messi” after being offered a place on Marseille’s renowned youth programme. And then, following his family’s move to the Senegalese capital, where Ndiaye’s father was born, the coaching staff at Association Dakar Sportive Sacre-Coeur enter the plotline. But England, where he represented Boreham Wood and Rising Ballers, a social media savvy Sunday morning outfit based in west London, provides the setting for this sporting fairytale’s most important chapters.

“We first heard about him through an agent, called Rodney, who had a mutual contact with (United owner) Prince Abdullah (bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud,” Binnion, now in charge of Manchester United’s under-18’s programme, continues as he traces Ndiaye’s journey from South Yorkshire to Qatar. “Straight away you could see he had it. Steve Holmes, our head of recruitment, deserves all the credit because he was always banging on about how we had to get this lad in. Steve just wouldn’t let it rest and that really needs remembering.

“Boy, Iliman could play. He needed work, learning the intricacies of the game if you like and he’s clearly done that. But the thing that really struck me, other than his ability of course, was the fact he had a bit of edge. He was always getting clattered out there, and he’d just get up and keep going. But if someone really caught him, he wanted to get up and have a row. Obviously that’s had to be smoothed out a bit as he’s come through the ranks but I liked that about him. I really loved that spirit.”

Although the exact details remain shrouded in mystery, United are thought to have paid somewhere between £40,000 and £50,000 to sign Ndiaye; the lions’ share of which, after a slice was diverted to another of his old clubs, went to Boreham Wood.

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“He’s my little pet project,” their manager Luke Garrard said, after naming Ndiaye on the bench for a match against Harrogate Town. “To see his face, when he walked in and saw his name on the back of the shirt, that was unforgettable.”

Sheffield United and Senegal attacker Iliman Ndiaye has been on an amazing journey: Simon Bellis / SportimageSheffield United and Senegal attacker Iliman Ndiaye has been on an amazing journey: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sheffield United and Senegal attacker Iliman Ndiaye has been on an amazing journey: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Ndiaye completed a brief spell on loan with Hyde, in the NPL Premier Division, soon 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 manager Chris Wilder had a policy of asking up-and-coming players to experience life at non-league and semi-professional level, believing it kept them humble, toughened them up and sharpened their competitive instincts.

“For all the tricks and individual bits of brilliance,” United manager Paul Heckingbottom notes, “There’s a point, an end product to what he does now. That makes it worth something. And, underneath it all, he’s also a winner.”

Mick Wadsworth, a member of England’s backroom staff at Italia ‘90 and previously a coaching consultant for United’s development teams, was also immediately won over by Ndiaye’s mesmerising skills.

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“He had this lovely air about him, which you can still see now, of someone who just loves playing the game. 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 it do what he wants.”

Travis Binnion worked with Iliman Ndiaye at Sheffield United's academy: Simon Bellis/SportimageTravis Binnion worked with Iliman Ndiaye at Sheffield United's academy: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Travis Binnion worked with Iliman Ndiaye at Sheffield United's academy: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Although his command of the English language is better than he gives himself credit for, Ndiaye can express himself with absolute fluency on the pitch. A number of the 16 goals he has scored for United, since making his debut against Leicester City two seasons ago, have been works of art; the 22-year-old translating the pictures he sees in his mind into priceless pieces of brilliance.

Like Heckingbottom and his predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic, responsible for slicing through the contractual politicking which briefly stalled Ndiaye’s progress at Bramall Lane, Senegal’s Aliou Cisse has also been seduced 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 become five with the Lions of Teranga also set to face Ecuador and Qatar in the group stages.

“I’m not surprised to see him going to the World Cup,” Binnion admits. “People might think I’m saying that with the benefit of hindsight but no. The talent was always there and, clearly, so is the aptitude to listen, learn and make improvements. When you put all of those things together, well, I think you know the rest.”

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