Sheffield United: Iliman Ndiaye on his big breakthrough moment and why three Premier League clubs might now regret overlooking him
It was early on Friday morning when Iliman Ndiaye first began to suspect that something was afoot.
Slavisa Jokanovic still hadn’t confirmed his starting eleven for that weekend’s fixture against Peterborough, preferring to keep it a secret until just before kick-off instead.
But the way the Serb was asking Sheffield United’s players to line-up during training, the level of involvement he was having in their set-piece drills was enough to convince Ndiaye that finally, six months after making his first senior appearance, he was now about to make his full debut.
“I was excited, when I knew I was starting I wasn’t nervous because that’s what I’d been waiting for,” Ndiaye told The Star, after celebrating the landmark moment with two goals and an assist. “To play in the team, to score and to also get three points - well - it’s just unbelievable really.”
Energetic and vibrant but also technically proficient, Ndiaye’s contribution to the 6-2 win over Darren Ferguson’s side confirmed why, having observed him at close quarters since being appointed in July, Jokanovic was prepared to go out on a limb for the 21-year-old whose career at the club had stalled because of a contract dispute. With some influential figures behind the scenes letting it be known they felt Ndiaye should not be considered for selection until he signed a new contract, Jokanovic instead involved him in pre-season and also last month’s Carabao Cup tie against Derby County. That came five months after Paul Heckingbottom, United’s then caretaker manager, had awarded Ndiaye his big break during the second-half of a Premier League fixture at Leicester City. While both he and Jokanovic clearly have an eye for a player, watching the ease with which Ndiaye tormented Peterborough’s defence must cast serious doubt upon the judgement of those who anonymously petitioned for him to be frozen out until a fresh agreement was reached. Particularly given United’s disappointing results during the intervening period.
“Yesterday, during the session, the manager came over and told me I shouldn’t be surprised if I started because I’d signed,” continued Ndiaye, having finally committed his future to United a week earlier. “But he only told us what the team was about three hours before the match.
“Was I nervous? No I wasn’t, because this is what I’ve been waiting for and working for. So when the opportunity finally came along, I just wanted to be ready to take it.”
Born in Rouen, France, Ndiaye’s journey to Bramall Lane began in the youth system of his hometown club. Postings at Marseille and Dakar Sacre-Coeur then followed before his Senegalese father moved to England for work. Having joined him in this country, Ndiaye eventually accepted an invitation to join non-league Boreham Wood after enrolling on a college programme with ties to the Hertfordshire outfit. That came after the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Southampton and Reading all failed to identify his potential.
“I was playing at Marseille and then decided to go to Senegal, where my dad is from,” Ndiaye explained, when asked to narrate his backstory. “I went there to see family and I stayed for a year but then dad got work in England and so I followed him here as well. I went to some camps at quite a few clubs and also had a trial at Southampton but that didn’t work out.”
“I wasn’t really getting in the first team at Boreham Wood,” continued Ndiaye, who entered United’s development programme in 2019. “I didn’t have targets as such in the game. I just wanted to aim as high as I could, to try and get in their side, and then go from there. I did make the bench a few times and then Sheffield United came in for me.
“At the time, I was at college and the course had a football side to it at the same time. Because no one had the grades, the coach on that knew the manager at Boreham Wood and so he sent us there. But I was literally the only one on that college programme who stayed.”
Ndiaye had already provided a glimpse of his quality before combining with Morgan Gibbs-White, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, to fire United ahead only a quarter-of-an-hour into their meeting with Peterborough. Indeed, the contest was barely three minutes old when Christy Pym, the visitors’ goalkeeper, was forced to palm away a cross-cum-shot from Rhys Norrington-Davies after Ndiaye, taking up a position just in front of Peterborough’s rearguard, had picked him out with a perfectly weighted pass. After seeing John Fleck restore United’s advantage following Jack Marriott’s equaliser, Ndiaye was on target again after Ben Osborn and Gibbs-White underlined the hosts’ superiority. Having created the opening for Gibbs-White to convert, he headed home Sharp’s centre. The deficit was reduced when Jonson Clarke-Harris netted from the penalty spot before Osborn completed his own brace as United claimed their first Championship win of the new campaign.
“My missus and my kid were in the crowd and when I scored I went looking for them but I couldn’t see them,” Ndiaye, who seems certain to start against Preston North End tomorrow, confessed. “I spotted them afterwards though and so I blew them a little kiss.
“The hard work started a long time ago. It’s not a case of the ‘hard work starts now’ because there’s been a lot of that to get me here. But there’s even more hard work to come now and I can’t just relax because of two goals. I want to stay in the team and hopefully I can do that on Tuesday.”