Languishing inside the relegation zone and having taken only two points from five Championship outings under Slavisa Jokanovic, the Serb’s exasperation with his club’s slow progress during the summer transfer window prompted him to take a bold selection decision ahead of September’s game against Peterborough.
After finally being given permission to sign Morgan Gibbs-White, one of his leading preseason targets, Jokanovic found himself wondering how to get the best out of the midfielder who had just arrived on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers. The answer dawned on him as United prepared to face Peterborough. And the decision he took, after observing the interchanges between Gibbs-White and Iliman Ndiaye during an otherwise low key training session at the Randox Health Academy, was immediately rewarded with the pair delivering a combined total of three goals and two assists as the visitors from Cambridgeshire were beaten 6-2.
“We tried some different things and we saw some links between them,” Jokanovic told The Star at the time. “There were lots of links between them. They worked really well together, seemed suited to each other. This is what we saw and so this is what we went with. We had a creativity that we didn’t have beforehand.”
Although Jokanovic would soon depart as politics and poor results holed his regime below the waterline, Gibbs-White and Ndiaye both remain in situ. And with Billy Sharp, who also started that meeting with Peterborough, now nursing an injury, United are now relying on their double act to first fire them into the play-offs and then the Premier League.
“I don’t have to keep telling everyone what I think of him,” Heckingbottom said, after being asked about Ndiaye’s form during the build-up to Saturday’s clash with Fulham. “I’ve made it clear all along how highly I regard him. We know how good he can be and we know what he can do.”
United enter their meeting with Marco Silva’s already promoted side ranked fifth in the table and knowing, with only one round of fixtures left on the schedule, a win will definitely secure them a top six finish. Two points above seventh placed Middlesbrough and three ahead of Millwall in eighth, Gibbs-White and Ndiaye are expected to spearhead Heckingbottom’s attack when the runaway leaders make the journey north this weekend.
Unlike Gibbs-White, who despite being only two months older than his fellow 22-year-old boasts much more senior experience, Ndiaye’s progress through the campaign has not been seamless. Indeed, only several weeks ago, he was challenged to “do more” by Heckingbottom, who handed the Frenchman his debut during a spell in caretaker charge last season, after finding himself out of the first team picture. Ndiaye’s response - three goals in four outings, with one of those coming during Friday’s win over Queens Park Rangers - could not have been more emphatic. Or, with Sharp now out for the foreseeable after tearing a muscle, timely for a United squad which faces arguably the toughest test of every team still vying top six qualification.
Ndiaye’s preparations for the contest with Fulham have also been boosted by the fact he is no longer fasting for Ramadan, with United adjusting both his schedule and the one being followed by Rhian Brewster throughout the holiest month on the Islamic calendar.
“Iliman has scored a few goals and has been really effective,” said Heckingbottom, observing his policy of not showering young prospects with lashings of praise. “I’ve worked with him for a long time now. It’s different at first team level and he’s getting to understand that now. I know Iliman well though, because of what I was doing before.”
Previously United’s under-23’s coach, Heckingbottom was responsible for overseeing Ndiaye’s development after former academy director Travis Binnion and then coaching consultant Mick Wadsworth first spotted him working with Boreham Wood. Chris Wilder, Heckingbottom’s predecessor Chris Wilder, now in charge of Middlesbrough, was equally impressed; quickly inviting him to work with United’s established professionals before, having twice led them to promotion, departing in uncannily similar circumstances to Jokanovic. That prompted Heckingbottom to hand Ndiaye an opportunity when he was handed the reins, initially on a caretaker basis, towards the end of last term. A brief but bright cameo against Leicester City should have been enough to earn Ndiaye more opportunities. But a contractual dispute, coupled with a directive from above that he should be made an example of, meant Ndiaye did not appear again until Jokanovic, whose relationship with some members of United’s board had already become strained, took an executive decision to bring him back in from the cold.
That period in exile, together with an itinerant youth career, must be taken into consideration when comparing Ndiaye’s understanding of the professional game to the knowledge Gibbs-White has accumulated with Wolves and England under-21’s. He fine-tuned his skills during a loan spell at Swansea City. The sum total of Ndiaye’s competitive experience, until that appearance at the KP Stadium, was a short placement with Hyde.
Fortunately, Ndiaye, who scored a wonderful solo goal during United’s win over Fulham in December, is a quick learner. Silva will be as aware of the danger he poses as Heckingbottom is of Aleksandar Mitrovic’s threat. Jokanovic’s compatriot has netted 46 times in his last 51 appearances.
“He’s got a long way to go and a lot to learn,” acknowledged Heckingbottom. “But he’s got the attitude to be able to do that.”