Sheffield United: When, why, where - How to win the battle for Iliman Ndiaye
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Identifying who is likely to express an interest in the 22-year-old, why they want him and when they are expected to strike, will prove crucial as Bramall Lane’s coaching staff, led by manager Paul Heckingbottom, devise a strategy aimed at ensuring he remains in situ until the end of the campaign. Second in the table ahead of this weekend’s game against Huddersfield Town, losing one of their most influential performers when the transfer window reopens next month would deal a huge blow to United’s hopes of winning promotion and threaten to undermine all of their good work during the first 21 matches of the campaign.
Already a star in South Yorkshire, Ndiaye is now a recognisable figure across the globe following his performances for Senegal at the World Cup. Outings against England, Ecuador and the host nation Qatar have, despite Sunday’s defeat by Gareth Southgate’s side, seen Ndiaye’s profile skyrocket.
The meeting with Mark Fotheringham’s side, which is quickly followed by assignments against Wigan Athletic, Coventry City and Blackpool before January 2nd’s visit to Queens Park Rangers, is the first in a series of character tests he must pass in order to fulfil his potential. Fame brings certain challenges and also distractions. Heckingbottom has no concerns about Ndiaye’s personality, believing he possesses the humility and focus to forge a career at the highest level. But when he returns from the Middle East, the spotlight on the youngster will be brighter, more disturbing and intrusive than ever. Football is littered with exceptional talents. But those who reach the top level, and stay there, are few and far between. Because the temptation to live the lifestyle, rather than concentrate on what provides it in the first place, is too strong for most to resist.
It would be a surprise if United do not receive enquiries about Ndiaye shortly, as clubs with bigger and deeper pockets attempt to lure him away from South Yorkshire after Christmas. But others, having analysed his contractual situation, could be minded to wait until the summer before showing their hands. By then, Ndiaye will be about to enter the final 12 months of his present agreement. Which, if he is still tied to United then, would eat away at their bargaining power. Despite paying around £50,000 to acquire Ndiaye from Boreham Wood, a portion of which went to Marseille following a period in their youth system, Heckingbottom’s employers can not afford to risk seeing him walk out of the door for nothing. Even if, given recent events, the odds on that actually happening are shorter than the player’s socks which he likes to roll down ahead of kick-off.
United invited Ndiaye’s representative to discuss improved terms shortly after he made his international debut in June. He has yet to accept and, according to several knowledgeable figures within the sport, is unlikely to do so - preferring instead to see his client continue collecting a relatively low salary knowing full well that signing an extended arrangement could have a detrimental impact upon what he can demand from any future suitors. It could suit Ndiaye to stay put for the time-being and then assess the market over the summer. That is the option Heckingbottom, with United only three points behind leaders Burnley, hopes he chooses.
Still, with those scintillating displays for Aliou Cisse’s men fresh in the mind, Ndiaye’s value is now likely to be at an all time high. Which leaves United with a terrifyingly difficult calculation to make. Do they cash-in, and receive a huge return on their investment? Or hold firm and try to claim the £170m prize on offer to promotion winners? It should come as no surprise to learn that Heckingbottom, who has made his thoughts clear to the board, favours the latter.
Another question United must answer is this: Where are Ndiaye’s admirers likely to come from?
Certainly some will be found in the Premier League, where his work permit status also makes him an attractive proposition. But having worked at both Rouen and the Orange Velodrome before travelling to England via Dakar with his family, teams in France will also be monitoring his situation closely. Ndiaye’s representative is known to boast strong contacts in the country, which would be a desirable destination for language and cultural reasons. Ndiaye would get lost at Paris St Germain, and isn’t yet the Galactico they like new arrivals to be. However, one could easily imagine him featuring on the radar of clubs such as Lyon, Monaco and of course Marseille.
Heckingbottom has been instrumental in helping to develop Ndiaye’s career. Previously United’s under-23’s coach, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief was responsible for awarding him his senior debut during a spell in caretaker charge before being appointed on a permanent basis 13 months ago. That faith has been rewarded by the sight of Ndiaye scoring nine times in his last 21 outings for United and forging an excellent partnership with fellow attacker Oli McBurnie. Although Heckingbottom will not prevent Ndiaye from bettering himself, he is expected to advise him it makes more sense to commit to United in the short term and then re-evaluate the situation in May; by which time it might be necessary to factor the possibility of enjoying PL competition with them into the equation.