Heartbreak, non-league and kicking Raheem Sterling – The making of Sheffield Wednesday’s Michael Ihiekwe

Hands on head, Michael Ihiekwe’s blood ran cold. He’d done by the attacker and the only option he’d been left with was stick out a leg.
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In front of a half-empty Victoria Road, the jeers of a few hundred Eastenders ran over him as white noise. A red card – the only of his career to date – was lifted above the head of referee Constantine Hatzidakis.

The official’s name was about the most exciting thing about a drab goalless draw between the hosts Dagenham and Redbridge and Ihiekwe’s Tranmere Rovers.

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It was a red card shown in the 54th minute. It was the Conference. It was October. Having served a suspension for his misdemeanour, he spent the next few weeks in and out of the Tranmere back line. For Ihiekwe, it hadn’t meant to be like this.

Michael Ihiekwe rebuilt his career at Tranmere Rovers after his release from Liverpool and latterly Wolverhampton Wanderers.Michael Ihiekwe rebuilt his career at Tranmere Rovers after his release from Liverpool and latterly Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Michael Ihiekwe rebuilt his career at Tranmere Rovers after his release from Liverpool and latterly Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Because only a few seasons earlier, the then 23-year-old defender had been pulling his socks over his knees to step out on the grassy training pitches at Liverpool and later Wolverhampton Wanderers. A confident, strapping youngster, he had been released by both.

Liverpool was particularly tough to take. Ihiekwe, born and raised in Allerton a stone’s throw from the city centre and the owner of a gentle Scouse timbre that defies his hulking frame, remains an ardent Liverpool fan and when his schedule allows attends matches.

It’s a period he looks back on fondly and is happy to regale. Though his direct involvement with the first teams of Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson was irregular, his grounding at one of the most famous clubs in the world is one he is thankful for.

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“Every Christmas we’d go to Melwood to meet the first team and the seniors were brilliant,” he said. “Especially the local ones who had come through the same route we were looking at, Gerrard and Carragher and those guys.

“We were at a different training complex for the most part but as I got older during international breaks they’d send a few of us up to train with them. That was really good and you got to see the level straight away. You learn a lot.

“I was all the way through with Connor Coady, who has just gone to Everton!

“Tom Ince was there, Jack Robinson. There were quite a few lads who have gone on and made a career for themselves.

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“Jon Flanagan was another one, Andre Wisdom and then in my last year I was a second year scholar and that’s when Raheem Sterling came up.

“He was a couple of years younger than us but straight away you could tell he was going to be something big. He was so fast, the fastest player I’ve ever seen, so sharp. He hadn’t developed technically at that point but you could tell a mile off he had something about him.

“I just tried to kick him but he was too quick for that!”

The day he was told he wouldn’t be kept on at Liverpool didn’t come as a major surprise, he admits, as the bunfight for attention became all the more competitive.

But it hurt. Looking at his face as he looks back, you rather suspect it still does.

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“It was difficult,” he admitted. “I was there from 10 until I was 17 so it was very tough.

“It’s every kid’s dream to play for your club and stuff like that, but it quickly flips it and it becomes a case of how much you really want to make it as a footballer.

“Not every kid is going to be able to make it and that’s when I realised how much I really wanted to make it. I didn’t think twice about having to move away from home and having to go and fight for it.

“You learn a lot about yourself in those situations. When the time comes and you get the bad news you sink or swim. You have to really want it.”

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From Liverpool came three years at Wolves in which he the extent of his first team involvement came on loan at Cheltenham Town.

Released in 2014, he wasted no time moping and Prenton Park provided a route back. But after his first season, they had been relegated into the Conference for the first time since the 1920s.

It was a period in his career Ihiekwe believes has given him an edge that has gone some way to earning three League One promotions, a Papa Johns Trophy and more recently a place at the heart of Sheffield Wednesday’s defence.

“My time at Tranmere was really important,” Ihiekwe tells The Star. “I signed there wanting to gain experience playing in the Football League and then we were relegated into the conference, where I played for two or three seasons.

“That forced me to grow up quickly and I gained experience.

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“It gave me a chip on my shoulder, being released from two big clubs. If you use that right, you can help it to shape you and motivate you. I was playing at that level [with Tranmere] for a reason and you respect that, but I didn’t want to stay there.

“You have to keep yourself driven or motivated, you can never think you’re too good for a certain level or whatever.”

Some 354 senior appearances down the line, Ihiekwe’s drive is clear for all to see. His is an interview somehow a little more open than other footballers, the delivery rough, ready and unfiltered. He’s been there and done that, he’s played Youth Cup at Anfield and Conference games at North Ferriby United. He’s played at Wembley.

They’re all matches that have added up to make the footballer that is Michael Ihiekwe.