Over 5,500 miles, a wondergoal and a proud dad moment: The making of Sheffield United starlet Iliman Ndiaye
Iliman Ndiaye plucked the ball out of the sky inside his own half and as he set off, Cameron Mawer remembers watching what followed unfold like it was yesterday.
With his shirt untucked and billowing in the Burton wind, Ndiaye’s touch and speed takes him past four opponents on the St George’s Park astroturf, before he turns back onto his right foot and beats a fifth.
A deft drag-back then takes out two more, who almost collide as the forward races away. The opposition centre-half races over to block the shot, but can’t get anywhere near and about 11 seconds after the opposition goalkeeper smashed the ball skywards, it is nestling neatly in the back of his net.
Ndiaye had just scored the type of goal that most could only dream about, but the most surprising part of the entire YouTube clip is the reaction of his teammates. There is no real surprise, no head-in-hands shock at what they had just witnessed. More a laugh, a shrug of the shoulders. To them, it was normal. The boy wonder Ndiaye has just done what Ndiaye does.
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“He had it all, from the moment we first saw him,” Mawer, who worked with the Sheffield United youngster at Boreham Wood, told The Star.
“He was frightening. He would sit defenders down – experienced, seasoned reserve players from senior clubs – and you thought: ‘Wow’. After about a minute of seeing him, I knew he was proper. I was looking around me, thinking: “Has anyone seen this kid? Where has he come from?”
From France, to Senegal and London and Sheffield and, eventually, the Premier League. It has been some journey.
The making of Ndiaye
Ndiaye was born in Rouen, a town north-west of Paris, to a Senegalese father and a French mother. Family shaped his development from a young age and he remembers training every day with his father and seven sisters, who were into athletics, to hone his skills.
“Iliman was from a sports family,” Samy Bouguern, president of Ndiaye’s former club Rouen Sapins, said.
“The first memories are his ease in taking the ball and dribbling past any person. He was very comfortable from a young age with the ball at the foot. And the most important thing was how much he enjoyed playing football.”
His early promise didn’t go unnoticed. A Senegal news outlet rather boldly described Ndiaye as “a future Messi” and after a spell at Marseille, Ndiaye left France for Senegal when he was 11.
“I liked living there because I was around family,” Ndiaye remembered. “It was different to playing in France. We played on sand, on beaches, and that’s where I learned my skills and got my strength.
“It was a privilege to play at Marseille but I learned new things in Senegal.”
At 14, he was on the move again. He arrived in London without knowing a word of English, but with his dream of becoming a professional footballer undiminished.
Beginnings at Boreham
Mawer came across Ndiaye by luck. A community programme the youngster had joined had no education provider, and 14 youngsters were taken on by Boreham Wood. Of the 14, Ndiaye was the only one to stay.
“The others found work or whatever,” Mawer said. “But that’s how it began for Ili. Who knows what would have happened with him if he'd walked out the door?
“I've never met anyone quite like him. We had almost 600 boys on the programme most years and we had to give them a Plan B. I’d say to him: ‘Ili, what are you going to do if you're not a footballer?’ And he’d say: ‘Nah, I'm going to be a footballer.’
“He wouldn't relent from it, and I've never seen that before. I'd usually break them down in the end and they say they’d be a personal trainer or whatever as a back-up. But Ili was like: ‘Nah, I'm going to be a footballer’. Simple as that.
“He’d play for our reserves and sometimes, he’d struggle. Up against big, ugly centre-halves who would just kick him all over, while he tried to get the ball down and play. He had to learn to cope with that.
“He's from the streets of France, so I can imagine there's not many better groundings to toughen you up and make you resilient than that. He came from a tough background and his English wasn’t great when he arrived. Maybe he just used to pick and choose when he understood me!
“But to move abroad at such a young age and adapt the way he did was phenomenal. I couldn’t do it.”
Ndiaye signed for United in 2019 and spent time on loan at Hyde United, before making a name for himself with some eye-catching displays for United’s U23s this season. With United’s senior squad light of bodies, he was drafted into the first-team picture and was handed a Premier League debut earlier this month, coming off the bench in United’s 5-0 defeat at Leicester.
Djakaria Diallo and Anthony Desoutter, who worked with Ndiaye at Rouen, both told this newspaper of their “indescribable pride” and “great joy” at Ndiaye’s top-flight debut.
But those who know him say that the 21-year-old is not the type to get carried away. Paul Heckingbottom, Ndiaye’s U23s coach at United who gave him his senior debut after succeeding Chris Wilder, remembers his youth coach telling him that he wasn’t a footballer until he had played 100 games.
“And he was right,” Heckingbottom said. “Iliman is a good kid. He won’t think he’s cracked it, and he hasn’t. He was one who impressed me when I first walked through the door, but he had been playing out wide at Hyde and because of the system the first-team played, I wanted to give him the best possible of chance of getting in it. So I worked with him as a nine or a 10, one of the front players.
“He really grasped it and took it on board, and I had no problems recommending him to the gaffer [Wilder]. I put my name to him because of his work rate. He understands the game and gives everything, so he deserves the chances he’s had so far. Now, he’s got to go and stay in the team.”
Pride at the King Power
When Ndiaye came on at the King Power Stadium, replacing Ollie Norwood as a 79th-minute substitute, Mawer admits it brought a tear to his eye.
“It was like a proud dad moment,” he smiled. “The thought of how it will change their life. You’ve played a part in their journey to a Premier League player and you know how hard they have worked.
“All those times he told me he will be a footballer. He was right, and I can’t see why he can’t go on to be a Premier League player and be a good career. He’s as naturally gifted as anyone I’ve seen – I would definitely pay my £20 to watch what he produces - and his attitude won’t change.
“He has that boyhood love of football and is more at home with the ball at his feet, but works just as hard without it. He’s tenacious in the tackle and plays with a smile. You can’t help but like Ili, and he deserves all the rewards – because of how hard he works, and the journey he has been on.”