Odion Ighalo

Opinion: Popular Ighalo is so much more than a fan

One of my many crackpot theories is that fans revere and applaud the players that most remind us of ourselves. Or, at least, the version of ourselves that we want to believe in.

If we ever got out there on the pitch, we'd steam around like Roy Keane. We'd be as tough as Mark Hughes, as lithe as Ryan Giggs, as inspired as Eric Cantona. Because we love Manchester United and know deep inside that we'd do anything to help it succeed.
 
I think that's why almost every Red I've spoken to absolutely loves Odion Ighalo.
He's living something that every United fan dreams of – representing his boyhood club – and you can see that with every calorie he burns on the pitch. With every smile he produces when celebrating a goal (and that's any goal, not just the ones he scores himself).
 
It's why everyone will be delighted at the news that he's set to stay in M16 for a while longer.
 
Of course, we're lucky in that we've got several lads in the team that have supported United since their younger days. Footballers that were ensconced in the Academy before they stopped believing in Father Christmas.
 
But what touches most people about the Ighalo story is that his dream of pulling on the shirt had, realistically, gone.
His time in the Premier League, with Watford, had ended years ago. He'd retired from international football and was now playing in China. Father Christmas wasn't real.
 
And then, fate swung his way, as United looked keenly for back-up, due to Marcus Rashford's untimely injury.
 
Ighalo's arrival was a great story. A moving, joyful tale in an industry where ruthlessness can be the order of the day.
 
But then he started playing, and things went beyond novelty and sentimentality very, very quickly.
 
Because Ighalo's impact was very, very good.

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Yes, he supplies all the basics asked of a United player. He burns calories, he puts himself about, he takes joy in wearing the shirt.
 
But it also became clear that his signing was much more clever than that. He's not just added an extra presence to the forward line – he's contributed variety, experience and quality.
 
United's other three strikers, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood, have been superb this year. The elder pair were on for their best individual seasons, in terms of goalscoring, before an injury to Rashford and the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
Greenwood has slipped into first-team football with prodigious ease.
 
All three are distinct, individual talents and all three can do amazing things without any help whatsoever. But they like the ball at their feet and they like to create.

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Some games require something slightly different: someone who can occupy the opposing centre-halves, who can fight for long balls to relieve pressure at key moments. Someone with experience, who knows when to play a simple lay-off or hold the ball up.
 
In that respect, Ighalo, like Bruno Fernandes – who has delivered a much-needed creative spark from deeper in the pitch – has been very important for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's resurgent United team.
 
It's easy to forget, but some critics questioned his loan deal in late January. 
 
Those criticisms were soon shovelled to the margins, however, when the Nigerian started banging in goals every time he started. When he linked brilliantly with his team-mates.
 
When he came on in the dying minutes of the Manchester derby and strutted around the gaff like the King of Old Trafford.
Put simply, he has ticked every single box. Humble, hard-working and a team player, he has the respect of every fan.
 
But even more importantly, around the training ground and on the pitch, he has the respect and admiration of the players and coaches too. He's an assured and smart footballer.
 
We're delighted that his story is going to continue. But not just because he's a Red, or because it's a nice story.
 
It's because Ighalo was a big part of the excellent football United were producing prior to the suspension of football. Because we're excited to see what he produces next.

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