In years to come it may seem particularly far-fetched that when Wilfred Ndidi took his early steps as a midfielder things did not quite go to plan.
It was July 2015 and Ndidi, whose first six months at Genk had been spent making cameo appearances across the defence under Alex McLeish, had been repurposed by the newly arrived coach Peter Maes.
A first midfield outing against OH Leuven had gone respectably; a far bigger test would come in the season’s second fixture, away at Belgium’s reigning champions, Gent, and a cocktail of pressure and inexperience took its toll on the then 18-year-old Ndidi.
“I was so nervous that I couldn’t pass the ball properly,” Ndidi remembers. “I was new to the position and the coach wasn’t the kind who keeps calm, he screams a lot at every player. So I didn’t play well and he took me off at half-time. At half-time!”
The repetition is accompanied by a laugh and it is the nearest that Ndidi, modest to a fault, comes to suggesting wonder at the journey he has taken since then. That jittery performance at Gent led to a brief run of games on the bench but he made himself undroppable upon returning and, three months since joining a Leicester City side whose fortunes have swung wildly in that time, he is nearing similar status in the east Midlands.
Leicester saw in Ndidi the same things as Maes – “a lot of running and trying to win balls”, is what the player suspects – but there has already been so much more. He arrived with a reputation for scoring rarely but spectacularly; a driving run and finish in the FA Cup replay with Derby, bettered by a thrilling long-range effort against Stoke in the league, bore that out quickly and alongside those thunderclaps has been a composure that belies his years. It may have taken the champions half a season to get over the departure of N’Golo Kanté but, in a player almost six years younger, have they now found someone who – for a relatively moderate £17m – could represent an upgrade?
It is a valid question but not the kind of talk that interests Ndidi. “I can only see myself as myself,” he says. “Whether people say I play like Kanté, or that he’s better than me, I don’t listen to them. All I want to do is play and keep improving, and it is working well at the moment – we are doing the basic things well and we try to kick on from there. I prefer to enjoy the winning mentality of the team rather than how I play or what I try to achieve.”
Ndidi is not given to grand pronouncements about the present but offers enough colour about his past to suggest where his discipline comes from. A childhood spent living in a military zone just outside Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, was hardly an archetypal footballer’s upbringing and it was sometimes an achievement to get a ball out at all. His father, a soldier who moved around frequently on peacekeeping operations in locations such as Sudan and the troubled far north of Nigeria, preferred more scholarly pursuits and his absences were to be capitalised upon rather than mourned. “I’d be happy when he went away because he never wanted me to play football,” Ndidi says. “He wanted to make sure I was at school. Whenever he went anywhere I was, like: ‘Right, I’m going to play.”
There was a well-run setup of army teams, leading from under-10 level to a senior side, and by his mid-teens Ndidi had caught the attention of Nduka Ugbade, who had captained Nigeria to victory at what was then the Fifa Under-16 Championship in 1985 and was helping out with coaching at the barracks.
“I think what I did with him meant that I was stronger than people expected when I went into physical contact,” Ndidi explains of a regime that sounds punishing but was presumably intended to harness a talent that leapt out at Ugbade. “It wasn’t normal training, we would just keep running – there would be two pitches every time and we would have to cover them. Even when you were tired, he’d tell you to keep going. There would be three sessions a day: morning, afternoon and evening. Most of the other players didn’t come because they were scared and couldn’t cope. But he kept pushing me and pushing me, saying that I should not worry about my age and that in football you could beat anybody.”
A place at Nath Boys’ academy, among the best-regarded of Lagos’s many football schools, resulted and perhaps this is where Ugbade’s exhausting sessions bore fruit. It is easy – far too easy – to slip through the cracks as a budding footballer in Nigeria, sometimes with demeaning and dangerous results. The tiny minority that achieve the dream are fortunate but also have something that sets them apart.
When Ndidi was 16, Nath Boys entered a tournament that he says involved about 40 teams and pitted academies against senior sides from Nigeria’s Premier League. Among the scouts watching was Roland Janssen, then of Genk and now employed by Manchester United, and one particular moment from what was in effect a shop window event sticks in Ndidi’s mind.
“We were playing a team from the top division and losing 1-0 towards the end of the game,” he says. “You could tell they were much older, but we were trying to play. I was playing centre-back and passed to our midfielder, who held the ball, and I ran forward into the open space. If you remember my goal against Derby, I ran in through the middle because it was open. This time, he gave the ball back to me and then before anybody could react our striker had made a run and I played it between the two defenders. He controlled it and scored, and the whole stadium was happy because an academy team had equalised. It was a one-two up the pitch and then a pass; maybe that’s what they saw.”
It certainly sounds like some piece of initiative from a player who, back then, drew upon John Terry as a major influence for his defensive work. This was something quite different and in January 2014 Ndidi, who by now was also involved in Nigeria’s youth teams, travelled to Belgium for a month-long assessment by Genk. A contract offer followed quickly and a year later, shortly after he had turned 18, the move was formalised.
Then it was a case of taking information on board as quickly as possible. How things would have panned out had McLeish remained in charge is uncertain but under Maes the art of midfield play was boiled down to its simplest elements. At times Ndidi felt it was “like he was teaching an academy player how to become a midfielder”, with drills amounting to little more than “take it, pass, open, pass, open, pass”. Simplicity was the key to Ndidi’s conversion; he had already shown, in front of Janssen, that the decorative elements were there.
It was not the time to be flashy when, at Leicester, he was pitched straight into a side whose winter freefall was shortly to hit what seemed like terminal velocity. Claudio Ranieri sat him down in front of the tactics board before his debut, at Everton in the FA Cup, telling him to sit ahead of the back four and, most important, be himself. The manager’s sacking five weeks later came as a surprise; Ndidi had not been around to experience the highs of Ranieri’s reign – and admits he did not watch much of the title-winning campaign – but still felt the departure of the latest man to put faith in him.
“When the manager left we were all sad,” he says. “But it wasn’t a decision I could put in my head, I was sad but had to move on. We just had to pick ourselves up quickly and say: ‘Come on, we need to push harder and harder,’ because we weren’t in a good position in the league.”
The results since then, under Craig Shakespeare, speak for themselves. One of those set up Wednesday’s improbable Champions League quarter-final first leg with Atlético Madrid and Ndidi smiles at the memory of the 2-0 win over Sevilla, before which “we said to ourselves in the dressing room that we had to work like slaves”.
Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel made headlines for their performances but Ndidi – eating up the ground in a manner that Ugbade, back in Lagos, must have been proud of – was the best midfielder on view. “Working like that was the only way we could achieve [the win], so we tried all we could and everything went right,” he says. “There was never a moment when we felt safe. The only time we had some relief was after the red card [for Samir Nasri]. Then we felt: ‘OK, we can do this.”
Leicester hope to replicate that feeling at the Estadio Vicente Calderón and ties against Spanish opposition have served Ndidi well this season. He scored twice in Europa League group stage meetings with Athletic Bilbao while still with Genk – a header and one of those trademark screamers – in further evidence that whenever the bar has been raised, he has been ready for the challenge. And although Leicester are, even on current form, rank outsiders, it is hardly as if Atlético have not been forewarned.
His adaptation at Leicester has been helped by the presence of Ahmed Musa, his international team-mate with Nigeria. Musa has not made the same impact as Ndidi despite arriving last summer with a more accomplished reputation and it may only be slightly harsh to suggest his fortunes have embodied the scattergun thinking of late-Ranieri. But it was Musa who, on the telephone, urged Ndidi to join him in England and who, when his young compatriot arrived, took care of him with simple gestures like driving him to the airport before away games.
Ndidi was “a little bit nervous” when he first set foot in Leicester’s training ground so it helped to have a friend close at hand and they will also link up in Russia next summer if Nigeria, four points clear in their qualifying group, qualify for the World Cup. A vibrant, youthful side also includes the Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi and Chelsea’s Victor Moses; Nigeria faced Senegal in London last month and were mobbed on the pitch by their supporters after drawing 1-1 at The Hive.
“They were hugging us and taking photos,” he says. “The game was a good exercise, we have a good group and we’re now just looking at what we need to do to reach the World Cup. We have to look at what’s ahead and then go for it.”
It is an attitude that, aside from that false start in Gent, has brought little other than success so far.
This article was corrected on 8 April to reflect the fact that Wilfred Ndidi’s childhood coach was in fact called Nduka Ugbade.
Culled from The Guardian