This time last year, Manchester United fans — joined by the rest of the football world, in fact — were still pinching themselves in disbelief over the deadline-day transfer their club had just announced.
The winter window, every now and then, throws up a piece of business that triggers that sort of shock — damn, Kevin-Prince Boateng to Barcelona still feels unreal, two years later — but Odion Ighalo joining the Red Devils from Shanghai Shenhua took it to new levels. Even in a strange year, the bizarreness of it all was striking.
United’s move for Ighalo hardly felt inspired, especially when juxtaposed with the more spectacular, more anticipated arrival of Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes only days prior. Of course, we’ve seen how the latter has since driven United to heights not hitherto reached in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era and erupting into the one player manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wouldn’t drop if he could help it.
Not so much… but, then again, few predicted otherwise.
News of Ighalo’s coming was generally received with ridicule, even outright scorn: from supporters who believed their club’s perceived sluggishness in the market had seen them under-deliver again in landing targets, rival fans reveling in the apparent desperation that had sent United digging out a 30-year-old Premier League relic from China’s scrapheap of supposedly spent professionals, and pundits who pointed at what seemed a new low for the sunken English giant.
By the end of May (when the loan deal was originally scheduled to expire), however, all those words were eaten and downed with cupfuls of regret. Ighalo might have seen limited involvement in the Premier League for United, but he made cup outings the platform to prove his worth, scoring four goals that went some way to vindicate Solskjaer’s confidence.
My favourite — and the best, arguably — was the one in United’s 5-0 away thrashing of Austrian side LASK in the Uefa Europa League. Ighalo took about four quick touches of the ball within seconds of picking it up on the edge of the box, the first three setting up a brilliant finish. On the bench, Solskjaer applauded and mouthed a brief compliment as Ighalo sped off to celebrate the way he is accustomed to: knees on the ground, fingers and eyes to the sky.
That purple patch — which even saw Ighalo chip a bit of history off United’s annals, becoming the first player since Jimmy Hanson in 1925 to score in his first four competitive starts for the club — could have lasted a little longer, but for the coronavirus pandemic that put a spoke in Ighalo’s wheel (and everyone else’s, really).
Having impressed thus, though, Ighalo had won us all over. The chorus changed and turned supportive, urging United to extend his temporary stay. And that’s just what happened: Ighalo’s fairytale continued, as football broke through the icy state into which the COVID-19 had frozen it.
But while the game emerged strong, Ighalo didn’t. He only managed one goal in the months that followed, largely because playing time was scarce: Ighalo started just three games, lasted the full course of two, and the remainder came in crumbs and cameos.
Ighalo, for all his cup exploits in the previous season, only took in a single minute of United’s ultimately failed Uefa Champions League group stage campaign, and made the matchday squad just once since the trip to Germany that saw them knocked out of the aforementioned competition by RB Leipzig.
That was early in January, when United played Watford — the only other English side Ighalo has on his résumé — and if it was the last game he ever played for United, it would have been a fitting adieu — but it wasn’t, as Ighalo never made it off the bench.
In many a Nigerian movie, those italicized words would be followed by ‘to God be the glory’, before the credits roll in. Ighalo, a Nigerian who professes the Christian faith, did include that line in his farewell message near the end of the month.
“It’s so hard to see this dream come to an end,” he wrote. “But I give God the glory for helping me fulfill this lifelong dream of putting on a Manchester United shirt as a player and represent this great club, it was indeed an honor I will forever cherish and be grateful for.”
The disappointing nature of the second half of Ighalo’s stint at United — a consequence of the return of Solskjaer’s attacking options whose fitness issues necessitated his presence in the first place, and the acquisition of Edinson Cavani — contrasted with the exciting tone of the first, making it appear as though he wasn’t around quite as long as he actually was.
Ighalo’s departure, then, does feel like an anti-climax, but his dream — of playing for his boyhood club, and of being just the sort of player they needed him to be — has been lived.