EXCLUSIVE: FIRST MANCHESTER UNITED INTERVIEW WITH ODION IGHALO (Interview conducted by Adam Bath, 5th February, 2020)
Odion, great to see you. You’ve admitted before that you’ve long dreamed of joining United, so how does it feel to be here as a player?
“I’m very happy. First, I want say thank God for making this happen and it’s just like a dream come true for me, because I know many people used to say when they join a team, they say that they dream of playing for that team. Mine was not the case. I supported the team when I was young. People that know me, even back in Nigeria, and even when I was playing at Watford, my team-mates knew that I loved Man United, I support them. When I played against Man U, that emotion is there, because it is my dream. It is a nice reality, so I’m very happy and I’m looking forward to start.”
And what was it that started your love affair with Manchester United? Was it a particular player or a match or the style of football?
“Yeah, when we were young back in Nigeria we used to watch the Premier League on TV a lot, when the likes of Andy Cole used to play. People support Man United a lot back there in Nigeria, so I developed that love, because all of my siblings, they are Man United fans. I never thought this was going to happen, but dreams do come true, so I’m very happy to be here and this is going to be a big and good challenge for me in my career.”
Of course, the deal to bring you here came to a really exciting conclusion on transfer deadline day. Can you just give us an insight into your emotions on what was a very dramatic day in the end?
“Yeah, it was very dramatic. My agent called me the day before and said Man United. I would love to go. A few other clubs had shown interest, I said please, just pick United, if it’s going to be possible. At 11pm in Shanghai, my agent called me [to say] that United want to do the deal, so I woke up that night and started looking for a translator to go to the directors’ room and hit his door and all that. My agent wants to speak to you, United are coming for me, you have to make this happen and all that you know. So they started talking and discussing. I didn’t sleep throughout that night, because it was going to end at 7am, Shanghai time, and the transfer [window] is going to close there. So, from 11pm, there was paperwork, negotiating and all that, for the loan deal and all that, so we are talking and other teams are calling them, wanting me, but I told my agent that this is what I want. I want to come here. He said you’re going to get a pay-cut to go to United. I said I don’t care. Make this deal happen. I want to go to United. I don’t care how much is the pay-cut, I know that, make it happen. So the director and everybody didn’t know what to say anymore, because I had already made up my mind, so my agent started putting it in order, and, at 5am, we finished. My agent said he’d forwarded all the papers to United, they will confirm for me if everything is okay. I think, around 5am-6am, he said everything is okay, it’s done. I was excited. I called my mum and she was happy, crying and all that. This is your dream and all that and I’m happy for you. It was dramatic, I didn’t sleep through, I was very happy that finally we got the deal done.”
You’re here until the end of the season. So what are your ambitions?
“My ambition is to work hard with the team and make sure we finish well in the season and above where we are today, because I saw the table yesterday and I know Man United is a big team, they are there at the top and now things are not going the way they should go. So my aim to contribute my own quarter to the team and make sure we finish good in the position.”
You’re going to wear the no.25 shirt for United, previously worn by Antonio Valencia, who was a great player for the club, a great servant. Why did you take that number in particular?
“No.19 was available because, when I was at Watford, I put on 24. No.24 is not available. In Shanghai (it’s) No.9 (and), it’s not available, so I said 24 + 1 is 25, so I said okay, let me go for 25 instead of 19.”
And of course that was the number worn by Quinton Fortune, the first African to represent United. So was that part of the inspiration a little bit as well?
“Yeah, because I watched Quinton Fortune play for Man United, he’s a great player, and I know he put on 25. So I said 25 is good even though I didn’t get the number I was looking for. Twenty-five is a perfect number. One above what I wore before when I was in the Premier League.”
You’ll be the first Nigerian to play for Manchester United. Is that something that will make you feel very proud?
“I’m really proud. I’m happy because people keep sending me messages, I know that this is very big, you’re going to be the first Nigerian to play for United, it’s a good record for you in your career, I know that. I know that, after you finish football, you are going to know what we are talking about, because I’m just so emotional right now, so I don’t think about those things too much. I just want to get started and get playing and start helping the team to do well.”
What’s the reaction been like back home from family and friends?
“It was crazy because, all over the news for the last few days, is about my deal to Man United. Even the street I grew up on, they are doing parties, celebrating Ighalo signing for United. They sent me the video, I was just laughing and happy, because many of them are supporting Man United and some of them are supporting some other teams in the Premier League. But they said, because of me, they are moving to United, because they have a very big fan-base in Nigeria. So I am happy about all this and they are rooting for United from now on.”
How much are you looking forward to linking up with United’s other strikers? Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood as well. What impresses you about them and how excited are you to play with them?
“These players are great players. Greenwood is a very good player; young, very good left foot, I’ve watched some of his game(s). Martial is very skilful, he can do so much magic with the ball and Rashford I think is, for me, one of the best, if not the best, player in Europe right now. He’s doing well, scoring goals; he’s fast, he has good technique. Unfortunately, he is injured now and hopefully I am looking forward to playing with him, because he is a good player. So, for me, it is just a plus to the team, to work hard with these guys and make sure we end the season very well.”
Many fans have seen you perform well at Watford, in Italy and in China as well, but for those that haven’t seen you play, how would you describe yourself as a player?
“Well, there’s not much to describe about me. I’m very fast, I’m skilful, I’m strong, I have good techniques, so I can find my way in the field of play, so, when I get started, I just have to keep going and gel with the team, so that everything will work out very fine.”
In terms of the different qualities that you can add to the striking line-up at United, what would you say you bring to the table that’s important and I suppose adding into your physicality, your passion for the club as well?
“Yeah, because sometimes I watch the game. They (don’t) have a striker that stays mostly in the middle, because Martial likes to come from the side, even Rashford and all that, so you need someone in the middle that can keep the ball, hold the ball, because I’ve watched so many United games. So they need (a) physicality there up front to keep the ball, to give and to make some movement, which I believe, if everything goes well, I can add to the team.”
At Watford, you played particularly well in a great partnership with Troy Deeney. So do you prefer playing with a partner like that or as a lone striker as you did in China? Which do you like more?
“I’ve played in different positions as a striker. I played with Troy Deeney, we understood each other, because we played together when we were in the Championship, from there to the Premier League. In China I am playing like a lone striker. Even in the national team I play like a lone striker, so it depends what formation the coach is going to play then I am okay with anyone.”
You’ve talked about your love for Manchester United as a team, so how did you find it when you played for Watford against Manchester United? What was that like?
“Yeah, I could remember the game at Old Trafford, we lost 1-0. The game was so emotional for me. I remember Troy Deeney was telling me you have to calm down, because I was eager to score against Man United. Even some of the balls that I had close to the area I was supposed to pass it, but I wanted to shoot, I wanted to score myself, so Troy was not happy. You have to pass the ball. There was that passion, because I wanted to create history that I scored against my boyhood club, the club I was supporting when I was young. That is the passion I had when I played against United and now I will be playing for United, so I just hope I just gel well and don’t let emotions take the better part of what I am going to do.”
Is it strange when you play against your boyhood team because while you want that team to do well and get results, you also want to make your mark and want that team to buy you?
“Yes because then I was playing for Watford and I’m doing my job because I have a contract with them and I’m happy doing that. I want to score, I want to create history by scoring against United. But still, outside I support them, I watch their games and see how they do.”
In your career, you’ve scored a double against Liverpool in a famous 3-0 win with Watford and you’ve also scored to knock Arsenal out of the FA Cup and, in Spain, you netted against Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Do you have a favourite goal that you have scored from those or from others perhaps?
“Yeah, I would say scoring against big teams is always good. But one of the goals I would say is my first goal in the Premier League because I’d had a dream of playing in the Premier League and in my first game in it, my debut against Everton at Goodison Park, I came on and I scored. I dragged the ball and then I shot. That was one of my favourite goals, I would say.”
And as a Manchester United fan, scoring two goals against Liverpool has got to be pretty special too…
“Yes, we played against them at Vicarage Road, I scored two goals and we won that game 3-0. It was fantastic because nobody could imagine that Watford was going to beat Liverpool because they are a big side. It was one of the best moments of my life and my career.”
Tell us about your experience of playing in China…
“Well it was a good experience for me because I’ve played in Norway, I’ve played in Spain, in Italy, in England and China. So it’s a different culture, different life, different football. The Chinese league is still growing, it’s still far back but they are trying, it’s getting better and better every year, I know that. But it’s not to be compared with the Premier League because the Premier League is the best league in the world. For me, it’s the number one in the world so I would not say that any other league in the world comes close to it.”
We know that Manchester United has a great following in that part of the world so did you continue to follow United while you were over there?
“Yes because even some of the translators, some of the guys that were working at Shanghai, they were United fans and they said to me: ‘Please go there and do well because then when you come back, we will be happy.’ I said: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll do that.’”
Does being away from the Premier League for a few years make you hungry to have another crack at the English top-flight?
“Yes because I watch it on TV, I watch United and some other teams, and I have that feeling of let me go there again and see how it’s going to be, because like I said, it’s the best league in the world. Every player would like to play in the Premier League. I’ve done it before and I was looking forward to doing it again. Thank God, Manchester United gave me the opportunity to be able to do it now so I’m looking forward to it.”
Of course there is still a lot on the line this season with a top-four place, the Emirates FA Cup and the Europa League all to play for. What would winning a trophy mean to you as a Red?
“Wow. I don’t know what I’m going to say about that because talking about it is different to when you win it and the emotions, the joy and the happiness that comes. So it’s going to be a lifetime experience, it’s going to be something I’m going to cherish all the years of my life because not only playing for Manchester United, but winning a trophy with them, is something different that’s going to be in my memories all my life.”
And finally, I just wonder if you have a message for fellow Manchester United fans around the world before your debut?
“Yes, I want to thank them so far for all the messages they have been sending since I signed for this team. I’m happy to be here, I’m happy to be a Man United player, I’m looking forward to the game and I promise to give my best from the first day I put on the jersey to the last day of my time here. I promise to add my own part to make sure the season finishes well for United. Thank you guys and God bless you.”