Odion Ighalo did not sleep for days. For as long as he cared to remember he had been dreaming of scoring goals in the Premier League. Then, with Watford on the brink of their return to the top flight, there came a mind-boggling offer from China, promising to pay him £40million over four years.
When he said no, they came back and offered more. They continue to bombard him with offers, each one bigger than the last. The latest is double the original and still the answer is no.
‘I have 14 goals in the Premier League, how do I go to China now?’ said Ighalo, who signed a new five-year deal in September thought to be worth about £30,000 a week.
His mind is settled but when Watford owner Gino Pozzo gave him permission to talk to Hebei China Fortune last summer, he almost left.
‘I was very close,’ he said. ‘They made a £10m bid and were offering me over £200,000 a week; a four-year contract. I couldn’t sleep for three days. That kind of money is not easy to turn down. Some team-mates in the dressing room were saying, “You can’t miss this chance”. But I don’t jump into decisions like that.
‘I prayed about it, and God said it was not for me, no matter how much money it was. I knew God would direct me. When I said I don’t want to go, they offered me more money, almost £300,000 a week. I told them it’s not about the money.’
Chinese Super League clubs are on an aggressive recruitment drive, with money no object, brokers on the prowl and a transfer window open until February 26.
‘They have called again and I have turned them down again,’ said Ighalo. ‘Maybe if I keep scoring goals, that team will come with triple the money at the end of the season. When the time is right to go to China I will know. If it’s for me it will come to pass.
‘When I was in Ajegunle, I was watching the Premier League, dreaming one day I would be part of it. If I keep doing what I’m doing I can enjoy my football in England for four, five or six years.
‘I helped this team to promotion. How can I leave because of money? I know money is good. With that sort of money I can secure my life. But you can’t sell your dream.’
Ajegunle is an urban slum in Lagos, Nigeria, known as AJ City. It is notorious for poverty and crime, and the 26-year-old can recall how he would dive for cover as gunshots rang across the football pitch, a dusty patch of land known to locals as the ‘Maracana’.
Ajegunle also has a reputation for producing some of Nigeria’s best footballers, including Taribo West, Obafemi Martins and Brown Ideye.
‘I’m happy to be one of them. I’m proud to be Nigerian and to have come from a ghetto like that. It is not the best place to grow up. It wasn’t easy and it has been a rough journey. But it gave me strength to work and keep struggling. Looking back, I can’t complain. Hard work and the grace of God have paid off in my life.’
Ighalo’s goals have helped fire Watford into the top 10 of the Premier League this season
Ighalo sends home part of his wage each month to support his parents, six brothers and sisters, extended family, friends, charities and community schemes in Ajegunle, where he plans to open an orphanage later this year.
‘I don’t want people to praise me,’ he said. ‘I know where I came up from, and it was not easy to get where I am today. That’s why I’m giving back.’
His goals are celebrated in Nigeria, where English football is hugely popular. Ighalo grew up as a Manchester United fan but the bright yellow influence of Watford is slowly spreading. ‘A lot of people send me messages to tell me they’re Watford fans,’ said Ighalo. ‘They were supporting teams like Chelsea, Arsenal, Man United and Liverpool, but now they’ve started supporting Watford because I’m doing well and scoring goals. Every time I go back I take 50 to 100 shirts to give to friends and family.’
Two goals against Liverpool prompted contact from Kanu. ‘He texted me to tell me what a great job I was doing, and told me to keep going, working hard,’ said Ighalo. ‘This is a guy I used to watch playing for Arsenal when I was so little, back in Nigeria.
Ighalo says he was not prepared to sell his dream of playing in the Premier League to follow the Chinese cash
‘He is one of my idols. It is a great honour to have people like that, who I used to look up to, encourage me and send me a text when I score a goal and tell me to keep pushing.
‘He lives in London. We spoke the other day. He’s going to come and watch one of my games soon.’
Ighalo left home for Norway at the age of 18, having impressed scouts of Lyn at a trial. A year later, he signed for Udinese — one of the three clubs owned by the Pozzo family, but appeared only six times in Serie A in six years.
There were two loan spells at the other Pozzo club Granada, a brief one at Cesena before he joined Pozzo’s Watford, initially on loan before making it a permanent transfer in October 2014. He is one of only two players to appear for all three Pozzo-owned clubs. With 14 Premier League goals this season, he represents another triumph for the Italian family’s global scouting network.
His ‘Iggy Scoop’ dribbling manoeuvre, where he feints to go one way but then drags the ball in the opposite direction, has delighted fans and bamboozled defenders, while his goal celebration has become an enduring image of the season.
‘I am a Christian and I believe so much in God,’ said Ighalo. ‘I’m not perfect. I have my flaws. I am human. Only God is perfect. I try to acknowledge him in my life.
‘Whatever I am now and what I am going to be is through God.
‘I want to return the glory to him when I score goals, and that’s why I go down on my knees, point my hands to the sky and say this goal is dedicated to you. I believe he gave me the strength to score the goals. I don’t care what anyone says about that. I don’t think anything in life will ever stop me believing in God.’
As for the ‘Iggy Scoop’, he said: ‘Kanu used to do this at Arsenal. It’s not one of my own, but I’ve been doing it for a long time. I scored a few goals with it in Norway.’
His style is effective, and opponents are seeking out ways to stop him and strike partner Troy Deeney.