About four years ago, Wilfred Ndidi was starring for Lagos amateur youth side (Nath Boys) before he was spotted by scouts of Belgian side, K.R. C Genk. After a successful trial with the club, he made his debut in January 2014. Two years on, the management of Leicester City turned in Ndidiâ€™s direction as a replacement for their diminutive midfielder, N’Golo Kante that left for Chelsea. As the season is coming to a close in England, the 21-year-old is already above every other player in the Premier League in the number of tackles won and come the World Cup in Russia; Super Eagles Manager, Gernot Rohr, will be hoping Ndidi would replicate his Leicester performance with the Eagles, writesÂ Kunle Adewale
A fter doing the unthinkable by emerging English Premier League champions, it has been a different story for Leicester City seasons after as the team is finding it difficult to keep most of their star players, chief among which was their midfield battler- N’Golo Kante. That was why Leicester made a move for Nigeriaâ€™s Wilfred Ndidi as a replacement for Kante.
â€œI never had any doubt about his talent. He distinguishes himself anytime and he is focused. I always knew he would go places and I am not surprised at the height he is taking his football to,â€ the founder of Nath Boys, Yemi Idowu told THISDAY.
The then 19-year-old was viewed as one of the brightest prospects in Belgian football and Genk knew it would be difficult to fence off â€˜intrudersâ€™.
Ndidi, the Premier Leagueâ€™s most successful tackler by some distance this season, out of modesty doesnâ€™t view himself as such.
â€œI canâ€™t explain how proud I am,â€ Ndidi says. â€œEvery player wants to pull on the shirt for their country, so many people look for this opportunity – the entire population in Nigeria would love to be able to do this. I canâ€™t believe I will be at the World Cup for my nation. Itâ€™s amazing. I havenâ€™t really had the chance to think about it much, I believe when we get to Russia is when it will really sink in. â€œAnd itâ€™s not just about going to participate, itâ€™s not about being happy just that we are part of the World Cup. I feel we can do more.â€
Ndidi is not the type to entertain talks of how good he has been for Leicester – â€œIâ€™ve always wanted to play so I ignore the hype and everything people say about me – thatâ€™s not important. Doing my job well is important.â€
Leicester will count on their young ‘destroyer’, who returns from a two-game suspension against SouthamptonÂ on Thursday, to pull off a victory. They lost to Newcastle at home and away to Burnley in his absence, underscoring Puelâ€™s assertion that Ndidi is â€œvaluableâ€ because â€œhe can recover a lot of balls. He is strong in the duels and he plays it simple with good quality.â€
â€œServing the team is my priority, especially in my position. Itâ€™s following the tactical instructions, keeping things simple, keeping my team ticking over and stopping the opponents from doing that comfortably. If the team is doing good, it means Iâ€™m doing a good job,â€ Ndidi points out.
In a chat with THISDAY, former Nigerian international, Waidi Akani, saidÂ Ndidiâ€™s move to the English Premier League was a good omen for him, the Super Eagles and the Nigeria football.
â€œWithout trying to take anything away from the Belgian league, it was a stepping stone for any footballer that wants to go places. Belgium League should just be used as a ladder to join the big leagues in Europe and that is exactly what Ndidi has done. I watched him developing while he was with Nath Boys and there was never any doubt about his talent,â€ Akani said.
The former Super Eagles defensive midfielder said the national team had also benefited from Ndidiâ€™s Premier League move. â€œHis move to England had also benefited the national team’s technical crew, in that playing alongside national teammates, like Ahmed Musa – (who has since returned to CSKA Moscow) and Kelechi Iheanacho – they had developed a good understanding, which would make the job of the Super Eagles coaches simpler.
â€œMoreover, his move to England has further exposed Ndidi, as he is watched week-in-week-out all over the world as against the Belgian league which is hardly seen on television.
â€œNigerian football fans have been able to watch another of their players on a weekly basis. On the whole, the move was a welcome development and good enough that he settled fast to the English style of football,â€ the former NEPA of Lagos player said.
Alex McLeish, who bought the teenager when he was Genk Manager, said Ndidi was always the solution to the vacuum created in Leicester’s midfield by Kanteâ€™s exit.
The former Birmingham and Aston Villa boss believes the Nigerian youngster is perfectly well-suited to the Premier League after snapping him up for Genk at Â£80,000.
McLeish acted after a recommendation from the then scout Roland Janssen, who spotted Ndidi in Lagos in an academy tournament and brought him to Genk for a trial.
In 2013, his team was one of around 40 competing at a local tournament, where Janssen was on the lookout for something special.
Despite an estimated 500 players featuring that day, there was only one that immediately monopolised his attention: a towering 16-year-old defender.
The 57-year-old Scot, who was in charge of the Belgians for the 2014-2015 Season, told MirrorSport then: â€œHe is Kante-like. He will cover the ground like Kante does. In terms of technique, you wouldnâ€™t say he is the best passer in the world but he keeps it simple. I saw him on tape and at the next recruitment meeting, we pushed the button. I immediately saw the speed of the boy.
â€œWe had no money to spend on any bigger names to help the first team because those were the parameters under which I took the job. But I said, â€˜Letâ€™s get this guyâ€™, I recommended we signed him for 100,000 Euros. Iâ€™ve taken a big interest in the kid since and they want a fortune for him now.â€
Ndidi, expected to sweep up at the clubâ€™s end-of-season awards and unfortunate not to be among the PFA Young Player of the Year nominees, is the first to mention areas he can improve in – â€œdistribution and in the final thirdâ€ – but it surprises no-one, least of all Leicester, that Europeâ€™s elite are swooning over the facets he has already shown.
â€œI was most happy playing and I didnâ€™t want to lose that feeling. It was about experiencing things with my friends – sometimes weâ€™d win games, sometimes not, but you do it together and you learn and grow from it together.â€
The composure Ndidi exudes on the field envelopes him off it too. â€œNothing fazes him,â€ says a Leicester staffer. â€œHe is so grounded and takes it all in his stride.â€
Good thing too, because at his age with the combo of his powers and personality, the possibilities are endless for Ndidi.
Born on December 16, 1996, Ndidi has made appearances for the Nigerian U-20 team at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup. He is known for his versatility and can play as a central defender, defensive midfielder or full back.
Ndidi was part of the Nigerian youth setup during his time at Nathaniel Boys of Lagos. While playing the African U-17 Championship with Nigeria, he was excluded along with two other players from the competition as a precaution, following an MRI test that showed he was just slightly above the threshold.
Notwithstanding, he joined up with his teammates in the U-20 team the following year, forming the bedrock of the midfield. He was called up to the senior national team on October 8, 2015., making his debut in the friendly game against DR Congo, and playing again a few days later in the 3-0 win against Cameroon, as a replacement for Mikel Obi.