Signing for Manchester United on the last day of January transfer window was a dream come true, but extending his loan deal till next year was the beginning of another dream for Odion Ighalo, which is taking the Old Trafford side to a higher level. How well the Nigerian can light up the Theater of Dreams in his second phase remains to be seen After weeks of uncertainty on whether he can achieve his dream of extending his loan deal at Old Trafford until January 31, 2021, former Super Eagles striker, Odion Ighalo has vowed to do whatever he can to take Manchester United “higher and higher” after his loan from Shanghai Shenhua was extended.
Ighalo initially joined United in a deadline day move in January and scored four times in eight appearances in all competitions prior to the suspension of the Premier League.
“I’m really happy,” Ighalo said. “It’s a dream for me to be here. I’m buzzing and ready to go. Since the first day I arrived, I made it clear that I wanted whatever it takes to continue that work.
“Like I’ve said, since I was young, I’ve been supporting this club and playing for it is a dream.
Now I’ve extended my loan, it makes it more even clear and I’m committed as I know, in my head, I’m here until January ending.
“I just want to work hard and enjoy it, support the team and do whatever I can to make us go higher and higher.”
Shenhua’s original stance was that they would only agree to extend Ighalo’s loan if an obligation to buy was incorporated into the deal, with the former Watford striker likely to cost upwards of £20m.
However, with border restrictions potentially preventing Ighalo from returning to China in time for the new season, the club softened their stance and allowed him to extend his stay in the Premier League.
Ighalo revealed that the United squad were getting closer to match fitness ahead of the June 17 restart, and also admitted that training during the lockdown had been “strange” for the players.
“I’m getting better and better every day,” he told the club’s website. “We have been training together the past two weeks now, so it’s getting close to the game. The sharpness is coming, the fitness is coming and everything is going well.
“It’s been strange, you know, because you have to stay two metres apart to talk to your team-mates. Sometimes, you need to get close to give them some signs but now it’s two metres and it’s kind of strange.
“But this is what we have to do for us to be safe and for the game to go on. We are ready to do it and we’re happy to do it. Everybody is looking good. Running, working hard and playing football. Little two-a-sides and doing some ball work.
“Like everyone, everywhere, Manchester United are getting accustomed to dealing with uncertainty but there’s been a delight in the corridors of Old Trafford that one of those doubts has been crossed off the list.”
The deal to keep Ighalo at the club has been one of United’s recruitment priorities since football was put on hold and, with the prospect of a lot of games in a compressed period, retaining a player of his pedigree was considered crucial.
That doesn’t mean to say it was an easy negotiation, however. The initial loan deal secured in the few remaining hours of the January window hadn’t been an easy one to conclude, and going into talks to extend his stay further wasn’t something those involved were particularly relishing either.
If there was brinkmanship involved in those discussions at the start of 2020, then it was a case of deja vu this time around, with United making it clear they wanted to get something sorted one way or the other before Ighalo’s initial spell at Old Trafford was scheduled to end at midnight on May 31.
Once again the deal got done, but it wasn’t plain sailing and it was hung in the balance last weekend. While the negotiations were ultimately successful, the reaction to phase two of the Ighalo project was somewhat different; for all those who scoffed and laughed in January, far more were nodding their heads in approval this time around because the player’s stats and impact speak for themselves.
It was obviously a considerable help to the wrangling that Ighalo is living out his dream of playing for the team he supports, while loving his time in Manchester, but his four goals from three starts make it a far more compelling decision than just a romantic one.
Ighalo’s goals equate to one every 77 minutes that he’s played in a United shirt, and they’ve been important goals too, especially the two he managed in the FA Cup, which illustrated his particular talents and one of the reasons Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was keen to keep him.
Yes, the opening goal in the slightly bizarre victory in Austria last time out was a beauty, but the 30-year-old showed his predatory instincts with his pair at Pride Park, scored with the sort of desire and determination Solskjaer wants to see from the likes of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood. He wants them to add the ‘meat and drink’ goals to their games, and Ighalo can help with that process, particularly with Greenwood.
It’s true United were more relaxed going into the second phase of talks with Shanghai Shenhua because Rashford is fully fit again and raring to go for when the Premier League returns, boasting 12 goals in his last 16 games before the back injury that made Ighalo’s signing a necessity.
But the fact the deal they’ve negotiated, costing them in the region of £6m for the loan fee and wages, extends to the end of January next year gives the recruitment team more time to consider other potential striking options and not necessarily prioritise a new front-man in the next window.
Added to that, Ighalo is not an unknown anymore. He’s fitted in well and there’s an argument he’ll only thrive more now he’s got to grips with his new environment.
What however remains to be seen is whether Ighalo would live up to expectation in the second phase of his campaign at Old Trafford.