Odion Ighalo’s loan move to Manchester United from Chinese outfit Shanghai Shenhua in January 2020 is still considered one of the unlikeliest transfers of recent windows.
Having left English football in 2017 following a three-year spell at Watford where he had helped the club to Premier League promotion, Ighalo would not have been a name many would have considered at the time to solve United’s striker shortage.
However, despite the move to Old Trafford being a brief one, leaving in January 2021 to join Saudi Arabian side Al-Shabab, it will be one the 31-year-old will never forget.
Here, Ighalo, who scored five goals in 23 appearances for United across all competitions, speaks exclusively to Sky Sports News’ Dharmesh Sheth about his ‘dream’ move, what it was like playing under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and he also shared his thought about life after football too?…
DS: It’s really good to see you, Odion. First of all, how’s it going at Al-Shabab?
OI: I’m enjoying it, that’s the most important thing – the fans love me and I am enjoying my time in a different country, a different league and culture. We’re top of the league at the moment so hopefully we can keep going and win it.
Could you have stayed at Manchester United after January?
There wasn’t much possibility because I wanted more playing time. At my age, I want to play and not just sit on the bench and not have any minutes.
I didn’t just want to be there picking up a salary – I wanted to be involved so I said to my agent that if an offer comes in, I will look at it and see what’s best for me, which is what I did.
I’m so happy that my path crossed with Manchester United – it’s the club I love with all my heart and for all my life so playing for them was a big privilege that I do not take for granted.
No matter the circumstances that led me to leave, I will always be grateful to the coach, my team-mates, the fans, and everyone around Manchester United.
Were there any other offers other than Al-Shabab – any from the Premier League?
Yeah, there was the possibility of West Ham and West Brom to stay in the Premier League, which I thought about.
But after being at Manchester United, the biggest club in England if not the world, what else could I possibly do in the Premier League?
I had good offers to stay in England, but I just didn’t think I could stay after achieving my dream of playing for the club I had supported since I was young.
I came all the way from China because it was Manchester United when I had already rejected other offers because United has always been my dream.
There were big rumours about a move to Tottenham before joining United. Were they true?
That was close – my agent called me and told me they had offered to match whatever I was earning but once I heard Manchester United were interested, there was no turning back.
I couldn’t think about anything else other than making the Manchester United deal work. I was going to have to take a pay cut but I didn’t care, I just wanted the deal to happen.
I just wanted to play for Manchester United. It’s my dream club and it was always going to be a privilege for me to play at Old Trafford.
I’m just so grateful to God that it happened. Every day I wake up and I know that I am an ex-Manchester United player. It is something that I will never take for granted.
You’re also the first Nigerian to play for Manchester United as well…
I’m very proud, because playing for Manchester United has raised my profile and people are now talking about me more.
Going back to Nigeria, people still want Manchester United jerseys today, even though I am not playing for Manchester United anymore!
Sometimes I have to order some shirts from Manchester to give to people over there – that’s how big and how privileged I am to play for such a great club.
Being the first Nigerian to play for Manchester United is great. If I keep talking about it, then I will get emotional, I’m just so happy.
When you reflect on your year at Manchester United, what would you say was your best moment?
Absolutely everything! Just waking up every morning and going into training at Carrington was a thing of joy.
Meeting the lads, laughing, talking, going inside the dressing room for training and games… every moment is one I am going to cherish.
But probably the greatest moment was when I scored my first goal at Old Trafford in front of the fans.
Playing for the club, scoring my first goal, and scoring at Old Trafford – all my dreams have come true.
I used to pay money to watch Manchester United on TV and I still sometimes sit down and just watch my goals and some of the videos from the dressing room and all the laughing. It just keeps me going and always makes me happy.
Despite all that, your chances in a Man Utd shirt were limited. Do you feel you got the chances you deserved?
After my initial loan was extended, I did not play much which was perhaps a bit unfair but as I said, I am always grateful for the opportunity.
When I joined, I always knew I wouldn’t be playing every game because I was signing as a back-up striker so I knew playing time was going to be limited.
There were certain games where I thought I would play but that’s the decision of the coach and I am not holding anything against anyone.
I am just grateful to Ole (Gunnar Solskjaer), the fans, my team-mates, and everyone around the club for making me feel at home and I thank God that I played for my dream club and scored goals at Old Trafford.
You mention Ole – give us an insight into his best qualities as a manager…
He knows how to manage the boys and talks to you, especially when you are not playing.
He’s a good guy, a calm guy, and I never saw him get angry – perhaps during a game when we were losing but the day after that it was totally forgotten because the next game was always more important than the last one.
I have massive respect and time for him and thanks to him, I had the opportunity to play for Manchester United. Without him, that would not have been possible, so I am always grateful to him, no matter what.
So from what you are saying, it’s his man-management skills that shone above anything else while you were there?
He’s an intelligent coach. Tactically he’s good but with a team like Manchester United, a big team with a lot of good players, everyone wants to play.
So sometimes it’s difficult for the coach but he understands that and when you have a coach who can manage that, then it is really good.
It’s been a very strange and unpredictable season with the pandemic. Manchester City are clear at the top but lost at the weekend. Is the title race still on?
Well, there’s six or seven more games to go. It’s difficult as I can’t see City losing three games from six before the end of the season. It’s going to be tough, but I pray a miracle can happen and Manchester United can win the League.
What do you make of Edinson Cavani’s situation and him considering leaving Manchester United in the summer. Can you understand it when you love the club so much?
Every player has a different ambition, different needs, and needs to decide what they have to do. He’s a good player and a good striker, there’s no doubt about that and if the opportunity comes up to go somewhere else, then that’s fine.
But for me – this is the team I have supported from being a child so I would always take the option of staying.
Whatever decision he makes though, I wish him all the best and good luck to him.
Paul Pogba gets talked about so much when he plays, whether he plays well or not. You’ve seen him up close – how good is he and how important is it that Manchester United keep him long-term?
He’s one of the best players I’ve played with and one of the best players at Manchester United.
Apart from playing on the pitch, he’s a good guy in the dressing room, a funny guy, he’s always happy.
The only time he isn’t happy is when he’s not playing and I can understand that – everyone wants to play.
If Manchester United have the opportunity to keep him on a new, longer deal, they should because he is so influential.
Sometimes he doesn’t have the best of games but that’s normal, you can’t be 100% in every game but when he turns up, like he did yesterday against Tottenham, he is exceptional.
Another player Manchester United have, who’s currently doing well on loan at West Ham, is Jesse Lingard. You’ve played alongside him. Are you surprised at how well he is doing there?
Not at all because he works so hard in training and when he was given the opportunity to play for Manchester United, he did so well.
But when you play for a team like Manchester United, there’s a pressure to win every game. Manchester United is all about winning, winning, winning, and sometimes that pressure kicks in.
West Ham is not as big as Manchester United and he’s there on loan so he’s more free to express himself. There’s not as much pressure or weight on him to do well and he is doing what we know he can do and we are seeing the best of him.
Do you still think he has a future at Old Trafford then?
Of course, but I don’t think he’d want to return to Manchester United to sit on the bench because he is playing regularly at West Ham United – week in, week out.
But if he comes back with the confidence he has now, then it can only be a good thing for Manchester United.
Personally, I don’t see him coming back – I can see his loan being extended or West Ham buying him.
So what does the future hold for you now – are they any other leagues or countries you’d like to play and challenge yourself in?
I’ve played in six or seven different countries now and I enjoy my football, so who knows the next destination! I’m not afraid to go to a new country, a new league, a new culture, and learn a new language. I’m ready for whatever opportunity.
Have you thought about life after football too?
I’d love to still be involved in football, maybe an agent or a coach but let’s see what happens.