The Nigeria striker may well have a difficult choice to make if he wants to extend his Old Trafford stay, argues Ed Dove
The ridicule that accompanied Ighalo’s deadline-day signing at Old Trafford quickly turned to admiration and marvel when the Nigerian striker’s backstory and long-term affinity with the club came to light.
On one hand, yes, the Red Devils turning to a China-based striker, the wrong side of 30, to ease their goalscoring woes in the absence of Marcus Rashford was an indicator of the state the club find themselves in these days.
While Borussia Dortmund were parading around new boy Erling Haaland, the next big thing in the world game, United were ruing their inability to sign the wonderkid, and instead hoping that a striker who had once been cast off by Watford would appease supporters.
Ighalo has rediscovered his scoring form in China, but don’t forget that the striker once endured a hideous 599-minute spell without finding the net in the Premier League with the Hornets, as his confidence and composure evaporated.
— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) February 1, 2020
Older, definitely, wiser, perhaps, he was, at the very least, an atypical signing when he put pen to paper at Old Trafford on January 31.
However, public perception quickly changed on Ighalo, partly due to his own clear affection for the club.
Soon after arriving, he acknowledged that he’d taken a significant pay cut to get the move over the line, while speaking openly of what it meant to his family that he’d become the club’s first Nigerian player.
All of the other big sides in English football have given playing time to Nigerian players—from Victor Moses to John Obi Mikel, from Nwankwo Kanu to Kelechi Iheanacho—but now, finally, United were in on the act.
While it’s commonplace for players to claim that they are long-term fans of the club they’re signing for—Sulley Muntari once infamously claimed to have been a keen Portsmouth supporter when he arrived at Fratton Park—photos of a young Ighalo wearing a United kit in informal games in his homeland added credence to his love for the Red Devils.
Secondly, his performances—while occasionally rusty—also silenced some doubters.
He’s yet to score in the Premier League across four substitute appearances—although one sublime Jordan Pickford save denied him a goal that, on another day, he would have put away—but Ighalo has helped renew new life into United’s campaign.
To date, he has four goals in four appearances in the Europa League and the FA Cup—helping United progress in both competitions—and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are yet to lose in the striker’s eight appearances.
In fact, coinciding with Ighalo’s arrival, they have win six and drawn two of his outings so far, and are comfortably enjoying their best run of the campaign.
There was optimism, if not expectation, that even with Rashford sidelined for much of the remainder of the campaign, the impetus introduced by Ighalo could help United clinch one of England’s four Champions League berths.
Who knew, perhaps his arrival could have inspired Solksjaer’s transitional side to silverware before the summer.
Then, however, Covid-19 cast its long shadow over the world of sports—and, in fact, the world in general—and everything was put on ice.
At the time of writing, it’s not certain that Ighalo will ever play for the club again.
— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) March 24, 2020
His six-month deal runs until the end of May, and while Fifa have opened the door to contracts being extended until the conclusion of the campaign—whenever that may be—there is of course still the possibility that the season my be wrapped up prematurely.
Similarly, if the current campaign is to go on much beyond May, United and Shanghai Shenhua will need to come to some kind of agreement, which may be dependent on when the Chinese Super League is able to resume.
If the CSL starts next month—as is currently intended—but the Premier League faces a longer impasse, would Ighalo remain in England indefinitely rather than return to the fields of the Far East?
What was initially viewed as a bizarre move by United began to be viewed as a heart-warming tale, but is now in danger of becoming a disappointment.
The British media speculated last week that any extended Ighalo stay at the club would be contingent on the striker taking a hefty pay cut.
Already, his £300,000-per-week contract in China was reduced by 40 percent in order for him to sign for United on loan, and they would need to drop by a further £80,000 per week for the hitman to remain at the club beyond the end of his loan.
In these times of such fiscal uncertainty and mass unemployment, a contract of £100,000 per week still represents obscene remuneration, but considering Shanghai Shenhua are reportedly keen to extend the forward’s deal and increase his wages to £400,000 per week, it nonetheless constitutes a significant shortfall.
Solskjaer, for his part, has hinted that an extended stay is not out of the question come the end of Ighalo’s current deal.
“It doesn’t hurt [living the dream] but he’s here on merit,” the Norwegian coach told journalists. “He’s here because he is a goalscorer and a different type of striker for us.
“We might get to the summer and think we want to extend this, who knows? He’s come in as a breath of fresh air as well.”
In the imminent future, Ighalo may find himself with a stark decision to make: take the money or continue to chase the dream.
The former Udinese man is set to turn 31 in June, and cannot expect too many fresh new bumper deals to be coming his way beyond this year. There may well be temptation to take the money and extend his stay in China.
However, can a price be put on the opportunity to live out a fantasy and lead the line for his boyhood club?
Ighalo has already demonstrated that he can be an asset at United, and if he does put pen to paper with his current employers, he may find himself back in the Chinese Super League, an even richer man than he is today, but regretting missing the opportunity to leave a lasting impression at the Theatre of Dreams…of his dreams.