The Senegalese star who is loved in Sheffield and was made in Boreham Wood

Iliman Ndiaye – Maddie Meyar/Getty Images

For Sheffield United fans, there will be torn emotions when England set out against Senegal on Sunday night. Because among the Lions of Teranga there will be one of them. Iliman Ndiaye, the prodigy the club has picked up from non-league football, was absolutely magnificent for Aliou Cisse’s side as they qualified from Group A. Which will come as no surprise to the regulars at Bramall Lane where the young frontman electrified the crowd throughout the season.

“My God, they love him,” says Sheffield United press officer Kevin Cookson. “They already have two songs for him. It’s the best we’ve had in an age. Of all the players to be developed here – Aaron Ramsdale, Phil Jagielka, Kyle Walker, Dom Calvert-Lewin, Harry Maguire – this guy may be the best of them all.”

Which is not something he was told when, aged 16, he went to stand trial in Reading. There he was told in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t going to make it as a footballer, and that he really should try something else.

Though what a star player from Senegal was doing in the first place by going to a tryout in Reading is part of what makes Ndiaye’s journey to the second round of the World Cup all the more extraordinary.

He was born in Rouen in France, his father Senegalese, his mother French. It was a large and boisterous family: Ndiaye has seven sisters and one brother. And almost since he was born, he played football on the street, his father used modern training techniques to develop his game. There is footage shot by his father of him running through a playground in Rouen strapped to a parachute. Wanted by PSG and Marseille as a youngster, he was on his way to Marseille’s academy at the age of nine when the family moved to Senegal.

He continued to play, on the street as elsewhere, and when he was 14, his father took a job in South London. The family left, and while he didn’t speak a word of English, he was soon starring in cage football matches. The word is out. He has been invited to camps at Chelsea and Reading and on a development course at Southampton. But, considered by many to be an undereducated academy in the game, there was no scholarship offer. It looked like he was about to become another failed talent.

Iliman Ndiaye to Sheffield United - Andrew Kearns/Getty Images

Iliman Ndiaye to Sheffield United – Andrew Kearns/Getty Images

But when he left school aged 16, he joined the PASE academy at non-league club Boreham Wood, where he combined his football with courses in all sorts of trades, including bricklaying, at Barnet and the Southgate College.

Of the dozen young scholars, he was quickly spotted by Boreham Wood’s first team manager, Luke Garrard, who invited him to train with the first team squad.

“He’s always been one of the stars here,” recalls Gerrard. “He has great balance and the way he strokes the ball is just a beauty.”

Still only 17, Ndiaye set up a surprising solo goal in a three-day tournament organized by PGMOL as they tested Var at St George’s Park. Yet it is impossible to understand how he did it.

But he never made a league appearance for the club. Especially as Sheffield United moved in during the summer break. They had discovered the player through YouTube footage of him playing for the Rising Ballers freestyle troupe. Here’s how far clubs throw their nets these days. He was invited to Bramall Lane and, even with Chelsea keen to make contact, he was signed up. Soon after moving to Yorkshire, he was sent on loan to non-league Hyde United, to strengthen him.

“That’s what we do here,” Cookson says. “When Dom Calvert-Lewin was here, he went to Stalybridge. He plays against men. Find out what the game is about. Resist this, a child can resist anything.

When Paul Heckingbottom took over from Chris Wilder as United’s substitute manager, in his first game in charge in March 2021, he gave Ndiaye his debut. It was a 5-0 Premier League defeat at Leicester. But, although he was only 19, he remained in the team and, when United sank into the league, he really blossomed. He scored a stunning individual goal at Fulham last season, a perfect example of his poise, technique and ambition.

This season he took another step: When the league was suspended for the World Cup, he was joint top scorer in the division. And now, just 18 months after playing for Hyde in the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League, being spotted by Cisse and only given his debut in June, he is scoring goals in the World Cup.

“We knew it was a real prospect,” Gerrard says. “But did we think he would star in a World Cup? No. What he achieved was magical.

Although for Gerrard and his colleagues at Boreham Wood, Sunday’s game will have a particular intensity. Danny Hunter, the club chairman, is a fanatical England supporter. He has followed them all over Europe and beyond, and was in Qatar for the group stage. However, he will not be at the match against Senegal, forced to return to England due to work commitments.

“We’ll all watch together on television,” Gerrard says of his president. “Of course, we want England to win, even if Iliman is on the other side. If we do three and Iliman gets one for them, that would be the perfect fit for us.”

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