Former Golden Eaglets coach Nduka Ugbade has lifted the lid on how he discovered Nigerian international and Leicester City new boy Wilfreid Ndidi.
A few short years ago, Ndidi’s parents saw football as a waste of time. The son of a Nigerian army sergeant, Wilfred grew up at the Ikeja military cantonment Lagos and was constantly told to stop kicking a ball around on the street and concentrate on his studies instead.
Ndidi started out playing for organized street football for Little Wonders Football Club under the tutelage of coach Victor Atutoya who decided to start an academy to help young kids recover from the trauma of the Ikeja bomb blast in 2002.
Coach Ugbade recalled how he came across Ndidi while on a nationwide scout for young players to participate in Coca-Cola Championship. He showed so much promise and potential that Ugbade, then the assistant coach of the Nigerian U17 team, took him along to the national camp.
He said: “I discovered Wilfried Ndidi playing for a local team at the Ikeja Military Cantonment while scouting for players for the Coca-Cola Championship. He was tall and lanky, impossible to miss. His calmness was very unusual for such a young player.”
Coach Atutoya who oversaw Ndidi’s development from the tender age of 7 and took him to Owerri at the invitation of coach Nduka Ugbade for the Coca-Cola tournament where he excelled, revealed how Leicester City midfielder got the attention of coach Ugbade.
“We played a match with coach Nduka Ugbade’s team at the Ikeja cantonment, our players were very small, especially Ndidi, yet we beat them. Coach Ugbade was so impressed with Ndidi’s performance he told me he would like to take him to the Coca-Cola tournament in Owerri. The barracks was like a fence and the boys needed exposure, so I decided it’s best for his career to go to the tournament.”
Former Nigeria and Monaco striker Victor Ikpeba would later lead a team of youngsters picked from the championship in Owerri and other parts of the country to the Copa Coca Cola tournament in South Africa in 2010-11 where Ndidi was once again one of the standout players.
Referring to Ndidi as his son, coach Atutoya shared fond memories of the shy young boy who he observed first hand develop from a budding talent to a towering versatile central defender who could also play as a defensive midfielder.
He said: “I started training Wilfried Ndidi from when he was small, when he didn’t even know how to wear a boot. He just wanted to play football and gradually he became used to playing with boots.”
“I saw the potential in him and started grooming him. Ndidi plays like Rio Ferdinand, he brings calm to the defence and has the potential to compete with big players like Paul Pogba. He is a very good and humble boy, even after he started playing for the Super Eagles he still comes here to visit us, that’s why among his mates he excelled.”
Ndidi also played for MFM FC, a church side in Lagos, his Ikeja branch beating the Headquarters team in the final, with Ndidi standing head and shoulders above the rest.
He later joined Nath Boys and helped the club win the Lagos Junior League, a competition for players in secondary school, three times in a row.
“I 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,” the founder of Nathaniel Boys, Yemi Idowu told THISDAY.
Ndidi was discovered by Manchester United’s Belgium scout Roland Janssen at a youth tournament in 2013. He joined Genk in 2015 and made 62 league appearances for the Belgian club and scored four goals before his big-money transfer to Leicester.