Iliman Ndiaye’s rise from Sunday league to Senegal World Cup ace

<span>Photograph: Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

Iliman Ndiaye wanted to perfect his skills so much they had to turn off the lights at Hyde United’s Ewen Fields to make sure he got the last train home. Being sent on loan from the Premier League to the seventh tier may not seem like the most attractive proposition for a teenager but the Sheffield United forward embraced his spell in the Northern Premier League.

Ndiaye, 22, who will face England with Senegal in the World Cup on Sunday, had been playing Sunday league football in the months before Sheffield United took him on a week’s trial in 2019 after he was spotted by the scout Steve Holmes. Ndiaye played in two trial matches and impressed the coaches with his fitness, aggression and skill. They offered a contract but he almost did not join because Marseille, where he had spent time in the academy as a young boy, were due compensation. Holmes and the coach Travis Binnion convinced United to pay up.

From the pittance the club paid, Ndiaye is now worth millions. Nottingham Forest were keen on him in the summer before they acquired Jesse Lingard. His path to the Premier League started during his short spell with Hyde in 2020 after their then manager, David McGurk, and his assistant John McCombe spotted him playing for Sheffield United Under-23s.

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At Hyde, he travelled from Sheffield for training twice a week and would amaze teammates with his dazzling footwork and ability to balance the ball on his head for a minute. Ndiaye’s work ethic also stood out.

His father would do daily sessions with a young Ndiaye, often in the woods, where he acquired his industrious attitude. The respect of teammates was quickly earned; seeing how pivotal he was to their chances, players would go out of their way to ensure he got home safely.

“There were games where he was so far ahead of everyone,” McGurk says. “It got to the point with us where we said: ‘Wherever you are on the pitch, give him the ball. No matter how tightly marked he is, give him the ball.’ We just wanted him on the ball as much as possible. He would start on the left but we gave him the freedom to do what he wanted.

“It can be a detriment to the squad if you are focusing on one player but the lads just appreciated it and they were happy to give him the ball. I have never seen a player that good at this level. I would turn up on a Saturday excited to watch the team as a manager because he was in it.”

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A family visit to Senegal when the France-born Ndiaye was a one-year-old started his obsession with football. He would kick anything in sight, forcing his grandad to take action and acquire a ball for him. Since then it has barely left his feet. In France he would play in cages, learning how to deceive opponents. Scouts took notice and he was signed by Marseille.

The family chose to move to Senegal for a period, forcing Ndiaye to leave his Marseille dreams behind. He joined Dakar Sacré-Cœur and went from honing his skills at one of Europe’s elite clubs to practising on sand pitches and at the beach, ensuring his ball control was impeccable. Ndiaye’s father then found work in England, resulting in a move to London aged 14. The teenager arrived unable to speak English, so his dad sent him to football camps where he could express himself. Eight years on, Ndiaye speaks with a north London twang.

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He would combine studying with playing for Boreham Wood’s youth teams, eventually making it on to their first-team bench on a couple of occasions without making a National League appearance.

To maintain fitness, he played Sunday league games for Rising Ballers in London before being snapped up by Sheffield United.

When Ndiaye arrived at Bramall Lane they thought his understanding of the game needed working on but he had a real will to learn. Hyde were a key part of that education. “He is destined for the top,” McGurk says. “We told him that after one of the games.

“We said: ‘You’ve got absolutely everything – you are not going to be playing at this level again after you go back to Sheffield United.’ I am surprised by how rapidly it has happened but he has got everything to play at the top level.”

The following season he was given his Premier League debut – at Leicester – and just over a year later he represented Senegal.

“We’ve played a very small part but you do take pride in giving the kid an opportunity with the move to Hyde,” McGurk says. “Sheffield United v Burnley was on the TV, and you watch with a sense of pride because he is doing exactly the same thing to Burnley defenders that he was doing to defenders in our league.”

England will take comfort in the one blot on Ndiaye’s brief Hyde career: a skied penalty in a Cheshire Senior Cup match against Vauxhall Motors. He has certainly come a long way in a short time since.