11 November 2019
Wilfred Ndidi earned the nickname ‘Groundnut Boy’ while growing up in the Lagos suburb of Ikeja. He would sell groundnuts (peanuts), peppers, tomatoes and bottles of water to make money to buy football boots for him to wear while playing for Nath Boys Academy as he dreamt of having a future in the game.
An integral part of a Leicester City side who are second in the Premier League and are genuine top-four contenders under Brendan Rodgers, it is fair to say that the 22-year-old Nigerian has cracked it.
Leicester’s midfield enforcer has made the most tackles (60) and interceptions (35) across the top five leagues in Europe this season and his was a key role in their fourth consecutive victory in the Premier League on Saturday. With nearly a third of the season gone, a 2-0 win over Arsenal means there is a nine-point gap between Leicester and fifth-placed Sheffield United.
His precocious attacking team-mates Jamie Vardy and James Maddison may have dominated the headlines this season — and shared the goals against Arsenal — but Ndidi, and Leicester’s impressive back four, have provided the platform for Rodgers’ team to surge up the table.
Only Manchester City (35) have scored more Premier League goals than Leicester (29) this season but no team have conceded as few as Leicester (eight), and their clean sheet against Arsenal was their third on the trot in the top flight. The finesse and guile at one end of the pitch has only been possible because of the strength, desire and sheer bloody-mindedness at the other.
Ndidi has never been adverse to hard work. “I would say I grew up the hard way, in a place where you had to fight for survival, even to eat,” he has previously said. His football education began playing not on proper pitches or even in parks but on the roads, and it wasn’t jumpers for goalposts, but rocks. Often, there wasn’t even a ball, only scrunched-up paper wrapped in tape.
His father was involved with the army and they lived in a military zone. His family were wary of his football dream and urged him instead to focus on his studies at school, but he could not be deterred. As well as selling food and drink in the streets, he would also wash car windscreens after school so he could buy boots. His dedication paid off when he was spotted aged 16 by Genk’s chief scout Roland Janssen while playing for Nath Boys in a tournament that involved 500 players.
He was given a two-month trial in Belgium. It was a huge culture-shock; Ndidi went from playing in the searing heat of Nigeria to experiencing snow for the first time. Initially, he was housed in a hotel, but found life tough away from his close family (he has two younger sisters), so Genk moved him in with a Belgium family, Theo and Marleen van Vlierden, and their son Christophe.
Genk liked what they saw from Ndidi, who was playing centre-back back at that point, but could not offer him a deal because he was too young under non-EU rules. They had to wait until he was 18, but Janssen did not forget about the talented Ndidi. When he became eligible to join, Genk took him back.
Their former manager, Alex McLeish, remembers the day he first saw Ndidi.
“I wish I had become his agent and not just his boss. His story is a brilliant one,” McLeish, who managed Genk in the 2014-15 season, tells The Athletic.
“Roland’s first conversation with me was to tell me he played against me in 1983 when Aberdeen won the European Cup Winner’s Cup (for their Belgian semi-final opponents Waterschei Thor). The second conversation was him telling me he had a player that if we don’t get our arses in gear and sign him, we would lose him. He was a Nigerian kid and he had been on trial the previous year.
“He showed me some footage and I thought he was lightning-quick. Roland put him forward as a centre-back because that was his position in Nigeria, but I didn’t think he was big enough to be a centre-back.
“He was so rapid. Wow. I think he was 18 at the time or something, so I wanted to take him and see if we could add some finesse to the speed. At Genk then, it was a transitional season and there was no money to spend unless I sold someone. That season I bought nobody, but I took him. Our sporting director (Gunter Jacob) gave us the green light because I think he cost €100,000.
“I played him in a reserve game at Anderlecht as a centre-back. He strolled it. It was too easy for him. We had players missing in the January window because of the Africa Cup of Nations and they were a big loss, so I gave him his debut at left-back against Charleroi. He did really well. I thought then, ‘This kid had a great future.’”
McLeish and assistant Alex Rae believed Ndidi, who had moved back in with the Van Vlierdens on his return to Genk, would make a great holding midfielder or full-back, but it was McLeish’s successor the next season, Peter Maes, who switched his position. Ndidi’s displays for Genk soon attracted a lot of interest from England, including from Chelsea and Newcastle United, but it was Leicester who beat them to the punch with a £15 million deal worth another £3 million in potential add-ons.
Leicester had been looking for a holding midfielder who could fill the void left by N’Golo Kante’s departure to Chelsea in 2016 and had tried Daniel Amartey, among others, in that position but Ndidi would make an instant impact for the club, making his debut against Everton just two days after signing in January 2017.
He earned the club’s young player of the year award two seasons running, in 2017 and 2018, and during his first full Premier League season (2017-18), he was the division’s top tackler (138) — 21 ahead of the next-best, Everton’s Idrissa Gueye. But Ndidi, who is studying for a degree in business and management at De Montfort University, is really coming of age under Rodgers now.
The Leicester manager says simplifying Ndidi’s role has helped his development, and he has seen improvement in the 22-year-old’s ability on the ball, too. Against Arsenal, he had an 89.7 per cent success rate with his passes and beat three Arsenal players with a surging run in the build-up to Maddison’s goal. He also hit the crossbar in the second half.
“Naturally, a lot of the flair and attacking players get the praise, but he is absolutely key for our team,” Rodgers says. “In any good team you need a defensive midfield player who can do a lot of the dirty work. He is improving all the time. He has a great brain to read the game. He smells danger and covers the ground so fast. He can press up to the ball and cover in so tactically, he is improving and getting better.
“He is playing in a position where he has a clear role. Before, he was in a double pivot where he could run, but he has a clear role now to sit and protect and be that link player and with the ball, he is getting better.
“His game is simple. He needs to serve the players in front of him and be an option to play with the centre-halves and full-backs, and keep that continuity in the game. It has been great to see his development and he is only going to get better.”
His team-mate Ricardo Pereira, who has been praised for his attacking involvement along with fellow full-back Ben Chilwell, admits that would not be possible without Ndidi providing the cover.
“He is important to that because when I go forward, he covers my position, and also for Chilly (Chilwell),” says Pereira. “I think he is so important for us because he recovers a lot of balls. It is important to have someone like him when we lose the ball so we can get it back quickly. When we see him play like he does, then he seems a lot older than he really is. It is important for a defender that it is not just the back four defending, it is the whole team. We work all for the same result and it is great for us that we aren’t conceding a lot of goals.”
McLeish certainly agrees with Rodgers that Ndidi has made giant strides in his game, but believes this is only the beginning for him.
“The ball retention was the area he needed to improve on as a midfielder,” says McLeish. “He is brilliant defensively but he just has to improve his technical side of his game. He is getting better and better. He will do that under Brendan, who is an incredible coach.
“He reminds me of Kante, who is a world superstar. There is no reason why Wilfred can’t obtain that. He will never be a Luka Modric in his distribution, but he can keep it simple. There is no need for him to be a Modric. He just needs to keep doing what he does.
“We had a great relationship and I still speak to him now. I met him last year when I watched Leicester play somewhere. We had a great embrace. I am just so proud of him. He is a beautiful guy. There is no ego. He is very friendly and will talk to anyone. Everyone liked him.
“He is a great kid and a great athlete. He just needed more experience.”
By Rob Tanner. This piece first appeared in The Athletic.