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I couldn’t afford N50 to watch EPL matches – Iheanacho

Weekends in Nigeria often follow a pattern. Hundreds of men, women and children crowd around televisions desperately trying to catch a glimpse of any English football.

Crowds will be out in force on Sunday for Manchester City’s FA Cup fifth-round tie at Chelsea and with the chance to watch one of their own — City striker Kelechi Iheanacho.

Despite being 4,500 miles away from Stamford Bridge these devoted fans in Imo, the Nigerian state where the teenager was born, will pay N50 — about 20p — to squeeze around a TV in the hope of seeing him.

They are the lucky ones.

As a child, Iheanacho was not so lucky and in his first major newspaper interview since bursting onto the scene this season, the 19-year-old reveals the hardship he felt as a youngster.

Brought up in what he describes as a ‘poor area’, he was one of the worse-off kids and could rarely afford even 20p to watch football.

Iheanacho has flourished in this season’s FA Cup, scoring at Norwich in the third round before a hat-trick against Aston Villa in the fourth. City’s squad signed his match ball and could be heard singing the fans’ chant of ‘Ihean-atch-io’ inside the Villa Park dressing room while their shy star performed media duties outside.

With nine goals already under his belt in an excellent debut year, he is ready to lead the line for City at Stamford Bridge but has no recollection of ever seeing an FA Cup tie back home.

‘We didn’t have the money,’ he says. ‘Maybe after the game I’d hear the scores and all that. I’d be at home playing football and my friends would come back after being there to tell me. We didn’t have a television at home.’

Iheanacho is quiet at first, not entirely comfortable with opening up about his childhood, his knees twitching as he explains that his family would use what little money they had on bread rather than luxuries like television.

It is a demeanour far removed from the nerveless striker who belies his teenage years on the pitch.

‘Sometimes I watched the Spanish league — it was a bit cheaper, maybe 30 naira,’ he adds. ‘But the Premier League was 50. Sometimes I’d watch the Premier League if I found the money, or I’d go there and beg them to let me in. Or sneak in for the second half and pay half the money.

‘I support Barcelona because I watched the Spanish league. I saw Yaya [Toure] playing for Barcelona… and now I’m playing with him. It’s a dream come true.

‘I have to be my own man but he is a big influence in Africa. He has done a lot in Africa and I hope to do that as well.’

Toure, along with fellow Ivorian Wilfried Bony, took Iheanacho under his wing when City manager Manuel Pellegrini unexpectedly refused to sign a striker last summer because there was an academy lad capable of stepping up without the need to gain experience by going out on loan.

Early in his career Iheanacho had been due to sign for Porto but he has no regrets on turning his back on the Portuguese club when City came knocking two years ago.

His father James persuaded him to move to the ‘very cold’ north west of England with City paying Nigeria’s Taye Academy £350,000 after scouts were impressed with the striker at the Under 17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates where he was named player of the tournament.

Then came a short stint at MLS side Columbus Crew in 2014 before Pellegrini put him on the bench at West Bromwich Albion on the opening weekend this season. He has not looked back.

‘I wasn’t expecting that,’ he says. ‘I was working with the EDS [Elite Development Squad]. He said I was going with them to Australia in pre-season and after we came back I was in the first team. I was a bit surprised.

‘You feel a bit nervous, these are great players. It’s important to listen.

‘I’m happy playing with them now and they give me confidence to play, they encourage me a lot. That doesn’t mean I’ll disrespect them or feel I’m one of them now. I wouldn’t just do anything I liked — I’ve got to keep my head down, keep working hard.’

Iheanacho admits finding that drive did not come easily at school, even though his mother, Mercy, was a teacher. She passed away in 2013, a few months before his life-changing Under 17 World Cup, and her memory serves as a constant source of determination.

‘It was hard for us when my mother left us,’ Iheanacho reflects, suddenly holding back tears. ‘We couldn’t do anything so I said to myself “move on and keep working hard”.

‘She makes me work harder. When I’m not doing something right, or when I’m not playing or working hard enough, then I remember her. She pushed me to work hard.

‘There are jobs [back home] but football has always been with me. When I was growing up they didn’t want me to do it because my mother was a teacher — they wanted me to go to school. But I love football and wanted to play — they wanted to stop me but couldn’t.

‘They wouldn’t allow me to play out after school but I went out anyway. Maybe I lost a bit of focus on my studies.

‘It’s amazing when you go back home now, when you remember how you were before. You go back home and all those people are calling your name, shouting. I get mobbed by the kids. They want to see you, want to know you.’

Nigerian football legend Nwankwo Kanu certainly knows Iheanacho, whose contract runs until 2019. The former Arsenal striker was at the Etihad campus after City’s defeat by Leicester earlier this month to spend half an hour with his country’s most exciting prospect.

Born in the same state, Kanu feels he has an attachment to the prodigy, often travelling back to Africa during his playing days to coach the Taye Academy team that included Iheanacho.

Iheanacho idolised Kanu while banging a football against the walls of the buildings where football was being screened inside.

Now there are plenty of kids pretending to be Manchester City’s No 72.

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