They’ll miss Wilfred Ndidi – aka the teddy bear – in Genk. A combative character on the pitch; a shy, warm and grateful personality off it.
During a team-building session an unsuspecting Ndidi once walked miles with a backpack stuffed with flowers after he left the zipper open. Behind him, all of his team-mates were laughing. For two years he had been their favourite victim but they all loved him because he was such a likable person. A charming guy who, having agreed to join Leicester City this month for £15m plus £3m in potential add-ons, leaves only good memories behind. A heart-winner, a ball-winner.
The first person to fall in love with him? Roland Janssen, nowadays scouting for Manchester United in Belgium but formerly Genk’s head of scouting. In September 2013 Janssen was sitting on the sidelines of a pitch, somewhere in Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos. Ten football academies from all over the country were taking part in a tournament. Flanked by scouts from Anderlecht and Villarreal, Janssen watched with full attention. More than 250 players gave the best of themselves but there was one he couldn’t take his eyes off: a 16-year-old, lanky defender from Nath Boys. Wilfred Ndidi.
“He immediately caught my attention,” Janssen would recall in the Brussels newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. “Before the final he played a game with his academy against a first division team from Lagos. The composure he had on the ball was atypical for an African player of that age.
“Usually, when they know that European scouts are watching them, they want to prove themselves too much. They dive into tackles at knee height. He didn’t. He passed out from the back and, on a bad pitch, he launched some good long balls. A solid performance for a boy, who played against guys who were five-to-10 years older than him. He was only 16 but you could see his presence on the pitch.”
Janssen decided to arrange a trial in January 2014. The selection criteria for trial players were very strict in Genk – foreigners should be much better than the players coming through the youth ranks. The club had nurtured Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Yannick Carrasco and Divock Origi. Ndidi, a son of a soldier, travelled to Belgium to train with the development squad, managed by Domenico Olivieri, a former Genk captain who had won the Belgian title and a cup with them.
“My first impression of him? I didn’t have that feeling: ‘Wow, this is a super talented guy,’” Olivieri has said. “Not a player we had to sign immediately but one worth following. His jumping ability was phenomenal but in the passing exercises he was struggling a bit. After an exhibition game against Maastricht I changed my mind. That was the first time he gave me the impression he could become a top player. He thrived in ball-winning. His long legs were everywhere. Octopus-like. He was open-minded, too. He immediately integrated in the group, was open for advice and his work ethic was outstanding.”
There was a problem at that point. Genk could not sign Ndidi as clubs are not permitted to give a contract to non-EU players under 18. They had to wait a year, forcing Janssen to stay in touch with the player through email.
“He was very impatient,” Janssen recalled. “He really wanted to come to Genk.” Ndidi also called Olivieri, who later told Het Laatste Nieuws: “A month after his trial I suddenly get a call from a number with an unknown foreign country code.It turned out to be Ndidi. He wanted to thank me for the opportunity he had been given. ‘Great,’ I thought. At that time he did not know that we would give him a contract. It was the first time that a trial player called me to say thanks. But that’s his personality.”
In January 2015 the then head coach, Alex McLeish, and director of football, Gunter Jacob, decided to sign Ndidi and give him his first professional contract. The player finally moved to Belgium. “We were having a meeting with Gunter and Roland, our head scout,” McLeish later said. “There was no money left. We had to sell players before we could sign on new ones. Roland spoke highly of a kid he’d seen in Nigeria. We had to act quickly, he said. He showed me a video. Although you couldn’t draw many conclusions out of those images, I had a feeling that the boy had something in him. Eventually Genk paid £78,000 for him. My only transfer turned out to be a good one.”
Only a month after Ndidi signed his contract, he made his full debut for Genk. He wasn’t ready but an injury crisis forced McLeish to play him as a left-back against Charleroi on 31 January 2015. “I still remember he had cramps after 70 minutes,” McLeish said.
Under Belgium’s complicated end-of-season system, Genk did not qualify for Play-off I, the round that decides which team will be champions. It was a huge blow for the club but it turned out to be a blessing for Ndidi. In Play-off II a lot of youngsters got their chance for Genk and Ndidi was one of them. He made a good impression in central defence.
McLeish’s contract did not get extended but Ndidi sensed an opportunity and returned to pre‑season in top shape. Aged 18, he scored excellent marks in the physical tests, leading to the new manager, Peter Maes, coming up with a special plan for the player. “Sergej Milinkovic-Savic would leave for Lazio, Bennard Kumordzi was injured, so I was looking for a defensive midfielder. I noticed he [Ndidi] had tremendous stamina. Ideal for my midfield. We have many players who like to play the ball but he would bring balance to the team. And his passing skills were good enough, too.”
Ndidi shone in his new role, hoovering up balls like a vacuum cleaner. “But he can read a game too,” Maes would add. “Remarkable for a boy of 19.” Maes often compared him to the way Yaya Touré, who moved from the Ivory Coast to Belgium as a teenager, developed at Beveren. “This boy can reach the European top,” he said with utter conviction at the beginning of the year.
Ndidi had won over everyone in the club: the board, the staff, the fans and his team-mates. Scouts from top clubs were now also keeping an eye on him. Chelsea sent one and Leicester scouts also became regulars at the Luminus Arena. A good campaign in the Europa League convinced the Premier League champions to throw his name on the table in their pursuit of a successor to N’Golo Kanté. In the group stages of the tournament, Ndidi made more tackles and interceptions than any other player and Leicester moved swiftly to tie up a deal for him at the start of last month. They paid what Genk wanted and what represented a jackpot for the club, given they signed Ndidi for £78,000 two years ago.
Maes, the man behind that remarkable rise, was sacked at the end of last month. After his last game, against Gent, Ndidi wanted to say a special word for him: “What will I remember from my period in Genk? Peter Maes. He made me a better player. He was hard on us but he wanted to get the best out of me. I will always miss the way he was barking at me.”
Genk’s loss is Leicester’s gain.
*Courtesy The Guardian.com