There are occasions when Kelechi Iheanacho lets his mind drift back to his childhood in Obogwe, Nigeria. Simpler times, easier times.
Times free of the pressures and demands of professional sport. Times when goals were not everything. Times when his mother, Mercy, was still alive.
‘I loved that part of my life so much,’ says Iheanacho. ‘I wish I can bring it back but it can’t come back again, it is gone. I loved playing football since I was a kid. I loved kicking the ball around, playing with my friends, with my brother.
Kelechi Iheanacho admits he misses the freedom of playing football when he was younger
The Nigerian striker says nothing scares him after his mother’s death when he was a teenager
‘I’m doing really well here now and I am really settled in England. But I don’t forget the bonds, the friendships and what we used to do when we were little kids. No technology, no phones. Just happy days.’
Iheanacho isn’t complaining. He has worked too hard and come too far — first at Manchester City and now at Leicester. But the 24-year-old makes no apologies for his moment of wistfulness. It is OK to enjoy a new life while at the same time lamenting the passing of another.
Certainly the death of his mother is wrapped up in it all. Three of the nine goals he has scored on a recent productive run came on Mother’s Day against Sheffield United. Afterwards, on TV, he dedicated them to the memory of Mercy, who died when he was 16 and away from home on a Nigeria FA training camp.
‘I think about her every day,’ says Iheanacho. ‘There is not a day I don’t remember her. I know she is in a good place now. It helps me to keep working hard every day and to keep going.
‘My worst fear was to lose her. So there is nothing that could scare me any more in this life. So I just keep being who I am and I know she is behind me.’
Iheanacho and Jamie Vardy have formed a formidable partnership recently for the Foxes
For sure, Mercy would be proud of her son. He was only 16 when he first agreed to join City, signing formally two years later. His time in Manchester wasn’t easy and neither has it always been straightforward at Leicester. Only recently, as manager Brendan Rodgers has chosen to play him in tandem with Jamie Vardy, have goals come regularly.
Iheanacho is averaging an impressive one goal every 109 minutes in all competitions this season. His two goals against Manchester United helped Leicester to this weekend’s FA Cup semi-final against Southampton.
A Christian, Iheanacho says his faith has always kept him strong, even in the days when the queue to a first team spot behind players such as Vardy and Sergio Aguero seemed too long. Nevertheless, there were days when he would have given up his new life in England had he been able.
‘It wasn’t easy for me when I first came,’ he explains. ‘It was really too cold for me. So, at some point I wanted to go back to my country. But they told me, “Listen, you have come here to stay. You have come to play football. You are under contract. You have to play”.’
His natural shyness held him back at Manchester City and he did not develop as expected
At City, Iheanacho was also handicapped by a natural shyness. He didn’t fail in the North West — scoring more than 20 goals including 12 in the Premier League — but nor did he develop as much as the club hoped.
The £25million paid by Leicester in 2017 seemed a lot at the time and indeed for a while after. He went from September 2018 to September 2019 without scoring.
‘It was a difficult period. No goals for a long time,’ he says. ‘Sometimes it just won’t click, whatever you do. Then when the wrong things happen you lose your head. That’s when you have to have faith that no matter how bad it is, something good is waiting for you.’
But — as he has done with other players — Rodgers has unlocked something. Iheanacho has eight league goals from 10 starts this season and his partnership with Vardy represents Leicester’s best chance at Wembley.
‘As a player you believe in yourself and know you can do it,’ Iheanacho says. ‘But managers have a clearer view of their players when it comes to tactics. Brendan is right. I can play up front alone or in a two but I’m much better in a partnership, as you can see with me and Jamie. It’s working well.’
The striker believes he is better when in a partnership and is enjoying playing with Vardy
As a kid, Iheanacho wasn’t able to watch much English football as his family didn’t have a TV. Mercy preferred her boy to study. But she would not begrudge him the life he has made.
All he needs now is to win over his father James. ‘I remember my first training with the coaches at Manchester,’ laughs Iheanacho. ‘It was February and so cold. It was the first time my Dad had been out in cold weather.
‘He wanted to watch me train but after 10 minutes I couldn’t see him. He had gone inside and he never came to another game.’
Asked if James may be persuaded to come to watch an FA Cup final, Iheanacho says: ‘I will try to get him over. But he’s even cold in Nigeria. Nigeria is hot but he is cold! My dad is funny…’