World Cupo: Sheffield United boss Paul Heckingbottom heaps praise on Senegal star Iliman Ndiaye

Iliman Ndiaye has been arguably the Championship’s most exciting player this season and no-one at Sheffield United was surprised when African champions Senegal called him into their World Cup squad.

Qatar becomes another step on an unusual pathway. One that has taken Ndiaye from the ball cages of urban France, via Dakar’s beaches and three years at Boreham Wood to South Yorkshire’s steel city.

One soaring on an accelerated upward curve this season and Senegal will hope the 22-year-old forward can step in to fill the void created by their injured star Sadio Mane when they start their Group A campaign against Holland today.

At Bramall Lane, they will be thrilled if he shines in the desert. “I think everyone knows who he is now and what he’s been doing,” said Blades boss Paul Heckingbottom, when asked if he feared the exposure. “It’s a great story. From a personal point view, I’d love to see him perform in a World Cup the way he has performed for us this season.” 

Iliman Ndiaye (pictured above) is getting ready for his side’s first game of the Qatar World Cup

Ndiaye is a hugely popular figure at Sheffield United, where they joke about his extreme ability and training sessions dissolve into fits of laughter when he pulls off his most outrageous tricks and where he has made strides towards fulfilling his potential this season. With nine goals, he is the joint top scorer in the division.

“He does things you can’t coach,” Jack Lester, Sheffield United coach and head of player development, tells Sportsmail. “He’s so natural, the way he deals with the ball. Beautifully balanced and poised.

“Iliman told me his Dad played music as they practised his skills as a kid and you can see it come through in his game. His shoulders rock, almost as if he’s dancing. He goes past defenders, puts them down with his upper-body movements.

“He’s a lovely lad, always smiling. Very popular. Fearless, a tough kid. Strong on the ball and not nice to play against.”

Ndiaye was born in Rouen, in France, and signed on the books of Marseille at 11 before his family returned to their native Senegal where his father continued to coach him football on the beaches and he joined his seven sisters for athletics training.

He was 14 and did not speak a word of English when they moved to London. There were football camps at Chelsea and Reading, and a development course at Southampton but no offer of a scholarship.

At 16, he joined the PASE academy at Boreham Wood, where he combined his football with courses in all manner of trades, including bricklaying, at Barnet and Southgate College.

“We were very fortunate,” says manager of the National League side Luke Garrard, who recalls the day when Ndiaye arrived for a trial on a minibus full of hopefuls from North West London.

“As soon as we saw him we knew we had one. He went into our elite academy squad and at 16 or 17 was training with our first team, taking the mick out of seasoned pros who had played in the Championship and League One.”

Manager Paul Heckingbottom (above) is not surprised at all that his player was called up

Manager Paul Heckingbottom (above) is not surprised at all that his player was called up

Ndiaye signed a contract at 18 and was in Garrard’s first-team squad when he produced an astonishing solo goal in a three-day tournament organised by the PGMOL as they tested VAR at St George’s Park.

“He took on half the team, sitting people down all the way from one end to the other,” says Garrard. “He has a God-given gift.”

The goal is readily available on YouTube and worth the search. Ndiaye joined the Rising Ballers, sharing videos of his rare talent on their social media platforms, but word was already spreading fast.

Bristol City took him on trial but chose not to sign him. Then Steve Holmes, Sheffield United’s head of academy recruitment, swept in. The Blades liked what they saw and snapped him up for a nominal fee.

Boreham Wood lost him but they follow his progress closely. He is the first of their academy graduates to play in the Premier League and the first at a World Cup, along with Huddersfield winger Sorba Thomas, in the Wales squad.

“The two of them are very similar,” says Garrard. “Both very driven and both on the right side of the fine line between confidence and arrogance.”

Ndiaye made his Sheffield United debut at Leicester in March 2021 in Heckingbottom’s first game as caretaker boss and has thrived since the manager returned to take charge on a permanent basis last November.

Senegal handed him a first cap in June on a day when Mane scored a hat-trick against Benin. Now the young Blade is stepping on the biggest stage. Those who know him won’t be surprised if Ndiaye catches the eye once again.