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Odion Ighalo humbled by praise from former Arsenal star Nwankwo Kanu

Odion Ighalo says some words of wisdom from another Nigerian Premier League success story has provided him with a source of motivation this season.

Nwankwo Kanu spent 12 years of his career in the top flight of English football, and Ighalo revealed his countryman came to the home game against Chelsea, messaged him after his two goals against Liverpool and has been in touch to pass on tips he picked from playing for Arsenal, West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth.

“It’s great when a great player like Kanu, who has played for big teams in the world, is texting you, and acknowledging the kind of work you are doing,” said Ighalo on this week’s Barclays Premier League World show. “He came to watch. It gives me a boost and he tells me to keep working hard and that I have what it takes to become a great player.”

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Ighalo is the 37th Nigerian to have played in the Premier League, following in the footsteps of Obafemi Martins, John Obi Mikel, Kelechi Iheanacho and, most famously, Jay-Jay Okocha. Ighalo grew up in an impoverished ghetto in Lagos and tells stories of having to dodge bullets during football training. The Watford striker is one of his country’s biggest footballing success stories.

“A lot of Nigerians start to support Watford,” he said. “It’s a big league and people always support the big teams, but because of me doing well in Watford they have a lot of fans there now.”

Picture by Paul Dawson
Picture by Paul Dawson

Ighalo has scored 14 times in the Premier League and grabbed one in the FA Cup. Although he’s scored just one league goal in his last seven, he’s still averaging a goal every 1.85 league games this season. As a comparison, Kanu scored 54 in 377 Premier League appearances.

“I knew when I came to the Premier League I was going to score goals but I did not expect the way [speed] they were coming,” said Ighalo. “I feel well and with hard work and dedication you can do better than you think. With hard work and the support of everyone around me I can achieve more than I already have.”

Picture by Odion Ighalo
Picture by Odion Ighalo

Ighalo finished a stellar 2015 with 30 goals, three ahead of Harry Kane and more than anyone else in English football’s top four leagues.

“Sometimes I do pinch myself as this was not what I was expecting when the year started,” he said. “When it gets close to the end [of the year], I felt I was getting closer to something and a great thing in my career.”

Very little, if any, of his success would have been achieved without his sidekick, Troy Deeney. Only Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil have combined for more goals this season than Watford’s deadly duo.

“It’s great because Troy is a great guy, a nice captain and a motivator for the team,” he said. “Playing close to him is very good as he’s very strong, he’s very big, he can bully defenders and fight. I know I have pace and can run behind the defenders. I can work with him. It’s a pleasure playing with him.”

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The pair, who have seamlessly translated their Championship form to the Premier League, have fired Watford to the brink of safety. Quique Sanchez Flores’ side would become the first side in the club’s history to spend two consecutive seasons in the Premier League.

“We will just keep our head high, keep working hard and try to win games,” Ighalo said. “The Europa League is a possibility but maybe that is something for the fans to get carried away with all that. For now, it’s for us to get 40 points and be in the Premier League next year.”