The last thing anyone was concerned about when Odion Ighalo floated into Man United on cloud nine was what number the Nigerian would be sporting during his six-month loan spell at Old Trafford.
Everyone was still getting their heads around quite how a 30-year-old former Udinese, Granada, Cesena and Watford player was being parachuted into Manchester from the Chinese Super League to solve United’s striking crisis.
And yet, here we are. A move the combined forces of Mino Raiola and Jorge Mendes wouldn’t have attempted to orchestrate in their wildest dreams has been completed. Time for Ighalo to choose a number, so we can all get on with the business of playing football.
The Nigerian could have elected for no.11, which has been vacant since Anthony Martial moved back into the no.9 shirt amidst much hype on social media. The switch was initially successful, with #AM9 netting four goals in his first six games, but he’s since added just eight goals in four months, hence the need for Ighalo.
With Ryan Giggs’ former number ignored and Alexis Sanchez still hogging the no.7 shirt despite being in Milan, another option was the no.16- worn with distinction between 1993 and 2018 by Roy Keane and Michael Carrick- but again, Ighalo passed.
Instead the 30-year-old chose the no.25 shirt, following in the Premier League footsteps of seven previous United players. Ighalo’s decision was particularly pleasing for the numbers boffins out there because, without going all Ivan Zamorano on you, 2 + 5(25) = 7.
Ighalo couldn’t possibly have been paying homage to the seven to have gone before him, could he?
Early Premier League rules dictated that the no.25 be assigned to goalkeepers, hence why benchwarmers Gary Walsh and Kevin Pilkington were the first to don the shirt, until the latter’s exit in 1998 opened the door for a new incumbent.
With Premier League rules relaxed, the number would be inherited by an outfield player for the first time, and a historic one at that. Ighalo will be the first Nigerian to represent United when he takes to the field but, in 1999, Quinton Fortune went one further and became the first African player to wear the shirt.
The South African left Atletico Madrid to join a United squad fresh from winning the treble, in doing so inspiring a whole generation of young African footballers. One such youngster was Ighalo who claimed, upon signing for United, that Fortune was the reason behind him taking the no.25 shirt.
Fortune’s on-pitch impact at United was minimal- the South African never made more than nine league appearances in a league campaign- but his influence off it is still being felt today.
Fortune’s departure in 2006 again opened the spot for someone else to make a name for themselves. United promoted from within, handing youth graduate Danny Simpson a first-team squad number.
Simpson would only go on to make three league appearances for United before joining Newcastle but, like Fortune, he will retire a Premier League winner having lifted the title in 2016 with Leicester.
There was another first when, in 2009, Antonio Valencia became the first Ecuadorian to sign for United. Valencia joined from Wigan, in effect replacing Cristiano Ronaldo after his world-record move to Real Madrid.
Valencia wore the no.25 shirt during his first three seasons at Old Trafford, winning a Premier League title and the League Cup, before taking the vacant no.7 shirt ahead of the 2012/13 season.
But the Ecuadorian’s struggles to live up to Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Ronaldo meant he was soon back in the no.25 shirt, which had been worn in his absence by Nick Powell.
Valencia called time on his ten-year career at United last summer, meaning the no.25 shirt was once again up for grabs. While Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire and Bruno Fernandes all passed, Ighalo was only too happy to claim the number as his own.
It might not be as glamorous as the no.7, no.9 or no.10, but ask United fans from South Africa, Ecuador and now Nigeria what they think of the no.25 shirt and you’ll be met with a glowing response.
Expectations are low but, whatever happens, he’ll be the best Nigerian to pull on a United shirt. For a boy who grew up watching Fortune and supporting United, that must have a lovely ring to it.
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