Kelechi Iheanacho is referred to affectionately by his Leicester teammates as “Senior Man”, a nickname that until recently might have struck outsiders as sarcastic.
The player who could not usurp Sergio Agüero at Manchester City was for a long time the frustrated understudy to Jamie Vardy after moving to Leicester. But so far in 2021, at the age of 24, he is one of the most prolific strikers in English football. On Sunday Southampton may fear him more than anyone else in the semi-final of the FA Cup, a tournament in which he already holds three records.
For Iheanacho the quest to fulfil potential has been tough. He has had to overcome family tragedy and acute doubts. But even when he went a year at Leicester without scoring, he kept believing. His goals – 11 in his past 11 games – are a reward for persistence as well as talent.
“Your belief must always stay,” he says, speaking with a warmth and sincerity that make it easy to understand why he is so popular at Leicester. “There are moments as a human being when you feel you are down and you have nowhere to go, and everything is going the other way for you. But that belief and the confidence, if you have it in yourself, and the good people around you who keep talking to you, they keep motivating you.
“The manager is the No 1 person in this because he keeps encouraging me to keep going, to keep working hard and take my chances when they come. He is the No 1 influence outside family, but the coaches and my teammates all love me, they all want me to do well and I’m really happy here. My family call me and give me support, even my friends as well.”
Love was all around when Iheanacho scored his first Premier League hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Sheffield United last month, on Mother’s Day. His emotional post-match interview melted hearts as he paid tribute to mothers everywhere. He lost his mother when he was 16.
“I was looking forward to dedicating my first hat-trick to my mum and all the mothers in the world, and for it to happen on that day was amazing,” he says. “I think about her every day. I know she is in a good place now and it helps me to keep working hard and to keep going. My worst fear was to lose her. Now there is nothing that could scare me any more in life. So I just keep being who I am and I know she is behind me.”
Iheanacho cherishes the memories of his childhood, including carefree games of football. Sport turned from an innocent pursuit of joy into a career after he helped to fire Nigeria to victory in the Under-17 World Cup in 2013. He was later snapped up by Manchester City.
“It wasn’t easy for me when I first came; I wanted to go back to my country at some point because it was too cold,” he recalls. “They told me: ‘They have signed you now so you have to stay.’ I remember my first training with the coaches at Manchester. It was February and it was 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. That was in 2014. He never came to another game. I am not being funny but he has not been back to England.”
The player steeled himself and grew accustomed to his surroundings, so much so that Iheanacho is part of FA Cup folklore.
In the 2017 semi-final he became the first player to enter as a fourth substitute; in 2018 his goal in the third round against Fleetwood was the first awarded after a VAR review; and last month his two goals in the quarter-final victory over Manchester United took his tally in the tournament to 11 from 18 matches, making him the highest-scoring African in the competition’s history.
“That means a lot,” he says. “I’m really happy to have achieved that ahead of legends like Didier Drogba and others.” Others such as Nwankwo Kanu, who won the FA Cup with Arsenal and Portsmouth and hails from Iheanacho’s home town. The scorer of the winner in the 2008 final was a regular visitor to the academy in Owerri, in Imo State, where Iheanacho honed his skills.
“Our coach would tell us a lot about [Kanu] all the time and then he used to come and train with us when he was playing for Portsmouth,” says Iheanacho. “It was so good. I remember the final where he played for Portsmouth and afterwards they gave him a crown or something. I couldn’t get to watch it because it was at the youth centre and you had to pay to go in, so that was a story I heard from people able to go in. I looked up to him every time – he always came around and spoke to us.”
Playing in the Premier League earned Iheanacho his nickname, which his teammate and compatriot Wilfred Ndidi introduced to Leicester.
“It’s what players from Nigeria who play in Europe are called when they come back to the country,” says Iheanacho. “It’s a lot in the country now. People don’t really call me by my name any more – it’s like they have forgotten it. People just call me Senior Man. Even older people; it’s quite funny.”
At Leicester, Jamie Vardy has long been the top man for goals and it looked as if Iheanacho might never get regular action. But he forced his way into the team and the pair have thrived together since Rodgers altered formation to play them as a partnership. Vardy has been the supplier more than the scorer in recent months, with Iheanacho emerging as the sharper finisher.
“Jamie is the best partner you could want as a striker,” says Iheanacho. “He is really nice and has been since I came to this club. He is really funny and cracks people up. He takes that into the game and helps his mate out. Jamie is one man who is a team player and he is not selfish at all. He looks out for his mates.”