THE honour of pulling on the dark blue jersey for Scotland is one that is rarely easily earned.
However, few have taken such an unusually circuitous route as Ikechi Anya, who could become Scotland’s latest debutant in Friday evening’s World Cup qualifying clash against Belgium at Hampden Park.
Now 25, Anya spent the first seven years of his life just a few miles away from Mount Florida, in Castlemilk.
He has been back only once since. In January, he and his brother Chima – a doctor and part-time hip hop artist (of course) – made an emotional return to the land of their birth for the first time since they left, 18 years earlier. Ikechi has now made his second visit in a year at the request of Gordon Strachan, who hopes Anya can reprise his dashing wing-back play for Watford in a Scotland shirt.
It would be the latest step in an incredible journey, in which he has bounced back from a spell in non-league football at Halesowen Town in the British Gas Business Premier League.
Although he has since tasted La Liga action in Spain and now plays in the Championship in England, he was still able to pass unrecognised as he encountered groups of Tartan Army members last month in London, after the 3-2 defeat by England. Strachan had originally intended to call up Anya for the friendly clash at Wembley, but decided to retain faith with those who had ensured they were available for the win over Croatia in June.
“I remember the next day I was walking through London and I saw loads of Scotland fans,” recalled the entertaining Anya yesterday. “Imagine if I had been playing and then walking through the middle of them? It would have been crazy. None of them spotted me or knew who I was.”
Anya wasn’t shy about introducing himself yesterday. Unfailingly polite, he referred to his manager at Watford as “Mr Zola” and shook every reporter’s hand on his arrival in the room, then again as he left, having attempted to explain his backstory.
Where do you begin? Anya was born in Glasgow to a Nigerian father and a Romanian mother, meaning he could have played for Nigeria or Romania, as well as Scotland. According to him, Nigeria was never an option, even though they showed interest several years ago.
“I was never keen,” he said. And, in any case, he has always felt Scottish, even after he moved to England. When Scotland played their great rivals, “I was always the one out in the street saying ‘Come on Scotland’,” he recalled.
“I know I’ve lost my accent but people say I speak with an American accent now,” Anya added. “Trust me, when I first arrived in England people used to say they couldn’t understand me.”
The Scottish accent that he once had was honed in the streets of Glasgow. A Rangers supporter, he spent the first part of his childhood on a housing estate in Castlemilk, where he attended Spittal Primary school. He has mostly happy memories of growing up in Castlemilk. There was, however, one bully, who once cracked his and a friend’s heads together after Anya had starred in a kick-about. “I don’t know why he did that but we won the game so it was alright,” Anya reflected.
“It was a hard neighbourhood in Castlemilk – well, that’s what I was told. Being seven you don’t really know any different. Don’t get me wrong, it was okay. We played football outside on the streets and it was fine. When you’re young you don’t have any perspective on things.”
His family enjoyed their time in Scotland, although only his godparents still live in the country now. “We only left because of work,” he noted.
Even his father’s line of work is unusual in football circles. Dr Chinasa Anya is professor of metallurgy and moved to a teaching job at the department of materials at Oxford University. Anya swapped the playground kick-abouts of Castlemilk for the refined surroundings of Oxford. “My dad did his university degree in Romania, where he met my mother,” he explained. “He then got a got a job at the University of Strathclyde so that’s how they wound up in Glasgow.”
His father’s hopes for young Ikechi involved academia rather than football. “He obviously wanted the best for his kids and I remember every day after school he made us study for extra hours,” Anya recalled. “But by the time I was year eight or nine the time I was spending with the books was getting lower and lower because I was into playing football. Eventually I just stopped doing it completely.
“He wanted me to be like my brother, maybe become a doctor or something like that. But I’m not as clever as my brother.”
Anya’s progression to become a professional footballer has been complicated as well. It involved a spell in non-league football as he recovered from injury, while he also has a former England manager to thank for his Scotland success. Some time at the Glenn Hoddle Academy in Spain helped him bounce back after another setback, when he was released by then Wycombe manager Paul Lambert.
Another Scot, John Gorman, recommended him to Hoddle. He caught the eye of Spanish scouts and signed for Sevilla. Anya has since played for Granada and Cadiz before joining Watford on loan last year. He has since signed a permanent deal.
Anya is charming, though not necessarily given to sycophancy. On being called up to the squad, he tweeted his thanks to God. Asked yesterday about his religious commitment, he replied: “This conversation might get a bit deep for you newspaper boys!” Nevertheless, he gamely tried to enlighten those gathered around the table.
“It was instilled in me when I was young,” he said. “My dad always took me to church. Now, if I’m not training or playing on a Sunday, I try to still go to my church.
“So yes, I’m religious. I believe if you work hard you’ll get your just rewards, maybe not now, maybe not in a week from now, but you’ll get it over the course. That keeps me humble. I don’t get ahead of myself.
“Anything I achieve is a bonus. It’s just good to be here.”