ALTHOUGH he grew up as a Rangers supporter, Ikechi Anya had never set foot inside Ibrox until yesterday. This news simply confirms the impression of him as someone breaking new ground on almost a weekly basis.
Just over two weeks after he had scored for Scotland against the world champions in Germany, Anya was back in his birth city of Glasgow. Although he acknowledged that the goal did not turn out to be worth anything in terms of points, Anya has been bowled over by the response to his special strike in Dortmund.
He says he has watched the goal about a “million times” on his iPad after installing a special app that replays his moment of glory over and over again. His brother Chima, a doctor/hip hop artist, also has reason to remember it. In the seconds of delirium after his brother tucked the ball past Manuel Neuer, Chima’s new suit got ruined. Not that he cared.
“My brother was there along with my mum,” recalled Anya yesterday. “There is a really cool picture of them celebrating with the fans and he has beer all over his suit. He comes to all the games, but, when we play here, you have to wear a suit to get into the hospitality box. He thought it might be a similar thing over in Germany. I think he met a fan who said he was going to give him a kilt for the next game.”
Anya’s reputation has been enhanced by scoring against Neuer, as has his profile. Gordon Strachan later expressed his view that Anya, who will be 27 on his next birthday, should be playing at a higher level than the Championship, where he currently plays for promotion hopefuls Watford. Anya estimates that he quickly gained 1000 new Twitter followers after the goal and then another 10,000 following his much-shared tweet where he registered his surprise at scoring past Neuer, reckoned to be the world’s No 1 goalkeeper.
“Wow! I can’t even do that on Fifa,” he had written, cue over 30,000 re-tweets. So intense was the reaction that his iPad froze. Such winningly self-deprecating remarks are one reason why Anya has become popular with the Tartan Army. Another reason is his input since being drafted into Strachan’s side just over a year ago, against Belgium. He has become the international manager’s favoured option to fill one of the two wide positions in midfield. As well as being an outlet, Anya is also a handy goal threat, with two strikes now in seven appearances.
He is now the inheritor of the mantle that was once worn by James McFadden, scorer of the famous winning goal versus France seven years ago this month. The marketing people at the Scottish Football Association clearly recognise this.
Anya’s image dominated their official website in the days following the game against Germany. The same player was yesterday recruited to promote ticket sales for next month’s Euro 2016 qualifying clash against Georgia, which is being played at Ibrox.
It helps that Anya has such a fascinating back-story. He continued to flesh it out yesterday. Born to a Nigerian research scientist father and a Romanian economist, Anya spent his early years in Castlemilk. After the family moved to Oxford, the 16 year-old Anya displayed his passion for the game by taking three buses to training at Wycombe Wanderers, his first club.
“I started my apprenticeship at Wycombe and I decided to live at home,” he explained. “I had to get up at 5.30 and get one bus to Oxford city centre, one more to Wycombe and then another to the training ground.
“I’d always get there early and that’s why now I’m still at the training ground early,” he added. “I couldn’t drive then as I was 16 but I learned as soon as I could and passed at 18.”
His career did not just stall, it was in danger of breaking down completely when he was released by Wycombe. Rather than be disheartened, Anya joined non-league sides Oxford City and Halesowen Town before heading to Spain, where he enrolled at Glenn Hoddle and Scot John Gorman’s academy for players who are club-less. Gorman texted a congratulatory message to Anya following his goal against Germany.
In the aftermath of the match in Dortmund, Strachan noted how good it is to have the lively and polite Anya around the place. Because his international career has been so hard-won, he is relishing every minute of it. Not only is he the first player out on the training field, he is the first one down to breakfast each morning at squad get-togethers. The next milestone in an incredible journey is playing at Ibrox for the first time.
Although he was a Rangers supporter at school in Castlemilk, he was too young to attend games. His academic father was keen that he should concentrate on his studies first. “I used to watch games on TV though,” said Anya.
“I hope my first game at the ground will be for Scotland,” he added, careful to avoid the impression that he is presuming he will be picked for the Group D clash at Ibrox. “This is the first time I have been in the stadium,” he added. “It is a bit crazy. As a kid, Rangers is the team I supported. When I approached the stadium, I was like: ‘Wow!’ This is quite a big deal.”
As much as he has enjoyed the attention of recent weeks, he says he was quickly brought down to earth by his Watford team-mates on his return to the club after his latest Scotland goal. In any case, he does not want to be remembered simply for being the man who scored against the world champions. “Ultimately we lost the game so it wasn’t even a winner,” said someone who was just ten years-old when Scotland last reached a major competition. “I’d like to be remembered as one of the team who qualified for Euro 2016.”
l Tickets for Georgia v Scotland at Ibrox Stadium on 11 October are available via www.scottishfa.co.uk or 0844 875 1873