IKECHI ANYA draws his mobile phone from his pocket and clicks on to a picture of a church in Glasgow’s south side.
Scotland’s newest find took the snap when he was back in the city at the start of the year – before international recognition seemed a possibility – on a mission to re-familiarise himself with the place he called home for his first seven years. The path he trod back then to make his weekly religious observance meant he regularly passed, but was never inside, a cathedral of a different kind, the one that rises out of Mount Florida called Hampden, where football is worshipped.
All that changed with his call-up last month, wherein he earned hosannas from the Scotland faithful for the goal-scoring, match-winning display in Macedonia that arrived the midweek after a first cap in the home defeat by Belgium. Past, present and future all weaved together in his first experiences of Hampden. “My dad sent me a text before the Belgium game. He said something like, ‘the place you used to walk past as a boy to go to church, you will be now playing in as a man’. It was nice.”
As has been well-documented, the warm and perceptive Anya’s backstory sets him apart from anyone else to have represented Scotland. It is so seductive to luxuriate in his tale because of what it offers. There is the exotica, with the 25-year-old having a Romanian mother and Nigerian father, who is a doctor of metallurgy. Then there is the triumph-of-the-spirit element that flows from the player’s career being revived through a spell in Glenn Hoddle’s Spanish academy for discarded young players that being freed by Wycombe Wanderers made him turn to. All of this set against a genuinely tartan backdrop courtesy of Castlemilk being the area he started out in life and which he has discovered, since his accomplished display in Skopje, creeps well beyond the outskirts of Glasgow.
“It seems that every person who stops me in the street comes from Castlemilk. I am like, ‘OK, cool’,” says Anya, whose family settled in Oxford. “When I had a day off the last time I was here, I went with my godparents and my mum to Scarrow Terrace, which is where I used to live, so it is all good.”
The player doesn’t feel as if football has reconnected him with his roots, since he had never buried those. Scotland was always the country he wanted to represent because not only did his life start here, so too did a life-long love of playing the game. And it didn’t take a call from Gordon Strachan to journey back north as, eight months earlier, he and his brother Chima, a qualified GP and occasional hip-hop DJ, had made that emotional return.
“As soon as we left Scotland when I was younger – I can’t remember the month – my parents said, ‘we will come back in February’. But we never came back. Then we found ourselves with time on our hands so we came up. We went up to the city centre bit and went to some shops and stuff, but when I was younger, I didn’t really go shopping.”
When he was younger, it was friendships that he traded in. “I just remember when I had to leave all my friends behind, I was crying in the car. But obviously when you are a kid it is easy to make friends. After a few months of being in England I sort of adapted. It would have been nice to come back, because you are leaving a lot behind, but it is OK because as of last year I have got back in contact with some of my old friends. We are all grown-up now.”
Anya has grown into a Championship wing-back of some repute. The first step towards achieving that status was his old Wycombe manager John Gorman recommending him to Hoddle, the man Gorman worked under at England. “I’ve been so lucky to work with some of the best managers. The academy wasn’t based on results; it was based on developing you as a player. So we had double sessions nearly every day and simple exercises which, when you’ve finished doing them, you can feel are a bit mundane. But they helped transform me as a player, and gave me a lot of confidence as well. He instilled his mental strength into the players there and I grasped on to that.”
Grasping the opportunity to work with Gianfranco Zola at Watford last season, initially on loan, has allowed him to reach his current career high. Unable to make the breakthrough with Celta Vigo and Granada in Spain, he became a first pick when farmed out at Cadiz in season 2011-12, from where he was spotted by the London club. Zola’s direction at a side that unexpectedly lost out on top-flight promotion to Crystal Palace in the play-offs is delivering for Anya as a result of the obvious shared values that underpin it.
“It is amazing – everybody knows what he has achieved as a manager and a player,” says Anya of Zola. “His main quality is not even speaking about his football achievements. He is the most humble man you will meet and tactics-wise he has got everything spot on. He has got a really good management team behind him as well. They played at a high level, and trained Champions League teams. I am just fortunate that my team is Watford.
“Sometimes he might lose his cool, but it is not for too long and he will probably end up apologising for shouting at us. He is just the nicest person. Everyone wants to play well for him. If you lose, you are disappointed for him as well as yourself. There are things people don’t see. After training he will stay behind with the younger lads, telling them if they need to improve on their technique or their finishing. He is a real influence at Watford.
“He is quite a positive person. We play wing backs and as much as he wants us to defend, he says if you get an opportunity he will never be mad at you for trying the right things. He will only be mad if he thinks players are hiding on the pitch. He would rather a player lose the ball trying something than just to get by hiding, you know. I echo that sentiment. In football you need to be a bit brave. If things are going bad for you, you can’t hide – you need to express yourself. I think that is the biggest quality he has instilled in us.”
Similar encouragement was ringing in his ears after Strachan’s pre-match team talk in Macedonia. It paved the way for a performance in Macedonia he might have a devil of a job topping. It is inconceivable that on Tuesday night, when Croatia visit Hampden, he will be given the same sort of time and space on the left flank to engineer openings. “The lads made me feel comfortable and, just like Zola, the gaffer said, ‘just try things in the last third, do what comes natural and if it works, it works, if not try again, try again’. Luckily for me, things went well that night.”
Apart from taking to social media, Anya might have been tempted to toast his success with Scotland’s national drink, or branding his evening as being “pure dead brilliant”. All these aspects are suddenly feeling a little more closer to home. “I am back familiar with the terminology up here. I was always drinking Irn Bru… the diet version obviously. The [Scotland] women’s football was on the other day and I thought I didn’t have it, but you can get BBC Alba down the road as well.”
Watching BBC Alba? Anya is more Scottish than most of his country-folk.