2013 Under-17 World Cup-winning coach Manu Garba believes that Leicester City forward Kelechi Iheanacho’s on-field struggles of late could be due to bad influences from friends off the pitch.
The 23-year-old Nigeria international was the star of the youth tournament in the United Emirates seven years ago which the Golden Eaglets lifted, with the forward himself winning both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball.
A number of suitors were soon in pursuit of the Taye Academy graduate, but it was ultimately Manchester City who won the race to sign him.
Having impressed with the City youth squad, he made an instant impact when he was drafted into the first team, scoring on his debut and going on to net 14 goals for the entire 2015-16 season.
His stock began to fall when Pep Guardiola arrived at the Etihad Stadium, and he was eventually sold to Leicester City for £25 million in 2017. Although he has shown flashes of brilliance on occasion, Iheanacho is not a first-team regular and has most often come off the bench in his 89 appearances, scoring 20 goals and providing 12 assists
Garba cites Iheanacho’s rapid rise to stardom, having come from a poor background, as a possible distraction which has prevented him from realising his potential.
“I’m still wondering how Kelechi didn’t emerge as one of the best in England,” he told The Athletic. “He might have fallen under bad influences from friends, coming from a poor background to an improved status. That can become a distraction when you are so young, but I have seen the old Iheanacho at Leicester.”
Garba recounts how Iheanacho was emotionally down following the demise of his mother two months before the 2013 African Under-17 Championship in Morocco, but remembered how the youngster still summoned the courage to score five times including a hat-trick in a 7-0 demolition of the Republic of Congo in the group phase.
“During the qualifying matches before the tournament against Niger, Guinea and Mali, he was our leading scorer,” Garba said, "but I can vividly remember two weeks before the last qualifying match against Mali, he lost his mother [to a short illness] and he was psychologically very low.
“Even his father couldn’t calm him down because he was so close to his mother. I had to use wisdom to calm him down and he made the team against Mali.”
Garba still believes that Iheanacho can be a valuable asset for Leicester and Brendan Rodgers, but only if they can help him refine some of the weaker elements of his game.
“Iheanacho is an asset to any club if the manager understands him, helps him and works on his off-the-ball contribution,” Garba exclaimed. “He will be useful coming behind the main striker because his final passes are inch-perfect and he can shoot from distance. He will be a good player for Leicester.”