Kelechi Iheanacho was 13 when he made his debut in the shirt of Nigeria. Later, he won the Golden Ball at the Under 17 World Cup, and was voted Most Promising Talent by the Confederation of African Football.
That was 2013. The boy from Owerri in Nigeria’s south east signed for Leicester in 2017.
No less Nigerian, Wilfred Ndidi hails from the biggest city, Lagos. He was picked by his country at Under 17 and Under 20 level and made his senior debut against DR Congo on October 8, 2015, roughly 15 months before he played his first game for Leicester, against Everton in the FA Cup.
Leicester City surely knew that the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho (R) and Wilfred Ndidi (L) would head to AFCON when they were signed by the club
As for Daniel Amartey, he was born in Accra, capital of Ghana and by May 2012 was a regular for his country’s Under 20 team before graduating to the seniors. In 2015, he started every group game at the Africa Cup of Nations for Ghana as they finished runners-up to Ivory Coast, losing the final on penalties. A year later he signed for Leicester.
So we can safely presume that when Leicester recruited these players they were under no illusions about nationality. These were African men, born in Africa, who could be expected to play for their countries of origin.
Only Iheanacho was yet to make his senior debut when he joined Leicester but there was no doubting his allegiance. And as the Africa Cup of Nations frequently takes place in the English mid-winter, no doubting the possibility that any African players might be absent for its duration.
Yet when Leicester applied, successfully, to have tonight’s match at Everton postponed, among the reasons given was the unavailability of Iheanacho, Ndidi and Amartey due to international duty at Afcon.
As if these were unforeseen events beyond Leicester’s control.
No wonder managers such as Ralph Hasenhuttl of Southampton are questioning the legitimacy of postponements and calling for restrictions on team selection when the games are played. Almost certainly he will not win that one but he has a point.
The announcement from the Premier League on Sunday said that Leicester did not have the required number of players available due to ‘Covid-19 cases, injuries and players on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations’.
Many coaches are already suspicious of injuries, which are an occupational hazard, being thrown in the mix with the exceptional circumstances around Covid positives. But to then make allowances for African players, bought in the knowledge that they could be unavailable when Afcon called, seems to take understanding a little too far.
So it is a mystery why the Foxes cited the tournament as one reason their game at Everton should be postponed
Was this also a factor when the EFL postponed Liverpool’s Carabao Cup semi-final against Arsenal? Obviously, Covid positives are now putting greater pressure on clubs with significant numbers of African players but why should those with better homegrown pathways be forced to muddle through, while Afcon absentees become a factor? Postponements were intended for unanticipated disruption. This hardly applies to Mohamed Salah turning out to be Egyptian.
Sometimes nationality issues come as a surprise. Michail Antonio, from Wandsworth in south London, signed for West Ham in 2015. Only in 2021 did he decide to become a Jamaican international.
Wilfried Zaha was trying to establish himself with England during his first spell at Crystal Palace and again on his return in 2014. It was only in 2016, however, that he elected to declare for Ivory Coast, his country of birth.
So Palace can argue that for Zaha to be away on international duty at Afcon right now, is not what was expected when they bought him from Manchester United. This cannot be said in Leicester’s case.
Ralph Hasenhuttl has voiced his concerns, but his solution will not curry favour among bosses
Increasingly, there is disquiet over the convenience and benefits of postponement. Hasenhuttl said that acquired players should not be allowed to play in rearranged games where the postponement pre-dated their arrival. We can guess one club he might have in mind. Newcastle have already signed Kieran Trippier from Atletico Madrid. Other arrivals are in the offing. The club is making no secret of its intention to buy itself out of trouble in the January transfer window, buoyed by Saudi Arabian money.
Hasenhuttl knows that when Southampton’s game against Newcastle — postponed on January 2 — is played, the opposition squad could look entirely different. If Covid alone was responsible, his comments might appear churlish. Yet Newcastle were one of many clubs who cited injuries and Covid combined. This already appeared an extension of the postponement remit.
To then throw Afcon in there is further along an increasingly chaotic path. Leyton Orient were kicked out of the Carabao Cup last season when a Covid outbreak caused their tie with Tottenham to be postponed. No such summary justice for Liverpool this season.
No question of where Leicester stand if the absence of three African players is considered to be expected. There was no chance of Leicester being told to surrender the points.
The likes of Newcastle will benefit from postponements to allow January additions to the side
Hasenhuttl said he raised tying clubs to their pre-transfer window squads at the last Premier League meeting, without success. No wonder. There have been plenty benefiting from postponements at critical times this season and plenty whose reasoning has raised eyebrows. Equally, Aston Villa are hardly likely to vote for fulfilling fixtures without Philippe Coutinho and Lucas Digne.
Yet Hasenhuttl’s words reveal the deep mistrust that exists in the top division, a suspicion that some clubs, at a hectic and challenging stage in the campaign, gamed the system and took advantage of rules that were introduced with the best intentions.
Of course, a squad already depleted by Covid can be further harmed by injury but if your African-born players have suddenly been taken African, then really, whose fault is that?
VAR ONCE AGAIN INTERPRETED TO BENEFIT DEFENDERS
There was widespread consensus that West Ham’s first goal against Leeds last Sunday should not have stood. That Jarrod Bowen was offside when attempting to play the ball and that Leeds defender Leo Hjelde passed to the West Ham man accidentally. Referee Stuart Attwell and VAR Peter Bankes were wrong, therefore, to interpret that as a deliberate action, playing Bowen (right) onside.
Fair enough. But why no mention of the foul — the repeated holding — on Nikola Vlasic inside the penalty area before he struck the initial shot that Hjelde blocked? If it isn’t a goal, then it’s a penalty. Yet no talk of this in any of the analysis.
As always since the advent of VAR, the rules appear to be interpreted to benefit the defender, and in this case the team committing a foul. Progress indeed.
DEAD RUBBER DRAWS ARE MEANINGLESS
‘It was hugely important,’ said captain Joe Root of England’s fourth Test draw in Sydney.
No, it wasn’t. It mattered about as much as Chesterfield scoring in the 80th minute after shipping five goals against Chelsea last Saturday.
It was good that Zak Crawley made a score because he has talent that needs to be nurtured, and Jonny Bairstow and Stuart Broad made their points to the coach, too.
But another bold England performance in a dead rubber only highlights the weaknesses before. The players are rather lucky that so many read so much into what was in essence a meaningless event.
England took pride in their draw in Sydney this week but it was an utterly meaningless result
ALL WHITE ISN’T ALRIGHT FOR GUNNERS
Arsenal’s all-white colours at Nottingham Forest last Sunday were worn for a good cause. The anti-knife initiative ‘No More Red’ asked them to make the change and while stalwarts may argue that no Arsenal team should ever play in white, the gesture was well-intentioned.
One quibble. The white-out included white numbers on white shirts. And we get the point. No red. It was, however, January 16, 1999 when Arsenal last played a league game at the City Ground. Since then, there have been three visits in cup competitions. It is quite possible then that the locals aren’t completely familiar with Arsenal’s players. And this was a big game for Forest. Given those fans have paid their money, was it entirely fair to leave them in the dark about identities? Would it really have undermined the message to at least use black, or coloured, numbers to give the fans a chance? Particularly as the FA Cup logo, which is red, was still prominently displayed on the shirt sleeves.
Having said this, the way Arsenal played, maybe they all simply preferred to remain anonymous.
The meaning behind Arsenal’s all-white kit was well-intentioned, but made them anonymous
MURRAY SERVES UP ACE OVER FARAGE
Mystifyingly, Nigel Farage turned up in Serbia to show his support for the Djokovic family. ‘Please record the awkward moment when you tell them you’ve spent most of your career campaigning to have people from Eastern Europe deported,’ tweeted Andy Murray. What a serve. He’s still got it, you know.
WOOD NEWCASTLE LINKS ARE BAFFLING
Newcastle have been linked to many players in this transfer window, but none more bemusing than Chris Wood, the Burnley striker. Why on earth would Burnley wish to lose one of their most important assets, the goalscorer charged with keeping them in the Premier League this season? Equally, why would they want to solve a problem for Newcastle, one of the clubs they need to push into the Championship in order to survive? It makes no sense from either perspective.
Unless Burnley have told Newcastle explicitly that they will sell, the whole business seems incredibly naive and time-consuming.
GERRARD IS THE BEST BET FOR COUTINHO
Philippe Coutinho is a fine signing for Aston Villa, yet they are also the only Premier League club who could have full confidence in his arrival. Coutinho was a brilliant player for Liverpool but a disappointment at Barcelona, despite playing in two title-winning campaigns. Bayern Munich then chose not to keep him, despite featuring in a treble win.
So a return to the Premier League was greeted with trepidation. Would Coutinho (right) pull his weight at Everton or Newcastle? Would he be another James Rodriguez?
Enter Villa and Steven Gerrard. If anyone can get a performance out of Coutinho, it is his old Liverpool team-mate. If anyone can inspire the work ethic essential to Premier League success, it is Villa’s coach.
If Gerrard succeeds, Coutinho is a potential game-changer. Having lost Jack Grealish, Villa have recruited a player capable of equivalent impact. He will also raise the bar for the calibre of player Villa can attract. Taking Lucas Digne from under the noses of Chelsea, for instance, is some statement.
If anybody can turn around Philippe Coutinho’s career, it is former team-mate Steven Gerrard
ATTENDANCE FIGURES A SIGN OF THE TIMES
Wrexham are averaging gates of more than 8,000 in the National League, Notts County and Stockport above 6,000, Grimsby and Chesterfield marginally below. Yet just 532 attended Birmingham’s match against Arsenal, the best team in the land, in the WSL on Sunday.
Bottom club Dover, with the weakest National League attendance, average 816. Anyone who doesn’t think this is an urgent problem doesn’t understand the economics of recession.
NO MAGIC IN DULL FA CUP DRAW
The reason Roy Keane is highly valued as a pundit is because so much of what we hear is fake. At the weekend, the FA Cup fourth round draw was discussed in excited terms when, in reality, there are about two good ties in it. The five elite clubs left were all drawn at home to inferior opposition, and only two Premier League teams will play away against clubs from the leagues below.
Kidderminster Harriers against West Ham is the best of it, as well as Nottingham Forest against Leicester. Yet, ‘wow’ we were repeatedly told, about Premier League mid-table reruns, and obvious mismatches. Wow, indeed.
MILWALL ONCE AGAIN FAIL TO BACK UP ANTAGONISTIC ANTICS
Bottles were thrown and homophobic chanting marred the FA Cup third-round tie between Millwall and Crystal Palace. Once again, though, Millwall’s team failed to back up the antagonistic attitudes at the Den, by falling at the first hurdle.
If they were any good they would be dangerous.
PETTY WELSH MUST LEAVE CHESTER BE
After Chester Rovers and Old King’s Scholars amalgamated in 1885, the new club, Chester, played in a variety of leagues. The Combination, which they won in 1909, the Lancashire Combination, the Cheshire County League and the Football League.
They were initially placed in Division Three (North), dropped to Division Four, came back for the odd season and fell into the Conference in 1999-2000. They became Chester City in 1983, but reverted to Chester FC after going into administration. The new club started life in the Northern Premier League Division One North and now reside in National League North.
You will notice something about these leagues. None of them are in Wales. Nor is Chester FC, not wholly. The front gates of the Deva Stadium, its car park and the club offices are in England, the pitch is across the border.
Yet the club have now been warned against hosting crowds because it breaches Welsh lockdown rules. Chester’s chairman Andy Morris says if the club play behind closed doors it cannot receive financial support, because it is not a Welsh club. The Welsh government denies this. It all seems so unnecessary and petty.
As if the pandemic is not difficult enough, the devolved Welsh government has time for this? Chester is an English football club and Mark Drakeford’s line drawers should butt out.