Ikechi Anya, Watford’s rising star is Britain’s shining example.

October 4, 2013 in Championship by Ben Said Scott

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Watford winger Ikechi Anya is fast becoming a household name. This season has started where the last kicked off with Anya’s career going from strength to strength. His first goal for Scotland came in his first international call up. Domestically his form has helped Watford recover from their chaotic end to last season (where they were all most promoted both on the final day and in the play-off final), this also included an early goal of the season in which he ran half the length of the field with the ball before netting against Barnsley.

However if Anya and the Hornets can secure promotion to the Premier League Anya’s route to the top will not have been easy. In fact Anya’s young career may have stopped before it had even started, which would have not only been a shame for the player himself but an indictment on the British player development system itself.

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It is fair to say that Ikechi Anya’s childhood was as atypical as they come. Born to a Romanian mother and a Nigerian father the Watford winger was born and grew up in Glasgow (Anya is still a devout Rangers fan) where his father was completing his doctorate. Following the completion of his studies his father moved to Oxford, where he became a professor and his family followed. It was here that the young Anya’s talent was first spotted. He gained a scholarship at Wycombe Wanderers against the wishes of his father, who thought the winger should prioritise his education over his sporting career. Luckily for those who have watched him play he chose to stick with football rather than follow an academic career like his brother (who is a qualified medical Doctor).

His footballing career started brightly, his frightening pace and natural ability led him to be moved up into the first team by then manager Tony Adams. He started his first game in September 2004 becoming Wycombe’s youngest-ever player at 16 years old, the hype around him began to grow. He was given a new professional deal and won Apprentice of the year at the inaugural Football League Awards in 2006.

However like so many promising young British professionals he failed to develop. He began to become a one trick pony. Relying far too much on his pace and too easily brushed off the ball in a physical league - the natural talent that had made him such a young star had failed to be nurtured.

He was released by Wycombe in the summer of 2007 and bounced around non-league with spells at Oxford City and Halesowen Town.  His career was going the route of so many other British players, into non-league and into obscurity with not enough time spent on trying to rehabilitate players let go from their professional contracts.

Yet one man didn’t give up on Anya’s talents. John Gorman, Anya’s ex manager, arranged a trial at Glenn Hoddle’s newly established academy. Set up in Spain to catch youngsters such as Anya before they fell through the net. In trials he was good enough to earn a place and learnt basic technical skills that improved him immensely as a player. Rather than focus on his physical attributes he was taught how to receive the ball, how to be aware of what was around him, simple things that are simply deemed to basic to teach in Britain.

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His talent flourished and he earned another professional contract, this time at Northampton town on a short term deal. He played well and had the opportunity to re-sign for the club on a longer term deal but decided that a move back to Spain to play for Sevilla Atletico (Sevilla’s second team) too good an opportunity to turn down. Despite his inability to speak particularly good Spanish Anya decided to take the challenge on and immersed himself into the culture. It is another thing which too many English players aren’t willing to do. His second spell in Spain progressed him even further as a player and by the time he had moved to Granada Anya was not only the speed demon he had always been but was also now as technically gifted as any young Spanish player.

When the Pozzo family brought Watford in the summer of 2012 Anya was given the opportunity to move back to the country he grew up in. He grabbed at the chance first signing on loan and then, like so many of the other Watford players last season, signed a permanent contract this summer. Because of the training he received he has become one of the stand-out performers in the championship. Able to get to the byline and get crosses in, but equally capable of playing short one-twos so vital to the way Gianfranco Zola’s side play.

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Because of Anya’s willingness to go abroad and take every opportunity offered to him he has developed into a real talent, but if his story says anything it is that young British talent needs to be given both time and opportunity to succeed. Let us hope the lesson is heard, we could certainly do with more players with Anya’s ability to excite.

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