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How Odion Ighalo's transfer to Manchester United happened on deadline day

Shanghai Shenhua striker Odion Ighalo almost failed to get his dream transfer to Manchester United on the Jan. 31 deadline day -- a few minutes later, and he could have been at a rival Premier League club instead -- but once things started to move, they did so at lightning pace. A frenetic night of talks spanning Norway, England and China saw it take just eight hours from the first phone call to the final contract signing for United to land the 30-year-old on loan.

The man at the centre of it all was not Ighalo himself but his agent, Atta Aneke, the Norwegian-Nigerian who has managed the former Super Eagles striker since his transfer to Lyn in 2007, then through permanent moves to Udinese in Italy, Watford in England and finally Changchun Yatai and Shanghai Shenhua in China.

With just over a week to go until the end of the January transfer window, and with Manchester United still in desperate need of a striker, Aneke said he contacted the club with his client's availability for a loan.

"I reached out to Manchester United about him maybe a week prior to the transfer deadline," Aneke told ESPN. "We spoke at first; they asked some questions and got some info about him. But I never heard back from them again after that. The day before deadline day, I felt there wasn't going to be any deal because I was picking up from a fellow agent that they were chasing some other player."

Aneke, of course, briefed his client on the situation, given he is a self-confessed United fan. This was in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak and there were reports of some players wanting to leave China, but Aneke says Ighalo was not among them.

"Actually, he wasn't really looking to leave, to be honest," he added. "He was quite OK. Preseason was on. There was never a discussion that we needed to make something happen this window. He's always been fine in China and enjoying his time there.

"So it needed something like this [United's interest] to make him want to leave because there's been many loan offers all the time and teams wanting him to come. Even when I contacted United, I gave him a hint earlier that I was speaking to them and they seemed interested. He was a bit excited but not overexcited. That is how it is in football. There are so many rumours in football. Knowing it came from me, he knew there was truth in it, but he wasn't overexcited because you know the game. If you get excited every time a club reaches out, you're going to get a lot of disappointment."

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The other player that United were keen to sign is now known to have been Bournemouth's Josh King, a former youth player at Old Trafford. It was only when the King deal fell through that Aneke was surprised by a call from United, late on deadline-day afternoon.

"When I got the final confirmation, it was past 4 p.m. Norwegian time. So I had less than eight hours to get this all done," he said. "Also, when they called me, it was 11 p.m. in Shanghai. I was like, 'How are we possibly going to make this happen now with all the paperwork that has to be done between the clubs and everything?' At that point I was a bit worried, to be honest. I did not think we would get it all done on time to beat the deadline."

Aneke called Ighalo, who had to wake up his translator in China and then go in search of the Shanghai Shenhua sporting director. That is when they ran into a stroke of good fortune: The sporting director was not in bed. He was working. 

"Luckily the sporting director was up working because they were negotiating a loan move to another Premier League side [reported to be Tottenham Hotspur]," Aneke said. "Otherwise, it would have been difficult to get hold of him and that may have cost us valuable time."

At that point, Ighalo put a stop to everything else -- even when it appeared there was more money on the table from elsewhere. Aneke said: "He was the one that said: 'I really want to do this.' He said: 'I don't really care if the other teams are offering more, I just want to go to Man United.' He told me: 'Just make it happen.'"

Working feverishly late into the night to get the deal done, Aneke says the successful conclusion was simultaneously a relief and the crowning moment of his career as a player representative.

"It was a big relief. Since day one, he [Ighalo] told me that this was his dream. To play for Manchester United one day," he said. "To take a player to such a club, not the financial side but more the joy of doing a transfer like this, is really fulfilling. So this is the biggest one for me."

Aneke, who also manages other stars including Heerenveen's Chidera Ejuke in the Dutch league, says there is a lesson for players who change agents with alarming regularity.

"It's also a good thing as it shows players you don't have to switch agents every year to make it to the top," Aneke added. "He's been loyal and we have had a great working relationship for 13 years now.

"It is so easy to get carried away in the football world, and so many people promise players so many things. Just to look at his career, the kind of places he's gone, and the kind of money he has made and he's still kept his personality, staying the same Odion. It's remarkable to see."

Childhood dream achieved, Ighalo will now be keen to show the United fans how much it means to him to wear the famous red shirt. And if his goals can help Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side to turn things around, then all the hard work to get the deal done will have been well worth it.

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