The sudden emergence of FC Midtjylland hero Paul Onuachu
When Paul Onuachu came on for Martin Pusic after an hour of FC Midjytlland's Europa League round of 32 first leg against Manchester United, few could have imagined that he would end up hogging the headlines at the end.
Few knew about him. And that includes back in his home country Nigeria.
Standing at an ungainly 6'7" (that's just an inch shorter than Peter Crouch), and with just one goal in six previous Europa League contests, Onuachu hardly looked like he posed much of a threat. That was, until his first contribution, which came within minutes of his introduction when stretched his giraffe-like neck ahead of Chris Smalling to get his head onto a crossed ball and force United goalkeeper Sergio Romero into making a reaction save.
Within 15 minutes, he had made an even more telling, decisive contribution. Dainty feet in close quarters saw him almost get away from two defenders, only for the ball to squib away briefly due to his not-so-perfect control. But the ball fell back kindly for him, and some more nifty footwork saw him shift the ball, then drive past Romero to score what would be the winning goal. Minnows Midjtylland had stunned giants Manchester United, and unknown Onuachu was the man of the moment.
It is a heady experience for the 21-year-old, who was playing amateur football barely three years ago and almost did not even make it to the professional ranks. While turning out as an offensive midfielder for Young Stars Academy in Lagos, Nigeria, Onuachu's growth spurt meant he could not quite function effectively in that playmaking role and his future as a footballer looked in doubt. His father, growing impatient, decided it would be better for his younger son to leave football and either continue his education, or become a trader at the popular Alaba electronics market in Lagos.
That was when fortune played its part. First, his coaches at Young Stars decided to convert him to a striker, where his emerging physical attributes could be more of an asset.
"It was tough for him as he was growing taller. We had options to either move him to defensive midfield, central defence or attack. We decided that because of his great footwork, which would be wasted if he played so deep, we should make him a striker," said Young Stars coach Osahon Emokpae to ESPN FC.
Then he was spotted by FC Ebedei's Churchill Oliseh, elder brother of Nigeria senior team coach Sunday Oliseh, and a man whose track record of spotting and promoting talent includes the likes of Obafemi Martins, Stephen Makinwa and current Nigeria midfielder Sylvester Igboun.
"As soon as I saw him, I knew he was special," said Oliseh to ESPN FC. "And as I always do with my players, we immediately put him on scholarship at Golden Gate College, Sagamu while he played and lived at the academy."
While at school, Onuachu played for Ebedei, including a friendly match against Nigeria's under 23 team in which he was head a shoulders above everyone else, and not just physically.
"Some of the team officials came to me and said I should tell him to show more respect to his senior international colleagues and not embarrass them too much," Oliseh said.
Within months of leaving school, where he passed his O Levels with seven credits, and finishing as third-highest scorer in the Nigerian second division, Onuachu was off to Denmark to join Ebedei's parent club, Midjytlland.
He may not yet be a prolific scorer, but his goals have often proved decisive. And despite the rawness of his game -- his touch can be a bit heavy at times -- his potential is such that a Nigeria Olympic team official, who did not want to be named, told ESPNFC that Onuachu is already a lock for the Olympic Games squad this summer, despite having never kicked a ball in qualifying.
"He has been with us during the qualifiers, but has not played a game because his club always releases him late. In fact, he was in the provisional squad for the Africa Under-23 championships, but could not make it because his club refused to release him," ESPNFC was informed. "But he will be in the Olympic team for sure."
Nigeria U-23 coach Samson Siasia is an admirer but says he needs him to play more games. "He has trained with us and has a lot of potential," Siasia told ESPNFC. "But he needs to play more games for his club to reach that potential, not just to come in with 20 minutes to go."
Oliseh insists that the 21 year-old Onuachu, who was a member of his school's 4x100m relay team, has all the tools. "For a player with his height, he has good dribbling ability. People of his height only rely mostly on their aerial strength, but he can play, both in the air and on the ground. And he has speed," said Oliseh.
That versatility is what Manchester United will now have to be wary of. Having stung the Red Devils with his ground game, the aerial ability that he showed after his introduction could be next on the plate when Midjytlland travel to Old Trafford on Thursday for the return leg.
Reeling from the humiliation of that defeat, and having swatted Shrewsbury aside in the FA Cup immediately after, United will be chomping at the bit for revenge.
Onuachu brimming with confidence, is unfazed. "We just have to believe in ourselves. This is football, anything can happen and if we play our game, we can finish the job there at Old Trafford."
Words United manager Louis van Gaal and his troops will do well to heed.
Colin Udoh is a Nigeria football correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.