Ikechi Anya: Watford's wonder winger is not your everyday player
He was born in Scotland to a Romanian mum and Nigerian dad, speaks fluent Spanish and loves hip-hop and travel. Jack Pitt-Brooke meets an unusual footballer
Friday 02 August 2013
"I'm not your average footballer," says Ikechi Anya, with some understatement. The Watford wing-back was referring to his choice of summer holiday destination this year – Tokyo rather than Ibiza – but this goes deeper than that.
Anya is one of the most interesting characters in English football; multi-talented, engaging and curious. He went from Wycombe Wanderers to Watford via Spain, the one great success of the Glenn Hoddle Academy. He learnt Spanish and now acts as one of the translators for his South American team-mates.
"I'm definitely one of them," Anya says about his off-the-pitch role within Watford's polyglot squad, who visit Birmingham City for their Championship season-opener. Fernando Forestieri, Cristian Battocchio and Javier Acuna – two from Argentina and one from Paraguay – need Anya's help. "I'm seeking a pay rise because I'm translating so much, but it's good fun.
"From my point of view, it's really good to learn another language, and had the Spanish-speaking players not been here maybe I'd have forgotten it. But it's keeping me on my toes, I get to practise , it's good to be bilingual."
Anya gets on well with his team-mates – it is hard to imagine that anyone would not like him – but he admits, with a smile, that he does not share quite the same interests as all of the others.
"I do like a Fifa [computer] game every now and then," Anya says, explaining his earlier self-description. "I meant 'typical footballer' in the sense of – and I don't want to generalise – but my team-mates are all quite into their fashion. Me, I could go to Sainsbury's and buy a £10 pair of jeans and I'm happy. Some of my team-mates like Gucci or Louis Vuitton. It's fine, that's how they are, that's how I am. It's good to have different characters in the team."
In Watford's international squad, Anya is his own story: born in Scotland to Nigerian and Romanian academic parents. (He still visits his mother's family in Romania every summer on top of his other travels.) He spent most of his childhood in Kidlington, just outside Oxford, where his father – Dr Chinasa Anya – taught in the department of materials at the university.
"My dad is a doctor of science, my mum was an accountant, and my brother is a medical doctor. My dad is a proud African, he wanted his children to study, so when I started to play football, at first he wasn't too thrilled about it, but luckily it worked out.
"There was a lot of pressure on me. My dad was into his academics, after school I would have to study for an hour extra, and I started off well, but when I was 15 or 16 I started putting on my music. It wasn't for me but, luckily, my football took over."
Anya began his career on a scholarship at Wycombe Wanderers, becoming their youngest-ever player under Tony Adams. But he was released by Paul Lambert in 2007, a decision which turned out for the best. "He appreciated me as a player but he thought I needed to go one step backwards to go two steps forward. And it looks like he was right – maybe if I'd stayed there I wouldn't be here now."
After a few non-league spells, Anya's old manager John Gorman arranged a trial for him at the Glenn Hoddle Academy, set up in Spain to get young players released by English clubs back into football. Anya did well enough in friendlies against Sevilla to get a contract there, and owes turning his career around to Hoddle.
"He was there an awful lot, taking the training sessions," Anya remembers. "He was brilliant. He was very down to earth, just giving advice. He was a very technically gifted player so he was telling you how to receive the ball, looking over your shoulder, simple things like that."
After spells at Halesowen Town and Northampton, adjusting to life in Spain was a challenge, as Anya required a team-mate to translate, the same role he now performs at Vicarage Road. "I can't lie, it was really hard. I didn't speak any of the language, it was literally just train and then go home. There was one player at Sevilla who could speak English – Bernardo – I must have annoyed him so much. Every day I would say, 'How do you say this, how do you say that?' Luckily, as the years progressed, my Spanish got better, I adapted myself to their culture, I enjoyed it more and more. It was one of the best decisions of my life."
After Sevilla, Anya went to Celta Vigo, before signing from Granada and then going on loan to Cadiz. But last summer the Pozzo family, owners of Granada, acquired Watford and Anya had the chance to return to England on loan. He was delighted to do so, but will always be grateful for his learning experience abroad.
"I improved technically very much out there, the training made me more whole as a player. I went to Spain to go one step back to go two steps forward and, luckily, I achieved it."
Anya, like many of those on loan at Vicarage Road last season, signed a permanent deal earlier this summer despite the imposition of a transfer embargo on the club in March because of financial misconduct under the former owner Laurence Bassini. Watford needed the permission of the Football League for each deal, which they got, in the case of Anya, Almen Abdi, Joel Ekstrand and the rest. "Luckily everything has been sorted out," he says, "and I'm raring to go."
An atypical player at an atypical club, Anya fitted in perfectly at Watford. Having grown up as a winger, he was taught to play as a wing-back in Gianfranco Zola's 3-5-2 by coach Dodo Sormani and veteran Marco Cassetti. Despite all the incoming players, Anya praised the unity of the squad that got so close to Premier League football last year, losing 1-0 to Crystal Palace in extra time in the play-off final.
"You look back at last year, nobody expected that to happen," Anya says, looking back at how Watford exceeded initial expectations. "When you look at it, we were disappointed, because on game day, at Wembley, we didn't turn up. Seeing how happy Crystal Palace were, thinking that could have been us, but wasn't – that was sad and, obviously, it's going to be a motivation for us all throughout this season.
"Maybe it happened for better reasons, maybe it wasn't our time to go up that year, and now we can build a foundation. If we go up this year, hopefully, we can sustain it for a few years in the Premier League."
Anya feels Watford are even better equipped to challenge this year. He describes another new signing Gabriele Angella as "very solid", and Javier Acuna as "another great acquisition" but is most excited by the Italy international Diego Fabbrini. "I'm sure the fans will love him. He's got everything: pace, a good touch, he can hit a ball."
With last year's additions well set and this year's arrivals having had a full pre-season, Anya hopes that this international squad, which he helps to glue together, will challenge harder. "That's the advantage that we've got this year: we've been together. It's those little details. We are one year wiser now, so hopefully it will pay dividends."
My other life
I managed to go to Tokyo this summer. It was very good, it was crazy. I went with my brother and three friends. There's so much to see, we were walking nine hours a day, seeing all the sights, seeing the shrines. Some of the shrines were really good, and just how polite the people were there. And they've got certain rules, even eating on the street is frowned upon.
Music, football and family are my three things. I like to get to the bottom of music, when I listen to a new album, I'll go on the website to read the lyrics to try to get a feel for it, so I understand what the artist is trying to get across. I like all types of music – last night I found myself listening to country music, but predominantly it would be hip-hop.
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