The Sportsman’s Road to Wembley has reached, well, Wembley, as the FA Cup semi-finals are upon us. We began with Trafford FC in the very first qualifying round and now we are with Sheffield United after they scored a last minute winner over Blackburn Rovers in the last eight. We focus on one of their star players ready to take centre stage at Wembley, with the help of Boreham Wood’s former academy director Cameron Mawer.
Iliman Ndiaye has enjoyed a rapid rise. Four years ago he was playing non-league football for Boreham Wood, now he is on the brink of becoming a Premier League star, has played at a World Cup and will take centre stage at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final this weekend.
Cameron Mawer was Boreham Wood’s Academy Director when Ndiaye joined the club at 16, and has played a key role in his development. Now he is ready to watch his star shine at Wembley and in the Premier League.
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“He was quite small, quiet and just loved playing football,” Mawer tells The Sportsman ahead of the semi-final vs Manchester City. “He was clearly very talented, he looked at home with the ball at his feet and could do things that could wow you from day one.“
It was a slice of fortune that brought the teenage Ndiaye to Mawer’s door. But with the help of a minibus, he stumbled on a precocious young talent.
“We got a phone call from another programme and they had around 12 players and their program couldn’t run as it failed to get the education requirements needed,” Mawer explains. “They asked if we could take them in as the normal intake time is September, but we were such a big academy we could still accept them. So I went and picked that group up in a minibus, Iliman came along and we took them and he was the only one who stayed out of the 12."
“He was 16 when he first joined,” the former Academy Director continues. “His ability to manipulate the ball, how comfortable he was in possession, his acceleration with and without the ball and his ability to drop his shoulder and beat people and glide past them. I have to say also his confidence, he was quiet but he knew exactly where he wanted to go.
“I work with a lot of 16 to 18-year-olds with an ambition of playing at the top level but I am realistic with them and I’d have make sure we talk about plan B. But with Iliman he wouldn’t think about plan B, he would also say I’m going to be a footballer. He's probably the only ever player who I haven’t managed to convince they need a plan B. He was so sure.”
Ndiaye’s rise has been spectacular, and some of the things he did as a youngster made him a standout talent who would soon play at a far higher level.
“His goal at St George’s Park in a PGMOL tournament against Dover stands out. He took the ball from the sky and around four or five players before passing it into the corner but this was the norm for him. He would do the same in first team sessions at Boreham Wood.
“He progressed through from our PASE section into the elite section playing for England Colleges along the way. He broke into the first team and would train with them and made the bench before he trialled with Bristol City and got a no, then Sheffield United came in to take him on trial. He trialled and played for their under 23s and everyone started talking about him so he went straight into Chelsea on trial but he wasn’t quite what they were looking for so he signed for Sheffield United straight away.”
At Sheffield United, Ndiaye has been a revelation. He’s registered 12 goals and seven assists in the Championship this term and performances have taken him into the Senegal squad alongside superstars such as Sadio Mane and Kalidou Koulibaly. Now, the Premier League awaits - so is Mawer surprised by the speed of his progress?
“Yes and no… yes because it’s astonishing how quick and how far he has gone, he’s gone from a non league academy to a full international with the likes of Sadio Mane… but no because he’s so talented and has so much self believe, he always said he would do it and he has the mentality to back it up. There won’t be anyone who outworks him. He's a humble boy with a fantastic desire to be the best.”
“Words can’t explain how proud of him I am.” Mawer states. “I know his journey, I know what he put in everyday, I know how hard it was for him at times but he always found a way to get in and work hard and I know what it means to him for his family to see him doing something he loves. I’m lucky enough to have got the chance to work with him for two and a half years and play a small part in his journey. I’ve worked with Sorba Thomas, who is now with Blackburn, and Ben Goodliffe, who is now with Sutton United, so I love what I do and I want to find the next Iliman Ndiaye. We exchange messages from time to time and I'll always drop him a well done when he does something well.”
So what will playing at Wembley in an FA Cup final mean to Ndiaye?
“Everything and more, you can see the way he plays and celebrates, he still plays it like a kid in the park. To think the boy who walked into the football club all those years ago is likely to be a Premier League player soon and will walk out at Wembley alongside the Man City stars is his dream but I know he will want to do more. He won’t be content winning a semi-final or getting into the Prem, he will want to keep going and achieve even more. He’s a hungry individual who wants to go right the way to the top.
“I firmly believe he will take the Premier League by storm next year, you only have to see his goal against Tottenham. He fears no one and believes he should be there and has the ability to back it up. He will have many World Cups ahead of him and I know he loves his country and will want to be a part of a squad that takes them deep into a World Cup like the last one. It’s very exciting for him because he can go all the way to the top.”