From the moment Carl Ikeme made his senior debut for the Super Eagles against Tanzania in September 2015, the fans fell in love with him.
The team was still coming to grips with the sudden retirement of Vincent Enyeama after a fallout with then-coach Sunday Oliseh, but Ikeme’s debut was able to show that, despite being 29 at the time, he would fit in to replace Nigeria’s joint most-capped player as a long-term option between the sticks.
Indeed, Ikeme went on to impress as he played 10 times for the national team, keeping seven clean sheets and conceding only four goals. Furthermore, the Super Eagles suffered defeat just once in all the games he played.
It was a tragic moment when the former Wolverhampton Wanderers shot stopper was diagnosed with acute leukaemia after returning with abnormal blood samples during pre-season last July. He’s been on the road to recovery ever since, announcing last month that he was in remission.
That was very positive news, but it was obviously clear that with all that’s happened to him, it would be difficult to return to action on the pitch.
Nigeria has also moved on since Ikeme’s absence, having to reshuffle options in Daniel Akpeyi, Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Francis Uzoho before finally settling for the wonderkid. Make no mistake though, Ikeme’s presence and influence between the sticks could well have been greatly missed.
His story is a fascinating one, in that his career kicked into gear at his peak.
Born in Sutton Coldfield, Ikeme spent his entire career at Wolves, progressing through the academy before being promoted to the senior team during the 2003-04 Premier League season at the age of 17.
He didn’t play that year and was never truly a regular at Molineux and served nine loan spells at eight different clubs between 2004 and 2012. Injury problems also limited his progress.
His fortunes changed during the 2012-13 Championship season where he made 38 appearances and became the established number one until his leukaemia diagnosis.
Ikeme made a total of 205 competitive appearances for Wolves, keeping 71 clean sheets, with a club career total of 267 appearances and 82 clean sheets.
His resilience and diligence earned him his rewards even though late, and it’s a great shame that Ikeme won’t be able to man the posts for Wolves as they prepare for life in the Premier League after a six-year absence.
Ikeme was eligible to play for England but instead chose to represent Nigeria, joining of a host of players raised abroad like Leon Balogun, William Troost-Ekong, Alex Iwobi and others in making the switch.
His presence and confidence were key assets, and it’s no surprise that Super Eagles Coach Gernot Rohr stated prior to the 2018 World Cup that his biggest regret was not having Ikeme in his final 23-man squad.
Could his presence have changed Nigeria’s World Cup fortunes?
Ikeme might have arrived late onto the scene, but he’s been able to attain significant admiration from Nigerians in a short space of time, and his contribution, while brief, will always be remembered and celebrated.