In Iliman Ndiaye, Sheffield United have a special talent on their hands

THERE is a joy watching Iliman Ndiaye in full flow; an instinctive footballer blessed with the sort of intrinsic skill that you simply cannot teach.

Those ball-playing qualities and that expressionism first came to the fore in the Normandy town of Rouen before being seen in the port city of Marseille.

They were then viewed in his father’s homeland of Senegal where Ndiaye featured for the delightfully-named Dakar Sacre Coeur club. Athleticism and stamina was subsequently built running on beaches in the West African nation alongside his seven sisters, who were part of a big sporting family.

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Ndiaye’s journey then took him to London. Football camps with the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Reading would follow and he had a trial at Southampton before joining non-league outfit Boreham Wood.

Emerging talent: Blades star Iliman Ndiaye. Picture: Tony Johnson

It was not too far away from that town in southern Hertfordshire where the Sheffield United midfielder alerted a wider footballing audience to his prowess.

His wonderful virtouso goal from inside his own half in the Blades’ pre-Christmas victory at Fulham’s Craven Cottage home was a thing of beauty.

A ‘work of art’ as it was gushingly hailed on Sky Sports.

His captain, Billy Sharp, instantly clapped his hands in the air in recognition of the stunner, while Ndiaye went straight over to United chief Paul Heckingbottom, someone who has been key in his development and watched out for him before he took over as permanent manager at Bramall Lane.

Sheffield United 's Iliman Ndiaye gets past Derby's Festy Ebosele. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Without wishing to go publicly overboard – allied to a natural desire to keep Ndiaye’s feet on the ground – the feeling in the corridors of power at the club is that they may have found something special.

On perhaps most important moment of his career thus far, Ndiaye, 21, said: “Because I like dribbling, I just thought they (Fulham players) are all over there in our defensive box and I will just get the ball forward.

“As I am running, I just thought: ‘I cannot stop’ and took my shot and it worked.

“After that, I was so happy with myself and I went to the manager to celebrate – Hecky, Jack (Lester) and Macca (Stuart McCall).

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is interviewed after the Sky Bet Championship match at Deepdale (Picture: PA)

“We had been speaking in training and I was happy to get the goal. You have two sides in football; the tactics and individual play.

“Sometimes, that (individual) side of football is going to come out in some players, which helped to get the win against Fulham.

“It brings me joy and looking out, fans really love football and you have got to give something to them.”

Speaking about his influences as a football-mad youngster, Ndiaye is spoilt for choice.

“There’s too many,” he admits.

“Dribbling-wise, you have got Ronaldinho. I used to look at a lot of players when I was young. Ronaldinho, (Zinedine) Zidane and (Leo) Messi, who is something else. I used to watch them and go training and practice what they were doing. To this day, I still do it.”

The trick now for Ndiaye – who first announced himself with two goals, an assist and the man-of-the-match award on his first league start in the 6-2 home victory against Peterborough United in September – is harnessing that wonderful natural ability with game nous, discipline and durability at Championship level.

Ndiaye knows he is in good hands under Heckingbottom, who clearly thinks the world of him, having handed him his United bow from the bench in the Premier League game at Leicester in mid-March – his first game in charge following the departure of Chris Wilder.

In its own way, it provided hope to Ndiaye – and a potential pathway for other aspiring young Blades players in the process.

Somewhat a mentor in the development of the 21-year-old, Heckingbottom’s task now is to make him a hardened professional who develops game management to complement his natural gifts.

The Blades chief liked what he saw in Tuesday’s game at Preston. Yet it was still a night when Ndiaye and his team-mates ended up taking one point home with them instead of three.

That must be remembered, but Heckingbottom is happy to accentuate the positives for the time being with Ndiaye, who by his admission is still learning.

“I thought all he was missing on Tuesday was a goal,” commented Heckingbottom.

“The way he won the ball back under pressure was excellent. We will keep challenging him for more goals and more assists.

“He knows what I want – work ethic, determination and drive and a willingness. Even when he was playing when I wasn’t in charge, I was pushing him to show more intent.”

The respect between aspiring young player and manager is reciprocated.

It is also worth acknowledging that for all of Ndiaye’s qualities, he is clearly no show-pony either.

Given his particular footballing journey where he has had to fight for everything and copped a few knockbacks along the way, the Frenchman – despite being pretty unassuming and quietly-spoken – clearly has a bit of inner toughness about him, which you need.

There is a clear determination to succeed as well.

Two seasons ago, Ndiaye was doing the hard yards on the non-league circuit on loan at Hyde United and happy to do that. It is the sort of commitment which will have been duly noted by Heckingbottom.

Ndiaye continued: “He gave me my debut and since he has joined, it has been amazing working with him.

“He is always trying to push me to my best and everything I do, he tells me about it and tells me to get on the ball in games all the time as he knows what I can do.

“He has always been behind me, even when he was not in charge. It is something I really appreciate.”