THROUGH ALEX IWOBI, NIGERIA BACK AT EVERTON, 70 YEARS LATER

It was on the training ground of Everton FC that Nigeria’s national team first trained on a foreign soil in 1949.

Sports Village Square recalls that it was also on the same ground that the team took what is easily the first official group photograph on August 31, 1949.

Nigeria’s national team first portrait taken at Everton training ground in August 1949.

Seventy years on, another Nigerian national team player, Alex Iwobi goes to Everton ground as the sixth Nigerian for Everton, which beat the deadline to make him the seventh signing of a productive summer transfer window on Thursday.

Before Iwobi, there had been Daniel Amokachi at Everton. He was part of the FA Cup winning side in 1995.

Daniel Amokachi was FA Cup winners with Everton in 1995

He played six times for the club and scored two goals in seasons 1994-95. There was also Victor Anichebe who played 10 matches for Everton in the seasons 2008 to 2011.

Victor Anichebe

Yakubu Ayegbeni also featured for Everton from 2008 to 2010 and played 24 matches and scored seven goals. Henry Onyekuru also made a cameo appearance for Everton this year.

Yakubu Ayegbeni

But the Nigerian with most matches for Everton is Joseph Yobo who had 55 matches for Everton from 2008 to 2011.

Joseph Yobo

The latest Nigerian in Everton is Iwobi. Born in Lagos, Alex Iwobi moved to England at the age of four and spent his formative years in the east London borough of Newham, home to Premier League regulars West Ham United.

However, it was cross-city Arsenal who spotted the youngster’s early footballing promise and, in 2004, signed him up as an eight-year-old to their Hale End academy.

Cultivating a reputation as an offensive-minded player who could make things happen but also work hard for his team, Iwobi progressed through the Arsenal ranks to earn his first-team debut in an October 2015 League Cup last-16 match against Sheffield Wednesday at the age of 19.

The nephew of Jay-Jay Okocha, the early suggestions were that the young Iwobi had dutifully studied his idolised uncle, his game – like Okocha’s – being based on flair, skill and an abundance of natural ability.

Iwobi made his Premier League debut as a late substitute against Swansea City four days later and would go on to amass another four appearances off the bench before netting on his first top-flight start in March the following year – a 2-0 win over Everton at Goodison Park.

His eye-catching performance on Merseyside that afternoon proved the catalyst to him starting all but one of Arsenal’s remaining eight league fixtures – adding another goal, against Watford, and two assists – as the Gunners overhauled north London neighbours Tottenham Hotspur to claim second place in the Premier League behind shock 5000-1 winners Leicester City.

Having won the Victory Shield with England in 2011 and represented the Three Lions at Under-16, Under-17 and Under-18 levels, Iwobi’s form saw him handed his first competitive senior appearance for Nigeria at the end of the 2015/16 campaign, the forward’s switch of allegiance to the Super Eagles already having been signified by his involvement in a friendly against DR Congo the previous October.

Like on his first Premier League start for Arsenal, he marked the occasion with a goal as Nigeria defeated Zambia 2-1 in a 2018 World Cup qualifier. He was named in Nigeria’s provisional 35-man squad for the Olympic Games that summer but did not feature in the final 18-man party.

Iwobi quickly shelved that disappointment and was picked for Arsenal’s opening game of the 2016/17 season against Liverpool, providing an assist for Theo Walcott in an eventual 4-3 defeat for the Londoners.

Despite sustaining a thigh injury that kept him out of the Gunners’ following two league fixtures, he was quickly reinstated by boss Arsene Wenger and went on to make 27 starts in a campaign that yielded 39 run-outs in all competitions, four goals, eight assists and an FA Cup winners’ medal. After featuring in early round wins over Preston North End, Southampton and Sutton United, Iwobi was selected in Arsenal’s squad for their 2-1 Wembley victory over Chelsea in the final.

A notable breakthrough campaign also included another international goal against Zambia in October, on this occasion Iwobi’s cool, sweeping finish proving enough to inflict a 1-0 defeat on Nigeria’s opponents but, more importantly, seal the country’s place at the following summer’s World Cup finals in Russia.

Iwobi and Arsenal were back at Wembley to face Chelsea in the Community Shield ahead of the 2017/18 campaign and this time there was a starting role for the youngster as the Gunners overcame their capital city rivals on penalties following a 1-1 draw.

That triggered another profitable season in 2017/18, Iwobi adding a further 39 appearances, three goals and seven assists as Wenger’s 22nd and final campaign at the Arsenal helm ended in a sixth-placed Premier League finish and League Cup final loss to Manchester City in which the forward came off the bench for the final 17 minutes.

Having led his nation to Russia, Iwobi featured in all three of Nigeria’s World Cup group matches in the summer of 2018 but defeats against Argentina and eventual finalists Croatia proved fatal as the Super Eagles failed to qualify for the knockout stages.

Unrattled by the blow, Iwobi returned to Arsenal and enjoyed his most productive goals coring season to date last term, kicking it off by applying a clinical finish to a flowing, 18-pass team move in a 3-2 opening weekend loss against old foes Chelsea.

It was against the same opposition that his sixth and final goal of 2018/19 came 10 months on, albeit against the backdrop of Arsenal’s crushing 4-1 Europa League final defeat in Baku.

Nevertheless, a fruitful campaign also saw the improving Iwobi add a further 51 Arsenal appearances to his tally, while his record of nine assists was bettered only by France international forward Alexandre Lacazette.

It means the Everton-bound Iwobi leaves the Emirates having contributed 15 goals and 27 assists in 149 games. Of those, he started a hefty 103.

And Iwobi’s impact at international level continues to be felt, too. An integral figure as Nigeria finished third in the Africa Cup of Nations last month, he notched the winner to settle a thrilling five-goal contest against Cameroon in the last-16 – his sixth international goal.

The Super Eagles’ 1-0 victory over Tunisia in the third-place play-off saw Iwobi collect his 36th cap at the age of just 23.

Everton had to bide their time in their pursuit of Iwobi but beat the transfer deadline to land their man on Thursday evening, tying him to a five-year deal until the summer of 2024.

He became the Blues’ seventh summer acquisition, reuniting with former colleague Walcott, but was not registered in time to be eligible for Saturday’s Premier League opener at Crystal Palace.

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