An overused and thoroughly outdated meme utilizes a famous Star Wars scene to signify abject disappointment and bitter regret. A middle-aged Obi-Wan Kenobi standing on cooked rock with the privilege of overlooking a wonderfully inviting river of lava, barking ‘you were the chosen one!’ at the Dark Side’s latest signing. ‘You could have been the next George Best, Anakin!’ ‘I’d have benched seven Cristiano Ronaldos for you!’ I hear you saying that the last two quotes may or may not have been uttered by the bearded handsomeness that is Ewan McGregor. I tell you to grow up and check the deleted scenes. It’s all there.
This is pretty much how I felt upon learning that Nick Ioannou, the former Manchester United U18 player, had signed with Cypriot club Apoel. Not that the Nicosia club even remotely get close to the Sith in terms of ominous connotations of sinister machinations and clinical cruelty, but that’s somewhat besides the point. What concerns us here is the motivation of young Nick ‘Anakin’ Ioannou.
It is unfair to pin your asphyxiatingly high hopes on someone else, let alone a youngster still feeling his way towards maturity. It is also inevitable when we’re talking sports and all the emotional projection that comes along with it. There’s no shame for me here. I know I was not alone in this ultimately unwarranted optimism. Quite a few people I’d spoken to at the time felt that young Nick would usher Cypriot football to a new era. I’m not talking about delusions of tournament wins and kids in Angola rocking the Cypriot national team kit here. Just a flesh-and-bone approval of aspiration. An organic seal that the perennially mocked Cypriot mentality would change course; a sluggish trudge through a swamp of corruption and indiscipline towards a land where hard work and determination are the primary foundations that success, of an ilk that’s gloriously unshackled from the limitations of context, is proudly built upon.
I’d seen precious little of Ioannou for me to have had an objective, complete opinion about his ability as a teen as well as his future potential. A few matches with the U18s were hardly adequate for a proper evaluation. We know he made his debut for the U18s in 2012 at the tender age of 16. Match reports from back then make note of a solid performance against Derby.
He steadily improved since then and seemed to had gained the trust of coach Paul McGuinness. He played both as a center back and a left back whilst at United, being described as player who could be aggressive and combative during the execution of his defensive duties, but also as a defender who felt comfortable on the ball and could bring it out of defence if the opportunity presented itself.
News of United not offering a contract to Ioannou came as a surprise to a lot of people following the younger sides of the club. Less gifted and less competent players had indeed been offered contracts; this made the whole thing a tad suspicious to consider. If he was indeed as promising as people said then why didn’t the club try to renew his contract? He even captained the U18s on his last game for United against Tottenham. Hardly an indication that he wasn’t held in at least decent regard.
I don’t know what happened behind closed doors and this is purely speculation on my part. Either the club did not really rate him or something went down that prevented the club from proceeding with a formal offer for renewal. All evidence points to the latter being the more realistic scenario.
Perhaps he’d unofficially made a demand deemed too excessive by the club or, and this is way more probable, he didn’t want to renew as someone may have convinced him that his future would be better away from Manchester.
Perhaps it was the dire Mancunian weather and the promise of sunshine back home. Perhaps his father, a rather well-known figure amongst sports fans in Cyprus and a formidable center back during his playing days, had already talked to a few clubs back home. Could have been the more than decent money he’s rumoured to be getting at Apoel. Word is that he’s receiving somewhere around 40,000 euros a year with an annual increase until the end of his contract, along with other bonuses. No other Cypriot player at his age is being paid anything near that at the moment so I can understand how that might have swayed him. The final factor that could have acted as a sweetener to the deal would be the promise of playing time in a senior setup. Admittedly he’d have to wait a couple of years before achieving that at United - provided he made the cut. That said, he’s only registered two appearances for Apoel so far. The minimal room for risk at the Nicosia club has not helped his case.
But all that is inconsequential. As someone observing from the outer circles of the sport I felt like a promise was broken. Fans are many things, fickle being the most apparent trait. They’re also hopeful. Hopeful that their out-of-form striker will somehow be touched by the spirit of six deities and score a dozen bicycle kicks against the next opponent not knowing the incredible calamity awaiting them. Hopeful that an Uzbeki trillionaire will put all business acumen to the side and purchase their faltering club. Hopeful that a youngster will evolve into a great player, gracing the first team for years to come. The latter is the general area where Ioannou’s case falls in.
At the worst of scenarios I pictured him learning his trade as a center back at United’s reserve team before a move to a Championship side. The English game is undeniably tough on many levels and would have both sharpened and toughened Ioannou in ways the Cypriot league can never hope to achieve. I truly hope the boy proves me wrong and flourishes here before moving abroad once again. I hope that one day he sends me this article with the sliest of comments accompanying it. I would proudly consume every morsel of that particularly tasty humble pie with great eagerness.