How fitting that it was Henry Onyekuru who headed home the winning goal for Galatsaray against rivals Basaksehir, to win the Turkish Cup and claim a domestic double on the weekend.
It was a satisfying conclusion not only to a remarkable game — which saw the Super Eagles forward denied what seemed an excellent goal on a marginal offside call — but also to a season that was, for all intents and purposes, a comeback campaign for the young striker.
He is not the biggest of forwards, but Onyekuru’s talent for generating destruction within opposition defences — as evidenced when he rose above bigger men to guide that winner home — helped propel Galatasaray to this double.
The accomplishment marked a satisfying recovery from a bump in the road that was last season, for both club (actual and parent) and country, and has led to talk of a move to the Bundesliga.
For Onyekuru, 2018 was a season to forget. After rattling off 10 goals for Anderlecht and making his way into international reckoning, he was almost certain to be in contention for Nigeria’s Word Cup squad… until a torn ACL put paid to those ambitions.
And so, the rest of the season and off-season was dedicated to recuperating at parent club Everton’s Finch Farm, working himself back to full fitness before being sent out on loan again. This time to Galatasaray.
Onyekuru was in fine form at Anderlecht in 2018, before an ACL tear cut his season short and ended his World Cup dream. VI Images via Getty Images
His impact was, as usual, instant. Two goals in his opening three games set the tone for how the season would eventually pan out.
Onyekuru finished with 14 goals and 3 assists in 30 league games, to make him the club’s highest scorer. That is four goals and two assists ahead of second-placed Mbaye. In total, the forward fired home 16 goals and claimed 6 assists in all competitions.
Those goals helped Gala claim their 21st league and 17th cup titles, but as much as the silverware are a collective triumph for Galatasaray, they are also very telling personal accomplishments for the 21-year-old.
“This is a dream come true for me, to win a double and make history with Galatasaray, especially in a difficult game,” Onyekuru told ESPN.
It is not so much the numbers as his destructive style play that draws attention. Small and wily, Onyekuru is as deceptively strong as he is beguiling of foot, allowing him the ability to either shove bigger players off the ball when necessary, or simply weave a magic skein to leave them floundering in despair.
Signed by Everton in 2017 after a sterling season with Eupen, he was immediately loaned back to Belgian giants Anderlecht, where that unfortunate injury truncated what was shaping up to be a fine season.
Worse, because it cost him a place in both Nigeria’s build up to, and at, the World Cup, it meant that he could not get enough international appearances to overcome the UK Work Permit hurdle that would have given him a chance to turn out for Everton.
“It was disappointing for me,” Onyekuru told ESPN. “Every player wants to go the World Cup but God knows best.
“For me, what I had to do was put all that behind me and work harder.”
Onyekuru returned to the Nigeria squad in 2019 for the final Afcon qualifiers, and is set to be named in the tournament squad to go to Egypt in June
Work hard he did, and this season’s numbers are proof positive of that combination of talent and grind.
It is a reflection of the quality of the Nigeria squad that his efforts have not quite translated to as many international minutes as his abilities demand.
Still, he has scored one goal in the two games he played in 2019, and has been listed in Gernot Rohr provisional squad for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
Barring an injury, Onyekuru is expected to be in that final 23, and should provide an under-the-radar option for Rohr to unleash on unsuspecting opposition. And if he can force his way into getting enough minutes, that would do a world of good for his work permit chances.
That sticking point may, however, end up being moot.