Born in Lagos, brought up in Crosby, before representing the country of his birth in an Olympic football final – the career of Victor Anichebe represents one of the more unconventional paths to football stardom. What makes this all the more extraordinary is that it was achieved before his 21st birthday.
Born in the Nigerian capital in 1988, Anichebe and his family immigrated to England while he was still a baby, living in Toxteth before settling in the north Liverpool suburb of Crosby. Part of a family of great sporting pedigree, his cousin Iffy Onuora was a lower-league centre forward in the 1990s and another cousin, Anyika Onuora, was a Commonwealth silver medallist sprinter.
Spotted by Everton’s youth academy, Anichebe worked his way through the ranks, making his reserve team debut at 15. Two years later, in January 2006, he made his senior debut in an FA Cup fourth round tie against Chelsea. His first goal came in the dramatic 2-2 draw on the last day of the 2005/06 season. In an emotionally charged match, coming days after the death of Brian Labone and on Duncan Ferguson’s last Everton appearance, Anichebe led a late fightback after Everton had fallen 2-0 behind to already-relegated West Bromwich Albion. The substitute’s turn and shot six minutes from full time brought Everton back into the match, before Ferguson’s last-ditch goal brought equilibrium.
Tall, powerful and muscular, Anichebe was typically used as a late-impact substitute and filled an important squad role following the retirement of Ferguson. His physicality often saw his fine all-round play overlooked and although never prolific he has shown a fine goal-poacher’s instinct, as witness the Christmas brace he scored at home to Newcastle United on the penultimate day of 2006.
Anichebe’s best form typically came in Europe, with continental teams ill at ease with his physicality and pace. Few goals he scored were better than his effort two minutes from full time against FC Nuremburg in the UEFA Cup in 2007. Breaking down the right wing, he ran 40 yards, shaking off the attention of his marker before slipping Everton’s second goal of the night past the goalkeeper from an oblique angle. Pointing to the penalty he had won just minutes earlier, David Moyes said:
‘Victor made some impact, what a way to finish that was. He has been struggling with a broken hand and I wasn’t sure whether to put him on. Just shows what I know.’
Anichebe’s form earned him international recognition with Nigeria and a call-up as part of his country’s 2008 Olympic squad for Beijing. He scored the deciding goal in Nigeria’s group match against Japan and came on as a second-half substitute in the 4-1 semi-final win over Belgium. That result guaranteed him a medal, but coming up against the Argentina of Lionel Messi, Juan Angel Riquelme and Sergio Aguerro proved one step too far for the Super Eagles as they fell to a 1-0 defeat in the Bird’s Nest Stadium.
Anichebe returned to Merseyside with an Olympic silver medal, but a starting berth for Everton was usually elusive, except in a right-midfield role that he often seemed ill at ease in. His 2008/09 season was brought to an abrupt end after a horrific high challenge from Kevin Nolan when Everton faced Newcastle in February 2009. The injury it caused kept him out of action for 11 months - causing him to miss the FA Cup Final – and Anichebe later won an out-of-court settlement for loss of earnings against Nolan.
He nevertheless made a full recovery and signed a new contract in 2011 and although his was rarely the first name on the teamsheet he seemed to be part of Everton’s long-term plans under David Moyes. Indeed, by the closing stages of the 2012/13 season Anichebe had briefly overtaken Nikica Jelavic as the club’s first choice number nine.
Moyes, however, left that summer, and his successor Roberto Martinez sought to bring a more prolific edge to the Everton forward line. Anichebe appeared as a substitute in the Spaniard’s first game as manager in August 2013, but was sold to West Bromwich Albion a fortnight later in a deal worth £6million on the same day that Martinez signed Romelu Lukaku on loan from Chelsea.
Anichebe spent three years at the Hawthorns before being reunited with Moyes, who signed him in 2016 when he was Sunderland manager. Anichebe performed well at the Stadium of Light, but his new club were in disarray and were relegated at the end of the 2016/17 season whereupon the Nigerian moved to China for a brief but lucrative spell.
Since retiring at the age of 30, Anichebe has embarked upon a promising broadcast media career, with articulate appearances on BBC Match of the Day 2 and Sky Sports.