As a young boy, Ilkay Gundogan’s dream was to play for his home town club, Schalke.
The son of Turkish parents, Ilkay was invited to train with Schalke aged 8, but was forced to have time away from the game for no other reason than not being tall enough.
It was a dagger through the heart for the youngster and particularly because there was absolutely nothing he could do about. He had to let nature take its course, but it meant his hopes of representing the Gelsenkirchen club were over – for the time being.
He had the ability and technique, but the Schalke junior coaches couldn’t see past his size.
“It was a huge dream of mine to be able to play for Schalke,” he told RevierSport back in 2011. “For it to be over so quickly was not easy to take.”
Ilkay has never been one to dwell on misfortune, and over the next few years, he started to grow taller and gradually got back to where he was previously until he was at a level where Schalke, who hadn’t forgotten about the boy they turned away, and offered him a chance to start training with them again when he was 13.
The pain of his first departure from Schalke had left deep wounds and the thought of it happening again was enough for Ilkay to turn his back on his beloved Schalke and instead focus on other opportunities that may arise – and in 2005, Bochum signed up the then 15 year-old for their academy and he never looked back.
He quickly caught the eye at Bochum where the technique, vision and – in a glimpse of what would come later at City – the goals started to flow freely .
My numbers were quite good back then but this season is something you cannot compare,” said Ilkay. “That was youth football.”
Four years on, he would join Nuremburg after impressing for Bochum’s U19s and having already been selected by Germany U19s.
Bigger clubs were well aware of the teenage Ilkay who was becoming a coveted talent.
Nuremburg Head Coach Michael Oenning, who would become something of a mentor for Ilkay, said his new signing, still only 18, was “a true No.10” and he handed the teenager his debut as a sub on the final day of the 2.Bundesliga season, with Nuremburg beating Energie Cottbus in a play-off to win promotion to the top flight.
Ironically, he would make his full Nuremburg debut against boyhood idols Schalke and scored his first goal against Bayern Munich in February 2010. He would later score in the relegation play-off against Augsburg to help his club avoid an immediate drop to the second tier of German football.
"Ilkay is a true No.10..."
Former FC Nürnberg coach Michael Oenning
By then, Nuremburg had changed their head coach, but new boss Dieter Heckling quickly realised he had a talent on his hands.
Touted as being well worth the £7m valuation he’d been given in the media, Hecking said: “It’s clear a boy like Ilkay Gündogan is attracting the interest of the biggest clubs. But I’d advise him not to move. With us, he can finish his schooling and develop further on the pitch.”
It was advice the youngster took on board, as he told Kicker: “I have to work harder and possibly even increase the price. I have faith in my ability, and I think that I have the potential to go further if I can keep learning.
“But it’s no disadvantage to play here for another year. The money can be tempting… but when you’re not playing it brings you nothing. At my age, money shouldn’t come first.”
It was a refreshing outlook from a young player making his way in the game and one of the traits that has remained with Ilkay throughout his career.
But after another fine season, during which he helped Nuremburg up to a sixth-placed Bundesliga finish, the clamour to capture one of Germany’s most coveted talents grew too tempting for his club.
Borussia Dortmund had an offer of 4m euros accepted for the 20 year-old in May 2011 and their upcoming coach Jurgen Klopp had added a crucial piece to his jigsaw.
“He brings with him a super attitude,” said Klopp “He’s smart and willing to learn. Ilkay has a great passing game, is a complete footballer, and fits perfectly into our system.”
But replacing star playmaker Nuri Sahin brought with it expectation and pressure. He had moved from a club where survival was the first and foremost ambition to one with grand hopes of silverware domestically and in Europe, and that weighed heavily on Ilkay’s young shoulders.
“The expectations from the outside on Ilkay are very big,” said Klopp of his new signing. “It’s a difficult situation for him.”
The future Liverpool boss took Ilkay out of the limelight and carefully managed his game time. He’d done enough to win his first senior Germany cap in October 2010, but Klopp’s decision to mould his charge into a deeper lying midfielder paid off handsomely and he would become a regular again in the second part of the campaign as Dortmund completed a Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal double.
He'd played 36 times and scored four goals in his debut campaign at the Westfalenstadion and his second season would see Ilkay’s star continue to rise, causing Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim to dismiss speculation that Barcelona were ready to make a move for their prized asset. “We won’t sell Ilkay for any price in the world,” Watzke told Bild.
Ilkay played 45 times in the 2012/13 season and featured in all 12 of BVB’s Champions League game, scoring a penalty in the final at Wembley as Bayern Munich triumphed 2-1.
His upward trajectory, however, was about to take a severe blow.
On the opening day of the 2013/14 season, Ilkay suffered a back injury that would side-line him for 14 months.
“It was quite a long time where I didn’t want to have surgery too early because surgery of the spine – for a footballer especially – is not easy, and of course it is dangerous,” Gündogan later told Sky Sports.
“I was really scared, and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to play football again.”
It was a relief to all when he did return in October 2014, but 18 months later, he suffered a dislocated his knee in training.
Injury had forced him to miss the 2014 World Cup and now he had to miss Euro 2016.
But while form and fitness is never guaranteed for any player, class is permanent and when Pep Guardiola became City manager in 2016, he made Ilkay his first signing at a bargain cost of £20m. That’s how highly he rated the German midfielder.
At the time, Ilkay said: “I’m thrilled to have signed for Manchester City. When I learned of City’s interest my heart was set on coming here and things moved very quickly.
“I loved my time with Borussia Dortmund and I would like to thank the club and the supporters for the five very happy years I spent there. They gave me a platform to play on and I became a better player because of the belief, patience and trust they showed in me.
“Now I have a new challenge and that is to achieve great things with City. The opportunity to work with a coach like Pep Guardiola is something I am really looking forward to and I am flattered to be the first signing the Club has made this summer.
“I can promise the City fans I will give everything to help us win titles both in England and the Champions League. These are exciting times. I have my best years ahead of me and I think we can achieve great things together.”
Two Premier League title, one FA Cup, three League Cup and two Community Shield winner’s medals later, and with 200 appearances for City under his belt - in what is undoubtedly the best season of his career - our understated and versatile midfielder is finally getting the wider recognition he richly deserves.
In fact, our top scorer with 16 goals – 10 more than he scored in any previous season at any of the clubs he has played for – admits he enjoys being out of the spotlight rather than in the centre of it.
"It is kind of weird, to be honest,” he told Sky Sports. “It is something that I am not so used to. I am not the sort of guy who likes to be the centre of attention but I just have to deal with it."
And that £20m or so transfer fee?
What a bargain…