By Clement Nwankpa Jnr
It is with nostalgia that I write about a club I have supported from the very first day I heard the word ‘football’. Whether as Spartans, Iwuanyanwu Nationale or now Heartland FC, there is just one club every Imo indigene or, particularly, Owerri resident followed passionately.
When a carnival atmosphere had been created at the arena, we will join the Supporters’ Club in chanting ‘Owerri wu oke mba (Owerri is a great city)’.
Then the team will be awarded a free-kick at a vantage position with Mike Obi thumping his power-packed left foot in readiness, the stands will erupt in chants of ‘Obi kererenke Obi!’ Obi’s shots were so ferocious that during a Sekou Toure Cup (as the CAF Champions League was then known) tie in 1989, an ASEC
Mimossa of Cote d’Ivoire player stood on the way of his goal-bound effort and was immediately rushed to the hospital.
We have always had fond memories of the club just as every generation had produced players that endeared themselves to the fans. In the early 80s, the likes of Eugene Ohuabunwa, Evans Ikwuegbu, Felix Chukwuma, Ikechukwu ‘Man Mountain’ Madukairo, Idika Pele, Godfrey Unogu, Kelvin Onwana, Emiliano Momokobo, David Adiele, Sylvester ‘Bahama’ Oparanozie, Goddy Agbarakwe, Peter Uchegbu and Lawrence Nwachukwu made Spartans thick. In the late 80s when the club had been renamed Iwuanyanwu Nationale, having been acquired by business mogul, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, the likes of Edward Ansah, Mike Obi, Benjamin Nzeakor, James Tombiri, John Benson, Chike Arisa, Justus Ewendu, Sunny Ikwuagwu, Louis Igwilo, Lawrence Ukaegbu, Ramson Madu, James Etokebe, Friday Ekpo, Toyin Ayinla, Okechukwu Uche, Iroha, Thompson Oliha, Friday Elaho, Rowland Orufe, Emmanuel Okocha, Etim Esin, Samson Ozogula, Uwem Ekarika, Paul Uzokwe, Andrew Uwe, Godwin Eke, Uwakwe Eke, Kingsley Onye, Peter Nieketien, Benjamin Sellas Tettey, Ishaya Jatau, Cyril Levi, Obinna Obiakor, Ifeanyi Aghenu, Missah Ibrahim and Sunny Isoekwena held sway.
This latter generation was the golden generation in the club’s history losing to Entente Setif in the Sekou Toure Cup final in 1988 while crashing out in the semi-final the next year. I remember vividly the second round clash against Tonerre Kalala of Cameroun in 1988.
That was the first time we saw George Weah in action. Donning the number 14 jersey, he stretched the central defence pair of Uwe and Ikwuagwu all day but keeper Ansah always had the answer. Goals from
Igwilo and Uzokwe sufficed to beat the visitors but Weah promised he would cancel the deficit within 10 minutes in the return leg. The pair of Goddy Eke and Uwe still found him a handful in Younde and within nine minutes, Weah had scored twice. It appeared Tonerre was cruising to the next round but that Nationale squad oozed quality. Ekpo reduced the tally from a free-kick before
the end of the first half. Soon after resumption of play, Ghanaian import, Koffi Abbrey hit a third for the hosts but they still needed a goal else the Nigerians would ease through on away goals rule.
They threw everything into attack but the Naze millionaires caught them on the counter as Uzokwe hit target. That was how the star-studded Tonerre that had established Camerounian internationals like Stephen Tataw, Bertin Ebwelle and Jules Onana crashed out. Nationale won the league consecutively in 1988, 89, 90 and 91.
I will not forget in a hurry the last crop of Nationale players that won a silverware, the league, in 1993. That squad had Nwankwo Kanu (a 1991 product of Holy Ghost College Owerri), Yakubu Umar, Umaru Kabia, Tony Nwigwe, Tanko Abubakar, Ibe Johnson, Mba Agbai and Oparaku.
There was also the 1999 crop that emerged tops in the league during the regular season only to finish second at the Super Four before losing in the final of the FA Cup. The gladiators were
Isaac Semitoje, Kalu ‘Senegal’ Uche, Christian Ezuma, Chibuike Okeke, Ikechukwu Nwimo, Philip Obafuaso and Chijioke Nwankpa. That was the ‘nearly’ team.
Nicknamed the Manchester United of Nigerian football because of their free-flowing game, they were obviously the best team in the land but brought nothing to the trophy cabinet no thanks to the novel Super Four where a team that finished tops on the log during the regular season may lose the trophy to the fourth-placed team at the play-off.
The turn of the new millennium saw Imo state government reacquiring the club and naming it Heartland FC. Suddenly, the once celebrated club could no longer attract the best players in the land just as it became a regular feature within the middle rung of the league table.
This development was largely attributed to negligence on the part of the Achike Udenwa-led state government. Owerri fans, who were used to watching their darling team dominate the local scene, now saw Heartland being dwarfed in the Premiership. Consequently, the followership
dropped. There was need to reawaken a sleeping giant. The Ikedi Ohakim administration could not turn the fortunes of the club. The team finished second in the 2008 season earning a Champions League ticket in the process while losing in the final in the continental club showpiece in 2009 but there was still the long wait for a silverware.
Somehow, something was missing. The thirst of thenumerous club faithful for a laurel had not been quenched.
It was in this light that the Fan Ndubuoke-led Management was put in place just about six months ago. This Management was saddled with the responsibility of entrenching professionalism in the club’s management while ultimately setting the tone for the club to be self-sustaining.
The Management has not fared badly in this regard. This could be evidenced in innovations like the Heartland Club House situated inside the Dan Anyiam Stadium. The Club House is the first of its kind in the country.
I can attest to this because I have also moved around a little bit. In the Club House, the management has set high standards for other Club Managements to follow. It creates an enabling environment for ground-breaking deliberations that should drive the club forward.
Frankly, Ndubuoke and co have shown tremendous promise. You would expect the club to be up there at the summit of the league table given their industry but no, the team is languishing in the 12th position.
In search of the root of the club’s problems, I had travelled all the way from Abuja to Port Harcourt to watch the Heartland/Sharks game two weeks ago. Sharks won 1-0, far from being a reflection of the flow of the game. In fact, the goal came off Sharks’ only attempt at goal while the Heartland strikers missed about six begging chances.
Two things were possible; either the strikers were of low quality or they lacked commitment. It is an irony having such a high quality Management in the Boardroom without commensurate results on the field of play.
My investigations revealed that most of the players were inherited from the past Management. I have my doubts over the quality of a good number of them.
But it will also be noted that throughout the season, the club had at least eight players in the various national teams each week. If the players were not top class, they wouldn’t attract the attention of the different national team coaches. At the last WAFU Cup, the club provided five regulars to the Samson Siasia-tutored side namely Bartholomew Ibenegbu, Home-based Eagles skipper Chibuzor Okonkwo, Osas Okoro, Gege Soriola and Julius Ubido. The fact is that
Heartland is always deprived of the services of these quality players while they are on national duties and the quality of those left behind to prosecute the matches week in week out is not top notch. I think there should be a massive clear-out after this season. For the first time, Ndubuoke should be allowed to recruit his own team. He should go into the next season with a team that
epitomizes his Management’s resourcefulness. I think we need to give this Management some time to turn the club’s fortunes around. They have been let down by this crop of players.
Interestingly, Ndubuoke and Co are in good company with the Imo State Governor-elect, Owelle Anayo Rochas Okorocha. Rochas says he is on a ‘rescue mission’ in Imo State.
Ndubuoke is also on a rescue mission to Imo State soon after losing out in his bid to become NFF President last August. The Rochas/Ndubuoke combo should be the Dream Team that will re-enact the golden era of Heartland. It was heartwarming to see Rochas at the Heartland/Warri Wolves
match in Owerri last Sunday. He had addressed the boys in the dressing room during half time.
That pep talk was not enough to lift the team as the game ended goalless with Heartland captain Chinedu Efugh missing a dying minute penalty. This shows we are now in a new era where an Imo State governor will become the number one fan of Heartland.
The last time we saw a governor (Orji Uzor Kalu) show such a commitment in Abia, Enyimba won the CAF Champions League in 2003 and 2004 while winning the domestic league for three consecutive years.
Since Rochass is on a rescue mission, we expect him to devote more time to the club. His predecessor, Ikedi Ohakim’s inability to pay attention to details was a huge factor in the club’s dip in fortune. The new governor should not stop at appropriating money; he should ensure prompt disbursement of funds to prosecute the club’s activities.
While on a visit to Owerri earlier this year, I had spoken to a few people who should know about the causes of the club’s poor run this term. Top on the easons deduced was negligence on the part of the state government. Funding was a huge factor.
Most times, the Management went cap in hand soliciting for funds to offset the players’ allowances and sign-on-fees. There is still a backlog of players’ sign-on fees inherited from the previous Management. If Heartland must
lay a solid claim to the league diadem next season, there must be improved funding. The bureaucratic bottlenecks that impede the flow of appropriated funds to the club should be reduced. It takes a sports-loving governor to effect the latter.
Rochas is like a tsunami sweeping through the Imo political firmament. This tsunami is expected to wash away poverty and deprivation in the land. It should entrench the live-and-let-live spirit whereby Imolites will no longer feel like second grade citizens in their land. This tsunami should erode fear and intimidation while fostering peace and harmony in the land. It is a revolution
that should boost infrastructural development and make life more comfortable for Imolites. It is a tsunami that should remove all bottlenecks on the way of all talented Imolites realizing their potentials Yes, this is a tsunami that should sweep away the ill fortunes that have trailed
Heartland in recent years. He should ‘rescue’ the club from the shackles of neglect. The best way to restore the fortunes of this club is not by sacking this Management. I will attest to their resourcefulness and professionalism. I will attest His Excellency to visit the Heartland Club House. That is a testimony to how inventive this Management can be given improved funding.
Owelle should beware of sycophants and lobbyists. He should be wary of charlatans who will claim to know it all; those who will be parading themselves before him as Sports Messiahs with the Midas touch that should restore
Heartland’s glory. Sacking the Management will be counter-productive. The problem with that club is not in the Management. It is in the playing personnel and Technical crew. In a bid to plug the hole in the technical department, the Management had recruited a Dutch coach. Incidentally, the new helmsman has not had ample time to turn around the fortunes of the club. Rochas just has to lend his support to the Management. Soon after assuming office, I expect him to have
a meeting with the Management on the way forward. That will be an avenue for him to find out their impediments and how he can support them.
Rochas has not come early enough to change the fortunes of the club this season but he should borrow a leaf from Orji Uzor Kalu. When OUK assumed office as governor of Abia State in May 1999, Enyimba was battling relegation (they were used to the relegation battle those days) but he helped the club retain their Premiership status and vowed to turn the club into a major force the next season.
This he achieved as the club won the League the next season. He also enthused that the club will be the first Nigerian club to win the CAF Champions League. Few months after his re-election in 2003, the club had conquered Africa.
Rochas can have the same effect on Heartland. OUK achieved all he did with Enyimba under the Felix Anyansi-Agwu-led management. Rochas should cooperate with Fan Ndubuoke and take Heartland to the pinnacle of success.