By Paul Bassey
The story of Akwa United makes an interesting reading any day.
Less than five months ago, this club was on the brink of relegation. Less than five months ago, this club was one of the whipping boys of the league, condemned to scorn and laughter.
Today Akwa United is the Federation Cup Champion, Super Four champion and a candidate for the CAF Confederation Cup diadem.
Stand up history making governor Udom Emmanuel who has stood up to the call of greatness. Stand up Sports Commissioner Sir Monday Ukoh whose tenure has reaped fruits of success. The enigmatic Akparawa Nse Ubeh who less than eight months in the saddle as chairman exudes an aura of favour…I can go on and on… What then can I say of the glory boys, who today have their names written in gold in the sports history book of the state, nay Nigeria?
Last Saturday in the dreaded Stade de Liberation in Pointe Noir, Congo, Akwa United started a challenging journey, winning its first ever continental match. That it happened at away with a huge prospect of moving into the first round, provides avenues and the right to dream.
Let’s rewind, to the eve of the Federation Cup final when I got a call from the Secretary to Government, Sir Etekamba Umoren, telling me to contribute in making sure that the cup comes to Uyo. “ In fact, it has to come to Uyo,” he ordered.
Still back in time, to that historic day in Uyo when Governor Udom Emmanuel welcomed the team and the cup at the Uyo airport. I was part of a select team that held a meeting with His Excellency at the airport where he said among other things “…….PB you people must reorganize that team. It was God that gave us the cup. Go and look for a good coach, recruit good players. Start from our boys who are making waves in other clubs. Bring them back”
For me, this was a call to service. What I had done to other clubs over the years, this was an opportunity to do same and even more for my club, my state.
I called my colleague Linus Mba and we set the ball rolling, putting up a paper on how best to handle a continental challenge. In doing so we reminded ourselves of the mistakes our clubs did in the past that got them booted out of the competition prematurely. The paper was submitted to a meeting that included the sports commissioner, the club chairman and the state FA Chairman.
Pronto a coach was recruited. Maurice Cooreman is a veteran of Continental assignments…..Enyimba, Lobi Stars, Warri Wolves,……..and here he was, just taken Ikorodu United to the Premier League. We knew how close the young club was to his heart, how dear and good the Ikorodu chairman was to him, yet the bait of a continental trophy was too good to ignore.
The scout for players then began. Not easy if you ask me in a country where the league is taken to the end of the year, December festivities in tow, recruitment procedures, signing of continental forms, strenuous CAF Club Licensing regulations etc.
In the past, this has been the bane of our clubs who had to jump blindly into continental assignment in February yet to test and to blend their “new” team. This year was different. This year, the League Management Company in all its wisdom initiated a credible Super Four Competition that gave the continental teams a veritable opportunity to test run their squads and Akwa United was one of those that really benefited.
The journey to Congo Brazaville fell under the pathetic African situation where a trip that takes less than four hours from Lagos to Pointe Noir has to be negotiated in 20 hours through Ethiopia with two nights of transit in Addis . Before we took off Sports Commissioner Uko put a call through, reminding us of the need for victory “ …..to continue the celebration of His Excellency as the authentic, people elected and God chosen governor of Akwa Ibom State”
The historic delegation led by the State FA Chairman Mr Emmanuel Ibah ( Another history maker) Emmanuel Adesanya of the NFF, Chairman Akparawa Nse Ubeh, “The winning Director of Sports” Aniedi Dickson, Former chairman Isong Isang, Board member Ukoh Akpabio, Supporters Club Chairman Edwin Udoffia Patrick, Raymond Essien, Team Manager Emmanuel Udoh, Club Secretary Mathew Peters, Team Media Officer Uwem Ekoh, Team Doctor Jackson Obot, Nurse Martina Emmanuel and the Cooreman-led technical crew of Daboere Dokubo and Mike Ekpenyong led eighteen players into Pointe Noir last Thursday and to battle the jet lag, Cooreman cancelled training and declared complete rest for the boys.
Hotel De Fez is not only comfortable, its staff hospitable and the food top class, it is the same hotel that Siasia and his Under 23 boys stayed and conquered their Congolese counterparts last year after a narrow 1-0 victory in Port Harcourt that many believed was not enough to keep them in the competition. In Pointe Noire we believed that “same luck” will be our portion. It worked.
Friday afternoon at 15.30 hrs the team trained at the artificial turf of the stadium and over 100 youths were there to cheer and to applaud a team that they believed will win the next day. That evening, it was decided to source Nigerian food to “stabilize the metabolism” of the players after four days of “salad and bread” and Oken Palace owned by an Ibo chief provided Eba and semo with Egusi and “draw” soup. Were the boys happy!
Saturday was goalkeeper Olufemi Kayode’s birth day and the prayer was “….On this your birthday, God will not allow you to pick any ball from your net” The loud chorus of Amen resounded in the bus as we sang into the stadium.
The match proper is now history. After thirty five minutes of even exchanges Ubong Ekpai made the difference in the 38th minute when he capitalized on a loose ball to release a blinder that caught the Congolese goalkeeper napping.
In the second half, 63 minutes on, Ubong lost the opportunity of making the second leg a formality when one on one with the goalkeeper he blasted over the body of the shot stopper.
Let us mention Goalkeeper Kayode who in the second half that Akwa midfield crumbled, Kayode made sure “ he did not pick the ball from his net”
Then the drama of the 90+2 minutes when Central African referee Etiene Gabato flashed a red card at Samuel Okon for a mild tackle that could at worst have attracted a yellow! ( He was to call the team after the match to apologise and withdraw the red card)
Final whistle…joy and jubilation as the victory was dedicated to His Excellency Governor Udom Emmanuel in furtherance of his triumph at the Supreme Court “…….and many other victories to come on the political, economic and sports scene……”
Today the boys will touch down in Lagos by noon, head straight to Uyo to prepare for their league curtain raiser against Sunshine before welcoming V. Club Mokanda by 7pm on Saturday February 27, under the floodlights of the magnificent Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, knowing quite well that it is not yet over until it is over.
That, will be the day.
See you next week.