“The secret behind my successful career as the national coach to the Nigerian National team, the Super Eagles, is tied to my more than ample invitations to camp extended to Igbo boys. For me to win I draft some seven of these Igbo boys into the National team, and coupled with their extra ordinary determination and will to contest and win every match, I’m always assured of victory. These Igbo boys do not need any further coaching and I understand majority of them come from Rangers International FC, Enugu.”
—Clemens Westerhof, first foreign national coach to take Nigeria to World Cup (1994)
In 1972, two years after the birth of Rangers Football Club, the club had its first major crisis which led to the resignation of its first team goalkeeper, Cyril Okosieme, and a total reorganization of the club. It became necessary to scout for new talents that would understudy and subsequently take over from the pioneers so as to ensure the sustenance of the club. In 1971, the Secondary school lads from the state participated in their first post-war Academicals Soccer Championship. That Championship was suspended while the civil war lasted. And so, in 1971, the former East Central State Academicals led by Godwin Ogbueze, a product of St. Theresa’s College, Nsukka, went to Lagos and like Rangers Football Club of Enugu, in the Amachree Cup competition, beat other states to win the Manuwa/Adebajo Cup. The erstwhile East Central State Academicals overwhelmed Kwara State Academicals, the defending champions by 2-0. That team had players like Ahamefula Umelo in the goal, Patrick Ekeji, Dominic Ezeani, Obed Ariri, C. Chimezie, Christian Chukwu, Moses Nweke, John Azinge, Tony Uzoka, Kenneth Iiodigwe, Paul Agu and Godwin Ogbueze. All those boys that played in that academicals team were recruited by both Rangers and Vasco Dagama football clubs of Enugu after their secondary school career.
As from 1972, the officials of Rangers Football Club of Enugu saw the great need to inject younger elements into the club to replace the retiring pioneer players, especially those who started playing football in the 50s and 60s. This was a very wise decision as some of the talents recruited from the 1971 academicals squad into the Rangers kept the candle burning. Some young footballers were also recruited from other clubs. Such players from these two areas who succeeded the pioneer players were Dominic Ezeani, Alex Nwosu, Godwin Ogbueze, Kenneth Ilodigwe, Ikechukwu Ezidinma, Christian Chukwu, Law Ufele, Foster Ikeagu, Emma Mba, Godwin Gbenimacho, Chimezie Ngadi, Harrison Mecha, Stanley Okoronkwo, Emeka Onyedika, Ogidi Ibeabuchi, Kelechi Emetole, Chukwuma Onyeaghala, Damian Odo, John Azinge, Obi Ekwo, Francis Nwosu, Nnamdi Anyafo, Ifeanyi Onyejiaka, Sam Onyeaka, Patrick Iluno, Okey Emodi, Charles Adimora, Patrick Ekeji, Christian Madu.”
Indeed by 1974, new entrants who held the aces of Rangers included; Dominic Ezeani, Emeka Onyedika, Anthony Ukeacha, Godwin Ogbueze, Kenneth Ilodigwe, Patrick Iluno, Alex Nwosu, Francis Nwosu, Chimezie Ngadi, Joe Aniedobe, Sam Onyeaka, John Uwanaka, Damian Odo, Harison Mecha, Okwuchukwu Anigbogu, Johny Azinge. Rangers reached the finals by defeating teams like Zaria Rangers, Vasco Dagama of Enugu and NEPA FC of Lagos. Rangers met highly rated Mighty Jets of Jos in the epoch final at the famous Onikan stadium in Lagos.
Mighty Jets FC Jos paraded the likes of Captain Ismaila Mabo, Sam Garba Okoye, Kelechi Emetole, Loetis Boateng, Sule Kekere and the great Atuegbu brothers: Matthew, Andrew, Nicholas and Aloysius. In the match proper, Kenneth Ilodigwe recalled, “we trained to the point that there was virtually no water inside our body… we were fit as fiddle.”
Rangers paraded in the start line stars like Emma Okala, Ernest Ufele, Harrison Mecha, Nwabueze Nwankwo, Dominic Ezeani Captain, Christian Chukwu, Emeka Onyedika, Kenneth Abana, Kenneth Ilodigwe, Stanley Okoronkwo, and Ogidi Ibeabuchi. It was a tough match in which Rangers lived up to expectation routing Mighty Jets 2-0 in a grand style with the match goal opener, Kenneth Ilodigwe, recalling thus, “When I collected the ball, just outside the eighteen yard box of our opponents, a voice within me said, “Kenneth hit… this is the opportunity.”
Obeying that inner voice, Ilodigwe took a terrific shot which sailed into the net for Rangers opening goal. Radio commentary of the match brought football fans that were far away closer to the field of play. Master of radio sports commentary, Ernest Okonkwo, was at his best and his voice was evergreen:
“The stadium is full to capacity, the crowd is friendly and the weather is clement…. Enugu Rangers and Mighty Jets of Jos, who lifts the Nigeria coveted Challenge Cup today? We have less than two hours to inform you about the full details of the new champions in this year’s Challenge Cup.”
In his own narrative about that milestone encounter, the Team Manager of the Mighty Jets of Jos, Ogbueshi Uwachonmadu Onyia, spoke to Emma Okocha. It was indeed a depressing interview as the late TM had just left the hospital after a major surgery. He had lost a lot of blood and had very little energy.
“I was employed by one of the Nigerian richest men to manage the Plateau team,” Ogbueshi said, “and was given the mandate to kill the jinx which has hovered around the heads of the Jets Team. For years we had managed to come into the finals, and for years, we have always lost in the finals. That year, we had everything: the best player in Nigeria, Sam Garba Okoye was in our team. We had others who were considerably the best in their positions, for example, Sule Kekere, Olayinwola, the Atuegbu brothers, Inua Rigogo, etc. the Team had the best of logistics and playing on the Jos highland stamina was never our problem. The match started with Sam Garba Okoye taking over the whole field. Thirty five minutes into the game, a true deadly pass from Field Marshall, Garba Okoye, to Atuegbu who managed to maneuver his way and was rampaging dangerously into the Rangers eighteen. The stadium was waiting for the goal. From nowhere Harrison Mecha snaked viciously from behind and broke Atuegbu’s left ankle into pieces. Our priced attacker, Atuegbu, was carried out on a stretcher, crying from the pulsating encounter. Even though Harrison Mecha was sent out by the referee, he had in that duel saved the Rangers and at the same time accounted for the loss of our invaluable attacker in a match every side was doing everything to win at all cost.”
Ogbueshi Uwachonmadu was to die the following day, and with his death, went all the records, photographs and many more stories which he had saved for the writing of his own book. Uwachonmadu Onyia, for his great management of the Mighty Jets of Jos, was to be hired eventually by Chief Jim Nwobodo to manage the Rangers International after Jim became the Governor of Anambra State in the mid-1980s.”
Of course, it was Rangers first victory in the Challenge Cup, having lost out in 1971 and 1972. In Enugu, the capital of East Central State, soccer fans trooped to the streets to celebrate with Rangers who were still in Lagos. Baby masquerades and gong beaters were seen and heard loud and clear in the coal city. The Challenge Cup reached Enugu on Sunday after the match which was played on Saturday as Rangers players and officials had flag-stopped at Agbor, Umunede, Asaba, Onitsha, Ogidi and Awka before reaching Enugu late in the evening.
To be continued…
Edwin Eze and Emma Okocha (2017) Rangers International Football Club: History of a People. Gomslam International Limited: Enugu.