•Says I was unfairly treated, reveals more on Rangers
Sylvanus Okpalla is one of the underrated coaches in Nigeria, yet he could go as one of the best.
His exploits with the national team and clubs in the country speak volumes about his technical know how. He played football to the highest level. Okpalla was the first Nigerian footballer of his generation to sign a professional contract with a European team when he moved to Portugal in 1983 with Okey Isima.
On his return from his playing sojourn in Portugal, the ‘Quicksilver’ as he was fondly called in his active days, decided to dedicate his life to football through coaching.
As a former international, Okpalla’s experience, expertise, carriage and aura give him enough clout to handle any team in the land.
Okpalla’s technical prowess has been tested in various clubs in Nigeria and he has always come out unscathed as far as coaching is concerned. He worked at Enyimba and made his mark. He has also been engaged and disengaged by Rangers International Football Club of Enugu at different times. His problem with various club managements is that Okpala is too frank, straightforward and takes players’ welfare uppermost on his mind. As Enyimba’s coach, Okpalla was eased out of his post because he questioned the poor handling of players’ accommodation during one of their away matches in the continent. His action was seen as inciting the players against management. When he left the fortunes of the club started dwindling and Governor Orji Uzor Kalu wanted him back. The damage had been done to the club. The records are there for anyone to analyse. The late Stephen Keshi started having problems in the team the moment Okpalla was withdrawn from his coaching crew. Keshi was not privy to his disengagement and boldly told the NFF to bring back Okpalla. They refused and until he passed on Keshi felt that removing Okpalla from his team was not only a plot against him but also a sabotage against Nigeria. The federation could not, till date, tell Nigerians what Okpalla did. But we gathered that he always spoke against unprofessional conducts even when top officials were involved.
In his first stint with Rangers he was shown the way out because he kicked against the imposition of players on the technical crew.
Last season, Rangers were neck-deep in the murky waters of relegation. Christian Chukwu, then the General Manager of the club, put a call across to his old pal. When Okpalla picked Chukwu’s call, he was told the Governor of Enugu state had asked him to report for duty at Rangers.
“Chukwu told me the governor asked him to call me. He said the problem was Rangers; the club was going down. Chukwu said a lot of names were mentioned and he gave them my name and promised them that with me as coach, Rangers would not go on relegation. It was remaining only seven matches to the end of the season. It was a bad situation.
“I was very happy that I was able to accomplish my mission there. I give glory and honour to God who made it possible.”
It was not all smooth for Okpala as everything was wrong at the club. The players’ morale was at its lowest ebb and there was no motivation again among them.
“When I eventually got there, what I saw was very disappointing and discouraging. Rangers were already relegated from what I saw on ground. The players were no longer willing to play. The week I got there about four of them left the club.” This is no mean task for any coach to handle.
“I must say here that there is no coach in the world that would want to venture into that kind of risk. Seven matches to go?,” Okpalla said. “No coach, whether he is Mourinho or whoever you call the best coach in the world would take that risk. It is even more intriguing when you consider that with seven matches to go and second from behind, particularly, when you are not sure of what will happen next. I decided to do it because I was a former Rangers player. From secondary school, I started playing for Rangers. From Onitsha to Enugu they would come and pick me up.
“Secondly, I did that not only because Rangers are a traditional team, they are also a movement. Rangers are a movement of a race; the Igbo race. The first history I heard after the war was that Rangers made the Igbo man. The club gave the Igbo man an identity. I grew up and played for Rangers and they say Rangers never die. I took the risk.”
Okpala said, with the team sitting dreadfully, second from behind in the log, with seven matches to the end of the season it required a coach with a big heart to accept such a risk. Said he: “The only coach that can venture into such a risk is one that will be offered a contract and given a term of reference saying, make sure we don’t go into relegation or if we eventually go on relegation, you will go with us to bring us back. We swim or sink together type of arrangement. A coach that has something at stake which means you have a contract.”
Okpalla who is quick to tell about his romance with Rangers, a club he started playing for in his secondary school days never asked for any condition before taking up the task.
“When I went to Rangers, I never had contract with anybody. I never demanded for money. I said this is our Rangers. Rangers will never go down.”
He was however, faced with another problem. He needed the personnel to work with in the rescue operation. It was a Herculean task. He recalled, “the players’ morale was down, nothing was going on there. I had to use a systematic approach to training them. I adopted in and off the field coaching. I became a psychologist on my own.
“Can you imagine that sometimes we trained with 12 players? At times 14 players. Often, when we dressed for matches, about five or six of the players that made up the squad were injured but would dress and sit on the bench to make up the number and make things look normal. We did all this so that nobody will know the true picture of things at the club.”
In the face of this, the former Nigeria international said he was not moved because he had resolved to work for the survival of the club. “I don’t give up. Even as a player I never gave up. I never asked for money nor contract before I agreed to go to work. My mind was on how to salvage Rangers. That was uppermost on my mind. I felt that was the only way to prepare for any serious talk. And remember, even before I came, Rangers were still owing me N8.6 million. I did not put it as a condition. I just mentioned it in passing to Chukwu and he waved it aside and said, ‘just do this, we will talk later. I assured him I was ready for the task. I just felt it was worth mentioning. Although, after the season I was given money for the job, it did not measure up to what I expected.”
After the rescue operation, Okpalla was asked to continue for another two months on interim basis. In all this the coach was working in anticipation of some positive news like contract talks for a permanent job. Something that raised his expectations happened.
“One day, the Governor called me and told me he had set up a panel of inquiry on Rangers and that they would finish their job within two months. After the two months, he would now establish Rangers board and management. He said the new board would then negotiate a contract with me. But he said I have to act again for two months on interim basis,”Okpalla confirmed.
“We were about five, each person assigned with specific duty. I did mine perfectly. Later when I asked for an official vehicle none was given to me. Surprisingly, the day the new coach came was the day he was handed a car. The vehicle had all along been there but they refused to give it to me.
While still there, the commissioner met me one day and told me to write what I wanted to be paid. He told me it was the governor who asked him to tell me to write. It took me about 5 days to write and I passed the proposal to the commissioner. First I asked him who I should address it to. He said I should address it direct to the governor, because it was the governor who directed him to tell me.”
After submitting the proposal to the Commissioner, the unexpected happened.
Okpalla said, “something that was confidential suddenly went public. I do not know how, whether the commissioner made it so. I can’t tell how it leaked. As I speak, nobody has come back to me to say this is what we can offer. The next thing I heard was that the money I was asking for was too much, How can somebody be saying that the money I asked for was too much when I never asked for money when I came to rescue the team. Nobody said okay, we can’t pay this, this is what we can offer. No negotiation. The news was all over town that what I asked for was too much. Rangers are still owing me N8.6 million I never asked for it before agreeing to rescue the team?
He said nobody negotiated terms with him. “It is unfair for anybody to go to town with such stories that I asked for too much when nobody had met me for any discussion.
“Have they negotiated with me? Even the man they have employed now, didn’t they negotiate with him? Whether in writing or verbally, no one has come to me with any offer. I was there working and the next thing I heard was that they were unveiling a new coach. I heard some people were claiming they called me. Nobody called me.”
As badly as he has been treated, Okpalla’s love for the club remains unshaken. We asked if by chance Rangers turn to him again to help rescue the club, should they find themselves in a similar situation, will you agree to help?
He said, “I am a coach. Any time I am called upon I won’t hesitate to answer the call. Mourinho had some differences with Chelsea, he left. After a few years he went back there and won the Premier League with them. More importantly, I am a Rangers supporter. Rangers are in my system. Considering the fact that Rangers are inside me, you can’t take that away from me. Even if it is not Rangers, as a coach if a club ask you to come you go.
Rangers are special to me. I am a supporter and a former player. My first ankle injury that lasted for a long time, I had it in Rangers. That is also where I had my first knee injury against Bendel Insurance in 1979. I am a fan of only Rangers International. For European clubs, I only have sympathy for Portuguese clubs and their national team when they are playing. I am a Rangers fan and that is the only club I support with all my soul.
“I feel bad that I was neglected and not treated fairly. I feel disappointed in the whole action. The reason given was not enough because nobody gave me any offer. But I take it in good faith. I am a coach. Coaches come and go. I am disappointed in the manner they handled the issue. They did not show me respect. Nobody has called me to say, sorry Okpalla, we can’t meet your demands or apologise for not hiring me. No respect. I did what I did for Rangers, not for any individual. Like I said, Rangers are a traditional team and a movement. Their action or inaction never showed any maturity, whatever angle you look at it.
“But I know someone highly placed in the authority of football management in Enugu was not happy when we won one of the matches against Katsina United. He said openly to me that he wanted us to lose so that Rangers would be relegated. Immediately after the game I saw him, he was not looking well. I called him by his name and asked if anybody had annoyed him. He said no. He called me Nkpologu, “I wanted Rangers to go on relegation. We are not pursuing you. We want you to stay. He added that I should see him in his office so he would tell me more.
Instead I saw Chukwu and I told him what the man was saying. Today, he is among those claiming they love Rangers.
“I am sure, even this coach they brought in today, with seven games to go and second from behind, would not have taken that job. Remember, 3SC that eventually went on relegation were six points ahead of Rangers at that time. But I did it because I have the heart. I played for Rangers and was determined to fix it. Today, those who are fighting heads over heels to occupy offices in Rangers are doing so because Rangers escaped relegation. If the club had gone down none of them would have been there fighting each other.”
Okpalla’s problem with the official of the club may have started when he rejected the idea of players imposition on him. The former Rangers coach said, “the official who said he wanted Rangers relegated brought four players to me and asked me to recommend them to management so that they could begin contract negotiation with them. One of the commissioners also brought four of his. They both were asking for my recommendation. I refused because I realised the players were not good. It was against my professional judgement to make such recommendations, particularly, when I knew that the players were not good.
“I am a thorough professional. I can never compromise my position for any reason. I told them that they were in better positions to make the recommendations after all, they were in positions of authority and that no one would question them.”
The ignominious manner Sylvanus Okpalla, MON, was eased out of Rangers is akin to the treatment meted the erstwhile record-breaking coach Amama Amapakabo who led Rangers to their first silverware in 32 years but was disgraced out of office. Unless the Flying Antelopes mend their management style, the Coal City outfit is building a very negative reputation in the manner they disgrace their record achieving coaches out of office.