….Relishes coaching Dolphin to win FA Cup back-to-back
….Says with good management, Super Eagles can become an all-conquering team
…..Insists it’s not yet time for govt to hands-off football in Nigeria
In this concluding part of the interview with former Green Eagles striker, Ifeanyi Onyedika, he tells us how life has been as a coach and recommends steps Nigeria must take to make the national team become dreaded in Africa and beyond. As a coach, Onyedika raised his profile after winning the FA Cup (now Federation Cup) back-to-back, a rare feat.
Onyedika spoke with Weekend Editor, Onochie Anibeze and Deputy Sports Editor, Jacob Ajom. Read on.
That takes us to the question on our league. During your time, the league was at its peak, we even had a Brazilian coach in our league and two Brazilians were in Rangers at the time and the economy was better then. What has happened to our football, our league?
A lot has happened to our football. The smooth transition from academicals to the clubs is no longer there. What you see now is, everybody wants to play football. One wants to play because he has seen Okocha play, or seen Ronaldo play without knowing the rudiments of the game.
So they carry their boots all over the place. In those days you had to start from primary school. The clubs would keep a tab on you; they would follow you as you developed. After your school certificate exams, Vasco would take their own and Rangers would pick theirs and they would be integrated into the system. That transition is no more there. It has been broken.
These days, private schools are all over the place, some in two rooms, some in flats, so where are they going to play as there are no more soccer pitches? That is one of the main reasons our football has gone down so much. We don’t have football in schools anymore. Sports culture is schools is dead.
But there is a provision in the Nigeria Professional League statute that makes it mandatory for clubs to have intermediate teams. This has not been followed.
Like an academy? The reason is that clubs in Nigeria do not make money like their counterparts abroad. From where can they get money to run the main team, the junior teams and stuff like that?
But if the LMC insists that all clubs must have junior teams, it can be carried out.
If only they can secure sponsors. If clubs get good sponsors, these things can easily be done. In South Africa, they have great academics. Here, perhaps only government clubs can do that. But for private club owners, it is near impossible.
It is disturbing that many of our youths who have not played anywhere at home all want to go abroad. Even in our league, some players would play one season, the next thing you hear is, I want to go abroad.
That is crazy. You would hear them saying my manager is taking me abroad. The best thing is for one to start playing for a club at home first, spend time on your own and train the way you want to train. If you don’t train and you are taken out for trials, you will go there and fail woefully because you are not fit. So it’s a big problem.
If a guy plays for one season here and he scores ten goals, he sees himself as bigger than the club because the next thing is he wants to move to England. It’s not done like that because there is time for everything.
You were coach of the defunct Dolphins of Port Harcourt. What was it like coaching them and winning the FA Cup? And what it meant to you, beating Rangers in the final?
I hope you remember the Rangers slogan: Never say die. I must tell you that at the time, I loved it so much because that was the only way they could understand that you were doing a great job somewhere. It was by beating them.
In Dolphins, I had a great team and great players too. We were determined. One thing you must note is that there is a difference between the FA Cup and the league. The two competitions are not played the same way. Make a mistake in the FA Cup and you are out. In the FA Cup, you play in such a way that you don’t lose. There is no room for error. If you are going to lose, let it be through a penalty shootout. You must do your best to see that you don’t lose within 90 minutes of regulation time.
If you recall, six minutes into that game my captain was given a red card, so I had to play with ten men till the end of the game. I had a great team with players who were determined at the point and they delivered.
I think that Rangers made a tactical mistake. After my player was sent off, I waited to see the kind of pattern they would adopt. I didn’t want my players to calm down and play as if everything was normal because if they had calmed down to play normally, that one man deficit would have shown and Rangers would have had the upper hand.
As we maintained our combatant mood, giving Rangers a run for their money, it was difficult to know which side was minus one. So I got my 1-1 there. It looked normal for the two of us. Then we went into a penalty shootout. And that was it.
However, I felt it when I got into my room because I felt for my Rangers. There were many calls coming from Enugu which I ignored because I didn’t know how to talk about it. But then again, it was football and one had to be professional. I felt happy for myself and Dolphin and felt sad for Rangers.
You are one of the best coaches around because you played the game at top level. Another advantage is that you attended a higher institution. You proved your mettle with Dolphin. How come Rangers and other big clubs have not looked in your direction?
For Rangers, they still see me as the boy Ahidjo. the player Ahidjo. They have not seen me as coach Ifeanyi Onyedika, MON. I have accepted it too. That is where they have placed me and I have accepted it too.
How did that name Ahidjo come up? Tell us.
In Enugu, we had too many clubs; Highlanders, Black Rocks, all those mushroom clubs. We were training there at Campus. The Highlanders had a goalkeeper called Ahidjo. I was playing too and I liked manning the goalpost. There was this day he didn’t show up. So, as small as I was, I volunteered to man the post. Somebody asked, ‘how can this small boy keep for us?’ Another player said, ‘I have seen him keep before’.
So I got in between the posts, and it was difficult for them to score against me. What now made them believe I could keep happening. There was this shot they took, I dropped the ball and one of the attackers rushed me, believing he could harass me and score. When he came close, I beat him like a small boy. Nobody believed I could do that. So I took off after the match so that he wouldn’t come and maim me. Now they were saying Ahidjo no dey but Ahidjo dey. That was one.
It was interesting because the Cameroonian President then was Amoudu Ahidjo.
Then we went to school after about a week. After observing me play, the way I was playing and taking charge of the whole thing, the games master said I was playing like a President, no wonder they were calling me Ahidjo. So he started calling me Ahidjo of Cameroon. So the name came from two ways.
Can you tell us what were your great moments in football, both at club and national team, and your low moments at club and national team?
As a matter of fact, my greatest moment at club level was the first match I played in Rangers’ jersey. It was against Mighty Jets of Jos and I scored a goal. I didn’t think I could easily score but from training, I had it easy passing through some defenders. I didn’t see any difficulty there and on this match day, I was asking myself, are they different from the defenders we had at Rangers? ‘They are not different, so why not take them on’.
So we started the game. At a point, I took somebody on and I saw that he was just watching me as I went past him. After beating him I scored. I was very happy and that was my greatest moment at that level. Even when I scored four goals in a game, it didn’t gladden my heart the way that one on my debut did.
Then at the national level, I would say, playing my first game for the national team when we played Viking of Norway. It was awesome because I scored two goals in that match.
And as a coach, you know I won the FA Cup back-to-back with Dolphins. In 2006 we won it against Insurance in Abeokuta and 2007 against Rangers. So that was it.
My low point in football as a player was that people who didn’t belong to football were always there. There were people you knew had no business with football, somehow they found their way into the football circle (as administrators) and they cripple a lot of things for the teams and players with their nasty policies. Looking at such developments I feel bad sometimes.
Again, as a coach, I now understood that a player has to be very happy to play good football and bring out his best. You don’t owe players. Pay them them and the coaches too. And the best thing that is about to happen to Nigerian football is insurance. They should have an insurance policy that will cover every player and they will see them play the best football.
How was it like going to school and playing football? Few of you did it, Amiesimaka did it?
It’s your family that defines all this. I was allowed to play simply because they saw that I didn’t relax in this other aspect, which were my academics.
So I had to be serious. I travelled to Holland for my coaching course and I had to sponsor myself from the money I made coaching Ebonyi Angels. I got myself there and I can tell you, it gave me all the confidence I needed to do this job. What are you coming with to test me? You won’t have much.
Where did we get it wrong in club football? You mentioned a lack of smooth transition that was the hallmark of our football development. We don’t have stars, academies, etc. Why is the league no longer competitive? The fans are not coming to the stadia, referees being compromised, etc.
To a large extent I agree with that assertion that corruption crept into our football and damaged it big time. Rangers, Pillars, Gombe must win because they are playing at home. It usually happens that way.
For instance, Rangers are going to play say Obanta United, one would easily conclude that Obanta would win because they would be at home. When you ask why? Someone would ask you, is not their home? Those kinds of things must stop so we can truly be professional.
Yet there is another thing we must address. The government must help in developing our local football. I am not saying the government should run the football but it has to assist clubs in establishing academies. For instance, look at a state like Anambra, there is no club except one or two owned by individuals? And I know there are a million players out there looking for where to play. It shouldn’t happen that way.
Are you encouraging government ownership of clubs?
My brother, with the way things are, yes. It is only the government that can ensure regular payment of players’ and coaches’ salaries. Individuals cannot do it for long, except when they have sponsors. Only then can we tell the government to gradually disengage from club football. Right now there is not much we can do outside of government support.
But the League Management Company is asking clubs to go public and sell shares?
You only buy shares when you see that things are being run well and your investment can yield profit. You only buy shares when you understand the way things are done and when club management is above board. You don’t just go and buy shares because it is Rangers or IICC? There has to be attraction for the corporate community to come in.
What can Nigeria do to improve the national team?
Fortunately for Nigeria, we have very good players abroad and at home too. With proper commitment, we shouldn’t find it difficult to walk past the biggest teams in Africa. Okay, for instance, look at what Osimhen is doing now, two hat-tricks in two games? That looks like crazy. Such things don’t happen always. Our system at times makes the players weak; they don’t want to give their best. We must repackage everything we are doing here.
You also mentioned that we have good players in our league? But the national team coach doesn’t believe so because he hardly watches our league.
He has to. Why won’t he watch our league? He has to watch the league, identify the good players and gradually introduce them into the national team for necessary exposure. We cannot be solely dependent on foreign-based players. Some guys have to play from home.
Advise for the younger ones?
It is very simple. You have to sacrifice. Forget about smoking cigarettes and doing drugs. Forget about alcohol and focus on the game. Obey your coach and do extra work on your own in addition to what your coach instructs you. Try to do things on your own. What kind of a striker are you if you can’t take on a defender? Above all, listen to your coach.
What are you doing now?
I’m on my own and trying to see if I can establish an academy. But as you know, these things are capital intensive.