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Isima, Oliver De Coque and Room 202

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By Emeka Obasi

Ndubuisi Luis Isima may not be as capped as his elder brother, Okey, but he proved his mettle even when the duo played together at Standard of Jos. The younger Isima who later moved to Asabatex and Julius Berger respectively before relocating to the United States got chatting with our Columnist, Emeka Obasi, from Durban, South Africa, recently.

We know so much about Okey Emmanuel Isima. There was and is still his brother, Ndu. Both of you were at Holy Ghost College (Arugo) Owerri. Let’s hear the story.

I was in the Junior Arugo team. I left for Christ the King College (CKC), Onitsha. I joined my brother again at Standard of Jos. I was in the Plateau State Intermediate team that won the soccer gold medal at the Oluyole ’79 National Sports Festival.

After my late brother went back to Enugu Rangers, I moved to Asabatex. I joined Julius Berger in 1982 before securing a scholarship to the United States.

Did you at any time play against your brother?

Yes, I did. In 1981, we gave Rangers a tough time in Asaba. Asabatex had many players from the Flying Eagles camp. We were together in camp for over six months. It was the first and only time I played against my brother in a competitive match. He was sick before the match and was substituted late in the game after scoring the lone and winning goal. I was introduced in the second half.
We also lost narrowly to Bendel Insurance in the semi-finals of the Bendel FA Cup.

The Isimas had a good time playing for Standard. What was the atmosphere like?

Standard or Pen Power Boys as we were called because the team was owned by the Plateau Publishing Company ( PPC). We were giant killers, defeating teams like Rangers, Shooting Stars and Spartans. Standard beat Raccah Rovers 3-1, Shooting Stars 1-0 in Jos and Rangers, home and away.

We had enterprising players like Okey Isima, Arthur Egbunam, Humphrey Okechukwu, Mike Ogbodudu, Tunde Adedara, Omo Zubeiru, Sola Popo, Kolade Abejide, Bala Ali, James Indoma, Donatus Egbuna and Acheampong.

Honestly, it was fun playing football then. There were also good leaders like the soccer-loving General Manager of PPC, David Atta, cool-headed chairman of the club, Clement Oluwole and our wonderful Team Manager, John Obida, also known as ‘Well done, well done’.

And this is not leaving out coaches Bitrus Bewarang and James Peters. And, of course, other players like Sunday Daniel, Okwuchukwu Anigbogu ( Agarimojo), and Anas Damian. Fidelis Atuegbu must have left at the time.

The Rangers versus Standard game was a big story. Can we hear it?

That’s a story that has not been written till date. The trio of Okey Isima, Egbunam and Okechukwu joined Standard after falling out with the Coal City team over poor remuneration/welfare of players. I was included in that deal as a freshman after my WAEC exams. It was an unusual arrangement but one that helped me mature as a footballer.

It was a usual move by the trio considering the cult following of Rangers at the time among Igbo communities.

Also in those years, the Nigerian League enjoyed the kind of followership we now associate with the English Premiership. To Rangers fans, the move by their stars was unbelievable. And they expressed themselves when Standard arrived Nsukka for the replay of a game that was abandoned earlier due to fans’ encroachment/ riot at the Enugu Stadium when Standard were on the verge of a win against Rangers on home ground.

Rangers supporters laid siege to Premier Hotel where Standard lodged. Lol

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Popular musician, Oliver De Coque, was in town to perform at the same Premier Hotel. When he saw a crowd outside, the Ogene exponent thought he was the attraction until it became obvious the fans were sending emissaries to room 202, not his room 203. Arthur and Isima, were in room 202.

The fans were there to plead that duo returned to Rangers. After that match, more fans besieged the Premier Hotel. To them, Isima, Egbunam and Okechukwu, once brilliant stars of Rangers, had committed an abomination. They had betrayed the Igbo man and damaged the only thing that gave a befitting name to their identity.

Rangers was the name of Biafran guerilla group during the Nigerian Civil War. It was a deadly group that caused nightmare to Federal troops, sneaking into their barracks to maim and kill. And when the war ended, the Easterners named their football team, Rangers. Enugu Rangers were, therefore, more than a football team to the Igbo man. It was a movement that gave them an identity, boosted their ego deflated by loss of the war. It was therefore exciting to the Igbo that Rangers became a hit on formation in 1970, winning the league in 1971, 1974,1975,1977,1981, 1982,1984 and five Challenge Cup victories.

Rangers lifted the Igbo. It became their pride. So you can imagine the outrage when Egbunam laid superb assists that saw Bala Ali firing the first goal for Standard and Okechukwu sealing the victory for the Jos side in the league cracker that ended 2-0 in favour of the visitors.

Isima played in the midfield or what was called 4, Okechukwu 8 and Egbunam in Jersey number 10. They tormented Rangers and were a delight to watch in the midfield. Adedara was in goal for Standard. Onyebuchi Abia and Popo manned the full-back positions. The Ghanaian duo of Musa and Acheampong where in the central defence while James Neto, another Ghanaian, played from the right flank. Kola Adejide was on the left, Bala Ali, was the central striker.

It was an average squad but with strong character. However, they were nowhere in the class of Rangers. That day, the former Rangers boys played as if they were possessed and the story was a shocking 2-0 defeat of almighty Rangers that had Emmanuel Okala in goal and the likes of Christian Chukwu, Amechi Igweobi, Paulinus Ezike, Michael Ochiagha, Adokiye Amiesimaka and Chimezie Ngadi in their lime up.

The trio’s Standard Cinderella story ended with Egbunam travelling to the United States on an athletics/academic scholarship. Isima returned to Rangers following pressure from Rangers fans/Igbo communities and with the influence/ remunerations from the then governor, Jim Nwobodo.

This is really interesting.

I was not surprised at all by the outcome of the game. Rangers lost in Jos by a lone Isima goal, hence the return leg at home was tagged a revenge win. The game was headed for a 1-1 draw at the Enugu Stadium. Rangers fans became agitated by constant pressure on their team and started throwing missiles into the pitch. Instead of calling the match a draw, the referee who preferred a win for Rangers annulled the match and pronounced a replay in Nsukka.

It was unfortunate that Rangers did not see the handwriting on the wall. The Pen Boys had so many big characters. Considering that we humbled Raccah Rovers 3-1, a formidable team with players like Baba Otu Mohammed and Shefiu Mohammed. And also a 1-0 win against in-form Shooting Stars in Jos with the full complement of national team stars: Segun Odegbami, Felix Owolabi, Muda Lawal, Tunde Bamidele and others.

Nsukka was full of noise and funfair with Rangers supporters holding placards of a 3-0 thrashing of Standard. The atmosphere was charged with Rangers fans travelling from Aba, Onitsha and all over the Eastern Region. Many were not allowed access onto the stadium.

The air of apprehension was palpable because Rangers needed victory so badly to restore dignity and save face from the humiliation at Enugu Stadium and defeat in Jos. I remember my brother, Okey, speaking in his usual Hausa language to Bala (Zico) Ali : “Sun so, mu n so kwu ma”.

Rangers threw everything they had in their arsenal but succumbed to a balanced and gifted side. It was a memorable game.

Your sojourn in America should also be as interesting. You were at the University of Alabama, Huntsville (UAH). Ndu Isima holds the record for most games played for that institution that also threw up Ahamefula Umelo, Godwin Gbenimacho (Mature), Ignatius Ilechukwu, Sam Onyeaka (Achimota), Idika Aku (Pele), Mike Igbeka, Emmanuel Awaitam and Annie Nwanolue.

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Ilechukwu was working on his Master’s degree when we arrived in 1982. Onyeaka joined us. We had three speedsters at UAH, Sam Onyeaka, Idika Aku and Thames Blumfil, a Jamaican who was incredibly fast. It was an interesting period in soccer development in the US. Ilechukwu is a very private person.

Idika Aku was my teammate and we used to chat about the good old days. He too like many of our beloved teammates and friends is no more. May their souls rest in peace. Ironically, many of the footballers lost their lives in Nigeria either through road accidents or some strange illness and hopelessness. Sad how good stories end in Nigeria.

I will forever cherish Nwachukwu Onyekwelu (Igariga) for his tutelage and support in the US. He was a role model with great leadership character. He was a scholar and top-class athlete at the same time. He encouraged us to work hard on both fronts. An astute businessman with interests in the US and Nigeria even before completing his college degree. May his soul rest in peace.

You live in Durban, South Africa but you follow events at home. I could see it during the passage of pioneer Flying Antelope, Chukwu Igweonu.

I have been residing in South Africa for over 20 years with my wife and children. I visit Nigeria quite often. In 2013 when my brother, Okey, passed on, I spent a long time in Nigeria and was privileged to meet so many journalists in Lagos and Abuja. Some of them travelled with me to my hometown, Nsugbe, Anambra for the funeral.

I met Chukwuma Igweonu at my brother’s funeral. He sat beside Emma Okala. The Chukwuma we idolised after the Civil War. A popular song was made in his name. ‘ Chukwuma shoot am ooo, it’s a goal ooo.’ I think we did not give him proper recognition as one of the great names of Nigerian football.

The 2010 World Cup was in my backyard, talking about Nigeria. My family and I were frequent visitors at Riverside Hotel, Durban, where Super Eagles stayed. It was a painful experience for the boisterous Nigerian fans in South Africa. Overall, it was the most exciting moment of my life and business.

Being part of FIFA’s most popular event in Africa for the first time in history will remain inscribed in our hearts and minds forever.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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