I had an interesting chat with one of the most experienced heads on Nigerian football. He knows all the left-full backs on focus today. He coached a few of them. His choice of best Left-back kick-starts the conversation.
Introduction – Conversation with Alabi Aissien
It is not often that you have the opportunity to chat with one of the sharpest brains on the history of Nigerian football. He may have been out of the football scene for some time, hibernating in his country home in Benin City, but he has also been quietly watching events and players, and thoroughly enjoying the evening of his life. At 86 he should be.
To chat with him is to embark on a journey down the history of Nigerian football.
‘Professor’ Alabi Aissien is not your ordinary coach. He was a master, so good he was nicknamed ‘professor’, a ‘degree he more than deserved without attending a university. He trained as coach in one of the best coaching schools in Europe, in Germany. He handled several Nigerian football clubs during a very illustrious career, and was a part of the technical crew of the national team in the mid to late 1970s. I met him personally for the first time at the national camp in the University of Ife where the Green Eagles trained. UNIFE had some of the best sports facilities in the country at the time.
We camped far from the bustle of Lagos in a guest House in a little village called Ipetumodu, close to Ile Ife. At different times, both Shooting Stars FC and the Green Eagles, were camped in the guest house in the village owned by the Adesinas, parents of Femi Adesina (the current SSA to the President of Nigeria on Media).
Coach Alabi was a very calm and confident coach, a showman. He carried himself with great panache and style. He knew his onions very well and never failed to express his mind on technical football issues. He was very eloquent too, and a deep thinker even beyond football.
I spoke with him recently, being one of the last of his generation of coaches. I found a man whose mind was still as sharp as it ever was.
He remembered everything.
I sought his opinion about the best player at left-back position in Nigerian football history since 1960, and ended up receiving a very interesting lecture on football and players.
“I prefer to groom players for positions. I take a look at them, determine their strengths, and then groom them to play in certain positions, particularly if they are generally gifted players. Take the case of Okey Isima. We were in Ipetumodu camp of the Eagles. I met him at the gate with his load heading out of the camp having been sent back to his club by the national coach because the camp had too many midfielders that were better than him.
Of course, I knew Okey and how good a player he was in midfield. He would be an asset to any side with his ability. I recognised he could play in the national team using his skills and talent, but in a different position. Meanwhile, we were struggling to get a solid left-back and he had the ability to tackle as a defensive midfield player. I told him to return to camp with me. I took him to Carl O’Dwyer and suggested to him that we groomed and tried Okey for the left-back role. Carl agreed and we did. The rest is history. Okey went on to play that position during the 1980 African Cup of Nations, and left his mark”.
I asked ‘Professor’ Aissien about a certain Tunde Abeki from Jos in those days who was famous as a wicked defender, and if he remembered him playing at the left-back position. He could not confirm the exact position Tunde played but had this to say about him: “Who could forget Tunde Abeki in those days? He was a terror. His nickname was a whole sentence – ‘Kill them all and come back alone’. Abeki was a very rough, hard and brutal player, often used to mark out dangerous forwards in those days”.
But back to the left-full backs that he knew.
Who amongst them is his choice of the best ever?
There was no hesitation whatsoever.
“The best ever till now, is Augustine Ofokwu, left-back and captain of Stationary Stores and of the Green Eagles. He was called Captain Mazelli. He was, by miles, the best left-back Nigeria has ever produced. There can’t be a dispute about that. And I promise you, I have seen them all. Augustine was cool and calm, very creative and resourceful. He could read the game very well and knew when to go forward, when to tackle and when to return to defend and re-organise the team. He had good control over the players on the field. The player that came closest to him was Yisa Shofoluwe. Yisa was a very intelligent player and, like Ofokwu, knew when to join attacks by moving upfront, and when to recover, not through the wings but through the centre. This was not a strategy anyone taught him. He learnt it on the field and that was his distinguishing mark of intelligence”.
So, Alabi Aissien has set the pace and the ball rolling?
For him, it is Augustine Ofokwu.
These are the verdicts of other selected respondents.
Jide Ojuko – Politician, Former Commissioner, Ogun State
Samuel Ojebode – Shooting Star FC (Capt), Green Eagles. He was a very mature player, cool-headed, and a leader on the field. He was a great overlapping left back. His crosses were superb.
Ade Ojeikhere – Journalist
Samuel Ojebode – Shooting Stars FC (Capt), Green Eagles. He had a great presence; a leader always that organized his defense; had excellent overlapping skills. He kept Chris Ogu, the danger man of Bendel Insurance when he was at his best, very quiet in Benin. I like him very much.
Emmanuel Okala – Ex-international Player
Kadiri Ikhana – Bendel Insurance, Green Eagles. Surprise choice? No. He was a utility defender/midfielder, so, he understood defending from every position. He was one of the pioneers of overlapping by defenders. Very rugged and hard to beat.
Godwin Izilien – Coach, Bendel Insurance
Ben Iroha – Green Eagles. Had the ability and energy to move up and down the flank. His ball handling skills were superb. His recovery was good. He covered for his central defenders whenever they were in trouble. He was very, had a unique ball distribution ability, and was very rugged.
Dele Adetiba – Broadcaster/PR Guru
Fabian Duru – Green Eagles. In my head, there has been none like Duru. Players since then may have done better, but I am hung up on my past feelings. He was brave, nearest thing to a sweeper from the left side of central defense, always there to take care of the last line. The sliding tackle was designed for him. Dependable and could be trusted when everything else failed. That’s my image of him.
Chuka Momah – Pharmacist/Sports Administrator/ writer.
Harrison Mecha – Rangers International and Green Eagles. For sentimental reasons about the era that he played, without all the later day advantages of better coaching, funds, science, diet and so on. He had a method to everything he did. He was the prototype of who a good defender should be. He was rugged. He was something else on the field. With a heavy heart, I choose him ahead of Ben Iroha.
Kayode Adeniji – Engineer, football buff.
Yisa Sofoluwe – Abiola Babes, Green Eagles. For sentimental reasons my choice would have been Sam Ojebode. But the best is ‘the dean and ubiquitous Minister of Defense’. His savvy mastery of the game, overlapping skills, immeasurable contribution to attacks and goal scoring, ruggedness, determination to win, stand him out. He is always a factor in all matches.