This is the last in the series, a journey through the eleven positions in a regular football team.
It goes without saying that there is plenty of flexibility in the placement of players into positions on the field, with every generation and every coach at liberty to create and arrange their own formation on the field of play. In Nigerian football, through the generations, playing patterns have undergone changes, from no-formation to 5-4-1, 4-2-4, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, and so on, all depending on the fancy of the coaches. These changes have been incorporated in the positions we have examined so far in the choices made of the ‘greatest’ players by individuals expressing personal opinions.
The last position left for scrutiny is undoubtedly the most fluid on the football field because it is in this area, the midfield, that most team formations are deliberately altered as a strategy to destabilise the opponent and win a match.
We have deliberately not drawn any elite list as a guide for our 4 respondents. It is entirely up to them to come up with their own list of central midfield players they read about or watched, and make their choice of who they consider the greatest in 6 decades of Nigerian football.
1. Obong Dele Adetiba – retired broadcaster and Advertising/PR Guru, captured it beautifully when I called him up:
‘The central midfield player is that player in the middle of the field moving in every direction, roving. He often has more possession of the ball than the other team mates; he has presence; he is confronting opposing defenders, collecting most of the balls from his defense, starting most attacks, and is destructive as the first line of defense. These players are special’.
‘I doff my hat for Samuel Garba Okoye, particularly playing in a team that he almost always single handedly lifted (Jos Highlanders and Mighty Jets) to appear in several FA Cup finals during his time. He always stood out. He was not a flash- in-the-pan kind of player.
Jay Jay Okocha was a modern day central midfield player. He added entertainment to his game and no one can underrate the added entertainment value to football. He enjoyed doing things with the ball, and initially seemed to overdo it. In the last three years of his career he became more mature, reduced the entertainment side of his game and became more prolific.
I am biased in favour of Albert Onyeawuna as the greatest. I saw him at his prime. He was a fan-favourite. He never let fans down, and was always carried out by fans. He had an enduring hero image. Unfortunately, he only played mostly before 1960 and only one match after Nigeria’s Independence, and does not qualify for consideration here.
So, I am torn between Garba and Okocha. Garba was a skilled and incredible schemer for his time, who could always be trusted to put in a good shift. Jay Jay on the other hand proved himself on the world stage. He must always be in the conversation. I leave the hard task of selecting the greater of the two to you’.
2. George Hassan – Former International football player
I asked him about his choice of the greatest player in Central Midfield, outside of himself.
‘There were many good central midfield players in my time. The best was Fred Sekon alias Baba Ali. He was a Ghanaian so does not count here.
‘For me, for his total contribution to team play during matches, I shall rate him as the greatest in Nigeria’s history – Aloysius Atuegbu was that good!’
3. ‘Professor’ Alabi Aissien – former International player and national coach
‘There has been a whole army of brilliant central midfield players in Nigeria’s history. Incidentally, that position required players with a certain natural, physical attribute that was abundantly available in a particular tribe in the country – energy!
The particular tribe has been producing the bulk of the best schemers or central midfield players in Nigeria’s history.
Check out the following players: Albert Onyeawuna, Johnny Egwuonu, Samuel Garba Okoye, Stanley Okoronkwo, Mathew and Alloysius Atuegbu, Mathew Onyeamah, Henry Nwosu, Chibuzor Ehilegbu, Samuel Okwaraji, Jay Jay Okocha. Where do they all come from?’
I was dumbfounded. I had never looked at it that way.
Coach Alabi Assien was serious that it had to do with nature’s endowment, and that it may be the food the people ate in the Eastern part of Nigeria that gave the players from there the reservoir of energy to be tireless ‘workers’ in midfield.
It may make some sense, but I am also seeing the faces of some other truly great schemers from other parts – Friday Ekpo, Ayo Ogunlana, Etim Esin, Nathaniel Adewole, Kenneth Olayombo, and some others. Surely, they also come into reckoning.
I asked him to make his choice of the greatest.
He did not hesitate to tell me.
‘Sam Okwaraji excelled. Samuel Garba and Baba Ali were exceptional. Stanley Okoronkwo was a beautiful butterfly. Alloysius Atuegbu was a regular central midfielder with nothing special. Nwankwo Kanu was also a midfielder too, with flair, skills, vision, know-how, but without the energy of Okocha. For that particular role he comes short.
The best of them all is Okocha. Jay Jay had intuition, that thing that comes from nowhere that makes a player to do the right thing at the right time. He is of the class of Ronaldinho, a footballer of all time – no comparison!’
4. Segun Agbede, The Pundit – Sports Analyst and broadcaster
‘I remember Tunji Banjo, one of the first two foreign-based Nigerian players to play for the Green Eagles. The other was winger John Chidozie. Tunji was a very decent player. That I remember him for his elegant style of play in central midfield means he was good.
There was also Thompson Oliha, another decent player. He was hardworking with a touch of class.
Jay Jay Okocha, obviously, but with him there is a lot more flash than substance. He dazzles with superlative performances.
But my choice would have to be Henry Nwosu, a vastly under-rated player with a bewildering range of passing and dribbling skills, a willingness to take responsibility, and the ability to take shots from everywhere. He was more effective than Jay Jay in a team. At their primes, Henry would create more opportunities and score more goals. Henry Nwosu is it for me’.