.Ex-internationals pour venom on embattled coach
By John Egbokhan
When under-fire Flying Eagles coach, Paul Aigbogun left his managerial job at seven-time Nigerian Premier League champions, Enyimba last year, many fans of the People’s Elephants danced through the streets of the commercial city of Aba to celebrate the departure of a coach, who they felt was making the team to punch well below their weight in the football landscape.
Fast-forward to today and the fans of Enyimba are singing a new tune as their team are in contention to pick a CAF Confederation Cup ticket in the Super Six. Conversely, Aigbogun is embroiled in a battle to save his job after the dismal outing of his Flying Eagles team at the ongoing FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland, from which they have crashed out in the second round.
And the ouster of the team has led to strident calls for Aigbogun to be sacked, with 1980 African Cup of Nations winner, Segun Odegbami, describing the team as the ‘’worst set of Flying Eagles squad to be put together since Nigeria’s participation at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1983’’.
Many Enyimba fans had hoped Aigbogun’s resignation on July 23, 2018, would come much more earlier due to the drift they felt the club were taking under the leadership of the United Kingdom-born gaffer.
As the only Nigerian side to have won the prestigious CAF Champions League in 2003 and 2004, Enyimba have set for themselves and others a benchmark of high standards, which, unfortunately, fans thought they were not coming close to under the guidance of Aigbogun.
They had thought his recruitment would galvanize their beloved club to new heights but in turn they saw a team struggling to compete among the top teams, in fact they crashed out of that year’s CAF Champions League and had to join the lesser CAF Confederation Cup, which they also failed to make hay from, prompting fans to call for Aigbogun’s dismissal.
Recall that Aigbogun replaced Kadiri Ikhana who was sacked following an alleged feud with the management of the club.
But the tide later turned against him, as he came under intense scrutiny for what some fans of the club at that time termed an underwhelming season.
The fans have voiced their discontent over the club’s failure to progress past the group stage of that season’s CAF Champions League, saying that they were not confident that Aigbogun had the capacity to guide the team to the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL title and the Federation Cup.
But club chairman and a current member of the Executive Committee of the Nigeria Football Federation, Felix Anyansi-Agwu, stood in defence of the embattled coach, insisting that he was satisfied with the work of the former Warri Wolves gaffer.
“We (Enyimba) have not been given any reason to show dissatisfaction with the work of Aigbogun. He has been given a free hand to do his job to the best of his knowledge. People are free to speculate that Aigbogun will be sacked but I don’t know where those stories are emanating from. There is nothing from our end to suggest that Aigbogun will be sacked at the end of the season. Aigbogun is doing a good job and he needs to be encouraged also. Enyimba never presses the panic button and we will not start doing that at this stage,” Anyansi-Agwu had said at that time.
But the anti-Aigbogun clamour did not abate, forcing the gaffer to resign his position at Enyimba on July 23, 2018, bringing his third-stint at the club to a closure. At the time of his resignation, Enyimba were fourth in the 2018 Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) table with 38 points from 24 games. They were also sitting atop Group C of the CAF Confederation Cup with six points from three games.
His resignation was deemed by Aba fans as good riddance to bad rubbish as they wished that he never coached them again. But Aigbogun was astonishingly left to continue coaching Flying Eagles who he guided through the qualifying campaign of the African Under-20 Championship.
The team qualified for the tournament but failed to qualify for the final and were beaten in the third and fourth place playoff match against South Africa. They barely managed to scrape into the FIFA U-20 World Cup through the backdoor, leaving a sour taste on the lips of Nigerian soccer fans.
The team’s performance at the African Championship caused eyebrows to be raised as to how Aigbogun was deemed the best man for the plum job in a country that has a golden record at this stage of youth football.
Calls were made for the team to be rejigged from the technical side to the players but only the players were affected, with the bulk crop of the team at the African Championship being dropped for a new set of players, mostly sourced from Europe and America.
Budding stars like Manchester City midfielder, Dele Bashiru, Jonathan Zaccala, Success Makanjuola, Valentine Ozonwafor and captain Ikouwem Utin were expected to shine brightly but like a candle in the wind, the Flying Eagles were extinguished in the second round of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland by Senegal, who ran away with a 2-1 victory, with the Nigerian team and nation left to rue their ouster at the tournament.
And the ouster of the team has continued to generate sharp, wild and scathing criticism of coach Aigbogun, who observers feel has little or no knowledge of youth players.
Speaking to our reporter on the telephone, a former Flying Eagles star, Yisa Sofoluwe said Aigbogun has not done his career any good with the shoddy performance of his team in Poland 2019.
‘’I don’t think Aigbogun has done himself any good with what we saw of his team at the competition in Poland”, Sofoluwe began.
Continuing, the ex-international said, ‘’the World Cup is not a tournament that you allow sentiments to rule your emotions. It is a big tournament and deserves big and bold statements to be made. You must be at your very best to get the best results, which regrettably we were not at and that is why most Nigerians are blaming Aigbogun because he is the coach and bears the brunt when things do not go according to plan”.
Things actually never went according to script for the Flying Eagles, whose only victory at the World Cup in Poland was a 4-0 spanking of Qatar in the first Group D match. That result was followed by a 2-0 loss to USA, 1-1 draw with Ukraine and the second round 2-1 loss to Senegal, ending an uneventful campaign in the tournament, which they had previously played in two finals, most recently in 1989 against Portugal and 2005 against Argentina, who had Lionel Messi in their fold at that finals.
Sofoluwe added that Aigbogun has shown his shallow knowledge of youth football coaching, stressing that, ‘’from what I saw of the team in Poland, it is clear that the coach does not have deep knowledge of youth football coaching.
‘’His body language was not encouraging to say the least and he did not give us anything to cheer about the team. He looked lost in space and it was just too bad that he did not turn up, which also affected his players, who were looking up for inspiration from him”, said Sofoluwe.
Adding his voice to the burning issue, another former Flying Eagles midfielder, Paul Okoku said he was unimpressed with the technical depth of the Nigerian team.
‘’That is not a Nigerian team because as far as I am concerned, we are better than what was on show in Poland. Something was fundamentally wrong with the team and I feel that it is more of a technical problem than a structural one.
‘’Football is generally won from the bench and from what was on show in Poland, we lacked the technical input. We lacked the players that could string passes together. Things were so bad that our players could not make forward runs. It was just unbelievable what happened in Poland”, added Okoku, a silver-medal winner at the 1984 Nations Cup with the Super Eagles.
Another former Eagles campaigner, Tajudeen Disu has however blamed the Nigeria Football Federation for appointing Aigbogun coach of the team to the ill-fated Poland 2019.
Disu said the NFF should have known better that the appointment of Aigbogun was a precursor to failure at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, given the track record of the embattled coach in his past assignments.
‘’I see this failure as the fault of the NFF, who in the first place, should not have named him the coach of the Flying Eagles because he has not proved himself capable to handle such a task in the past and now you make him the leader of such a sensitive team from where the next set of Super Eagles players would come from.
‘’When he was even at his previous clubs, he did not win anything and you now expect him to win something at the top level with the national team. It was going to be a tall order for him and we are all counting the losses now”, added Disu.
‘’Now that we have crashed out, I think the right thing to do is to redress the situation and start planning for the future, which is in two years time when the next FIFA Under-20 World Cup will hold”, Disu said.
But it remains to be seen if Aigbogun, who first worked with Enyimba in the 2012/13 season amongst a consortium of coaches that included current U23 coach Imama Amapakabo and suspended Super Eagles assistant coach, Salisu Yusuf would pay the ultimate sacrifice for causing Nigerians much grief, pain, anguish and sad memories for a shambolic performance in Poland 2019.
An NFF insider said the Technical Committee of the football governing body would meet soon to decide on the next line to take on the ill-fated trip of the Flying Eagles to Poland 2019. Their recommendations would be passed on to the Executive Committee, headed by President Amaju Pinnick.