By Clement Nwankpa Jr
The Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) is replete with experienced players. Players who have lit up the stage for over a decade now but are still around to guide the younger ones.
In difference to their age and sometimes in a show of love, the younger players are known to have created several sobriquets in place of the real names of their long serving colleagues. It is common to hear some being hailed ‘Senior man’, ‘Big boss’, ‘Egbon’ for those in the South west area and in the South east, you hear ‘nnukwu mmadu’ and such other names.
Some are still competing favourably with the younger players while others could be said to be on the exit lounge. How much longer can these players hang in there? In this two parts serial, we chronicle these NPFL ‘senior citizens’.
ISIAKA OLAWALE (EL-KANEMI)
Olawale has seen it all in the NPFL. The midfield craftsman has traversed the length and breadth of the nation in a career that has seen him play in the elite league for about 15 years. His former employers include Dolphins, Lobi, Kwara United and Enyimba. Currently at ElKanemi, the Sand Eagles captain has shown no signs of slowing down. He had some stint with the Super Eagles in 2007 during Berti Vogts’ tenure.
ROTIMI SUNDAY (RIVERS UNITED)
This is the father of them all, arguably the oldest player in the league. In an NPFL career that spans almost two decades, Rotimi made his Super Eagles debut in an AFCON qualifier against Namibia in Windhoek in 2001 when he substituted injured keeper, Austin Ejide. His consistency between the sticks over the years is commendable. Noteworthy is that he is still first choice at Rivers United where he was largely instrumental to their second place finish last season. He buttresses the saying that in goalkeeping, old wines taste better.
CHINEDU EFUGH (ABIA WARRIORS)
Chicago had his formative years in Jos but he had most of his one decade NPFL stint in the east filing out for Oriental heavyweights Rangers and Heartland before pitching his tent with Abia Warriors. It was at Heartland, where he rose to the position of captain, that he established himself as one of the standout central defenders in the league. He led Heartland to back-to-back Federation Cup victories in 2011/12. He quit the club when the Naze millionaires were relegated at the end of last season and has been getting his fair share of game at Warriors.
EMMANUEL OLOWO (PLATEAU UNITED)
Babao, is one of the most experienced around. He has found playing time restricted at table toppers, Plateau but he has been a major source of inspiration to the younger players at the club. Olowo is part of the famed twin tower at the heart of Heartland defense as they lost to TP Mazembe in the 2009 Champions League final. His selling point is his tough, uncompromising stance which makes him a nightmare for defenders. He is finding it hard these days to cope with the pace of the modern game but at his peak he was such a colossus. After staying six seasons at Heartland, he has now changed clubs each season since 2014.
JOHN GAADI (PLATEAU UNITED)
In one of Plateau’s home games, this writer had seen Gaadi sitting beside Olowo on the bench and had jokingly asked the duo; “are you people doing elders council meeting?”. They laughed it off. But after Rotimi, Gaadi is easily the most experienced keeper in the league. He was involved during the golden era of Enyimba in 2007. The big keeper was such a soothing presence between the sticks. These days, he has found it hard upstaging the younger, in-form Dele Ajiboye but surely, there’s a lot Dele could learn from him. His list of former employers include Gombe United, Heartland, Sunshine, Akwa United, Sharks, Abia Warriors and Lobi.
DAVID TYAVKASE (LOBI)
It is amazing to still see Tyavkase sustain a starting place at Lobi. The playmaker is still his old incisive self with the probing runs and penetrating passes just as the long range canons, his major selling point, are still intact. All these, 14 years after he helped Enyimba win that maiden Champions League title. His current form is a testament to his longevity. When asked the secret of his staying ability in the game, he had replied; “live and let live. One day at a time”. He is very much at home in his native Makurdi and has the dream of helping return Lobi to the continent. He had brief stints with Mangasports and US Bitam in Gabon in 2015.
OKEY ODITA (RANGERS)
Okey will go down in history as captain of the Rangers squad that broke a 32 year jinx by winning the NPFL. But even then, it was obvious he was struggling with the pace of today’s game. Who wouldn’t be? One can’t cheat nature. He has been around for a while. His guidance however sufficed as the Flying Antelopes won the title against the odds. This term, though, he has found game time more difficult as the coaches opt for the younger defenders. One thing that can’t be taken away from Okey, though, is that he has managed to remain competitive till now. It won’t be a surprise if he calls it a day soon, on active football. Some of his contemporaries are now playing veterans football (All Stars). His solitary cap for the Super Eagles came in 2004.
THANKGOD IKE (SUNSHINE STARS)
Thankgod was Olowo’s partner in that famed Heartland twin defensive tower that lost the 2009 Champions League final by the odd goal. For the past one decade, he has been a mainstay in the domestic scene with stints at Heartland, Warri Wolves and Enyimba. For a player used to fighting for the title, he is currently in an unfamiliar terrain battling relegation with Sunshine. One hopes his experience will suffice to help the team avoid the drop. It is still amazing, though, to note that despite having seen and done it all, he is still driven by the passion to play regularly. He recently revealed that he quit Enyimba for Sunshine because he desires to play regularly. Nothing lasts forever…Back in the days, Ike could stroll into any club’s starting 11.
CHINEDU UDOJI (KANO PILLARS)
While Liverpool legend Steven Gerard brought the sobriquet ‘Captain Fantastic’ to global acclaim, the usage in the domestic scene is traced more to Udoji. Enyimba won many battles with him wearing the captain’s band. And there were many moments he surged forward to score late goals and secured vital points for the People’s Elephant. One such moment was in the 2015/16 home fixture between Enyimba and Lobi stars. Lobi led 2-1 and with just four minutes separating them and a famous away victory, Udoji surged forward and nodded in the equaliser. He moved to Pillars this season where he has maintained a starting place. The hard-as-nail defender who could also play in holding midfield, was part of NPFL All Stars team to Spain last year. He recently marked his 10th year in the NPFL, but it just seems he has been around ‘forever’.
GAMBO MOHAMMED (KANO PILLARS)
Gambo is a typical one-club player. It is hard to imagine him outside Pillars. Even after featuring against the star-studded Spanish national team at 2013 Confederation Cup, many expected Gambo to finally take his stock abroad but he has found a home with the sai masu gida. At some point, he moved to Middle East but cut short that stint due to home sickness and returned to Pillars. And he has been a consistent goal scorer in the domestic scene over the years. His goals were vital as Pillars won the title on three consecutive occasions. It must however be noted that in recent years, his goal returns have dropped. In the current season, his playing time has been restricted. But one moment he buttressed the saying that ‘an old woman is not too old to dance to a familiar tune’ was against Enyimba in Kano when he came off the bench to grab a late winner for Pillars.
ADAMU MOHAMMED (KANO PILLARS)
This is the league’s Mr.Impact. Whenever he comes off the bench, the Sani Abacha Stadium erupts into cheers because the fans believe something must happen. And he has had many of such cameo moments off the bench for Pillars. Against Katsina, he came off the bench to break the visitors’ resistance just as he scored a brace to secure all three points after being introduced against Shooting Stars. Funny enough, whenever he starts, he rarely replicates those heroic moments. But his game now seems suited to coming from the bench to take advantage of tired legs on the pitch. He isn’t getting younger. His best days are well behind him.
IKECHUKWU IBENEGBU (ENYIMBA)
One of the familiar pictures in the league for the past one decade is a certain lanky figure running things in the middle of the park. You could be deceived by this lad’s skinny appearance but then he stings with his passes and long range canons hence he is nicknamed ‘Mosquito’. A key member of that Heartland back-to-back Federation Cup winning squad, Ibenegbu had since moved on to Warri Wolves and Enyimba. And at a time when he could be regarded as one of the league’s senior citizens, the Sand Eagle is still dominating midfield battles in the NPFL. He made his foray into the league in the colours of ElKanemi in 2006 and was a member of the 2016 CHAN Eagles.
IFEANYI ONUIGBO (FC IFEANYIUBAH)
Pam Pam is one of the most popular figures in the NPFL. You can’t miss his dreadlocks and tough looks. And he is also feisty on and off the ball. For his increasing age, it is still interesting seeing him ruffle younger oppositions. You must be up to his all-action play. He doesn’t score much but he keeps you engaged for his duration on the pitch. And given the presence of the likes of Godwin Obaje at FCIU, he doesn’t get to play much these days. After over a decade in the league with stints abroad in between, may be time has come for Onuigbo, who is also involved with the Sand Eagles, to gradually wind down his career. But he could still be somehow motivated. Just last year, he played a starring role in Enyimba’s Champions League campaign.
CLETUS ITODO (LOBI STARS)
At Lobi, younger players call Itodo ‘senior man’. Why not? Not a few of them could have watched from the stands while this midfield anchor strutted his stuff back then. Those were days his name featured prominently in the home-based Eagles. In a team that has Tyavkase starting regularly, a coach wouldn’t be comfortable having Itodo on at the same time. So Itodo does more from the bench for Lobi. But whenever he comes on, you see the glimpses of a consummate midfielder. Time hasn’t eroded the quality. Incidentally, he is having his first stint with his hometown club, Lobi, a development he attributed to to his decision to stay away from home till much later in his career. He had featured for Enyimba, Sunshine, Dolphins, Pillars, Akwa and Shooting Stars.
THEOPHILUS AFELOKHAI (ENYIMBA)
After 10 years at Pillars, Afelokhai joined Enyimba last season. Before linking up with the People’s Elephant, he was a key member of that famed Pillars squad that dominated the domestic scene. At Pillars, he was always the first name on the list, but when he opted to leave his comfort zone, he has been made to sweat more for his place at Enyimba. His cause has not been aided by the signing of Ghanaian international Fatau Dauda this season. With younger keepers like Emeka Nwabulu, Siraj Ayeleso and Olonruleke Ojo who seem to keep clean sheets for fun, goalkeeping standards have also been raised in the NPFL. But Afelokhai doesn’t seem willing to take a back seat yet.
RABIU ALI (KANO PILLARS)
Rabiu Ali is at the bridge between the ‘senior citizens’ and the younger generation in the NPFL. He has been excelling at the highest level for a long time that many fail to reckon that he actually started out so early. One of those natural talents who blossom early with their hometown clubs. For about a decade, he has been a mainstay of Pillars midfield, a pivotal member of the Pillars golden era. Despite the fact that Pillars has been recruiting quality midfielders season after season, Ali has remained relevant. This term, he has not taken his feet off the pedal. He has been a member of the last two CHAN squads just as he was in the NPFL All Stars squad. As long as he keeps churning out top notch performances as he is doing this season, it will be hard for national team selectors to ignore him. It will be hard to assemble an All Star NPFL squad for the past 10 years without having Ali in there as the midfield orchestrator.
EFOSA EGUAKUN (RIVERS UNITED)
After a long sojourn abroad that took him to Sudan, Algeria, Egypt and middle east, Eguakun recently enlisted in the colours of Rivers United. This isn’t a bad idea. Nigerian players should learn to return home at the twilight of their careers. That’s one sure way of giving back to the society. A member of the 2003 set of U20s, winger Eguakun was a nightmare for full backs in the domestic scene in the colours of Dolphins. He has found it hard breaking into United’s starting 11 but he has acquainted himself well on the few occasions he has been given the opportunities.
AKPAN BASSEY (RANGERS)
Goalkeeper Bassey is the last of the 2001 crop of U17s that lost to France in the U17 World Cup final, still playing top flight football. Joseph Eyimofe has dropped to the lower rungs of the league this season. Drafted in as a stop-gap measure when Rangers had injury-induced goalkeeping crisis, Bassey had also had brief stints in South Africa and Vietnam. That kid of 2001 has blossomed into a veteran of sorts. In an NPFL career that has spanned through about 13 seasons, he has really been all the places and was once a regular national team invitee. He has donned the colours of Shooting, Bayelsa United, Sunshine, Kwara United, Heartland, Abia Warriors and Akwa.