I regret not playing in Europe when Keshi did – Howard
By Kazeem Busari
New Shooting Stars coach Franklin Howard talks about his target for the club and the challenge he expects in the coming season. He also tells KAZEEM BUSARI his experience in the Nigerian league
How do you currently rate Nigerian domestic league?
The league is improving; it has grown beyond what it used to be. But the followership is far below what is expected. The love for the English Premier League has also not helped matters because Nigerians have become addicted to foreign football. But our football is still better than many leagues in Africa.
Some believe the poor followership was due to the poor officiating and predictability of the games?
I don’t think so. The match officials are being monitored very well by the league managers, and officiating has improved compared to what it was in the past. I watched some of these games and I was impressed with officiating. Last season, we saw teams getting points from away games; this was not the case some seasons ago. The referees have become more conscious of what they are doing.
Nigeria’s qualification for the African Nations Championship is also an indication of improvement in the domestic league. Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi saw this improvement and decided to include the home-based players in his plans for the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup. When other coaches were there they didn’t see the improvement but Keshi saw the potential and went for it. Some of the home-based players he featured at the Nations Cup have moved to Europe because he gave them the opportunity to excel.
Should it give Nigeria any worry that more of our players are going to Turkey to play?
I see it as a stepping stone for them; before long many of them will be playing in mainstream Europe. They have to start from somewhere and Turkey doesn’t seem to be a bad idea. There are big clubs in Turkey and they play in the UEFA Champions League. If our players go to Turkey and are considered good enough for first team roles, that’s good for Nigerian football. What will worry me is when they move to small teams and don’t get the chance to play regularly.
What was your experience playing in the domestic league?
The passion was tremendous back then. The money was not there as much as it is now, but the passion kept us going. There was pride among the players and the clubs which made us look forward to defeating our rivals. The confidence was high because you’re sure of making the national team as long as you’re good. I was able to play in the Flying Eagles after featuring in the YSFON competitions. I was the first captain of the Flying Eagles, playing alongside Henry Nwosu, Stephen Keshi, Benson Edema, Humphrey Edobor and a host of others. There was a steady progression until we played in the senior team.
But we hardly adhere to the progression these days.
I think we are the ones causing the problems facing developmental football. It appears we don’t want no for an answer. FIFA created the age-grade football for development but we quickly want to win laurels so there’s distortion in the developmental programme which eventually affects players’ progression from the junior team to the senior team.
How was your playing career?
Like some of my mates, I was in secondary when I started playing for clubs. By the time I left school to join New Nigeria Bank FC, I had grown in the game. I later left for ACB in 1988 before joining El Kanemi Warriors two seasons later. I moved to Togo to play for Hurricane Atlantico after a season in Maiduguri then I later played in Dragon of Benin Republic.
With your talent, you could have been a super star in the national team.
Injury was not my friend. I was prone to injuries as a player. It actually gave me a setback; I couldn’t achieve my dreams in football due to injuries. But I’m happy I played for the national team before calling it quits. However, I consider myself very unfortunate because I couldn’t play in Europe.
Are you saying you regret not playing in Europe?
Yes, I regret it; big regrets. I was in the same team with Keshi when he left for Abidjan before later going to play in Belgium. It was a good move for him. But many of us stayed back because of the growing level of the league. Nobody ever thought there would be a decline in the league at some point or that it would not be as big as the European leagues. The passion and the hope of a bigger league kept us back, but it was a mistake.
Which was your most outstanding game?
The game against Tanzania in Dar es Salam in December 1980; we won 2-0. I played in the central defence with Tunde Bamidele, and I was the star of the match. The following day, my picture was in the local Tanzanian newspapers as the man who put their star player, Salim, under pressure. I stopped him from playing his game. They called it the Black Saturday in Dar es Salam. I had a copy of the newspaper for a long time before I mislaid it sometime in the late 1980s. But in the domestic football, I remember the game in which NNB lost to Leventis United in the semi-final of the 1984 FA Cup. It was a final before the final because we were the two top teams in the country then. They scored with just three minutes left in the game and we couldn’t equalise no matter how hard we tried. It was a Lagos derby so the fans were not really divided in their followership. That was the year we could have won the title.
What problem did you have with Shooting Stars before you were fired in 2009?
I never had any problem with the club. I helped them gain promotion to the Premier League and the management said it could not renew my two-year contract which expired that season. I was so sad because I have a sentimental attachment to the club, but there was nothing I could do. I love Ibadan people, I love the club and I knew I was still going to work with the club in the future. The passion the fans have for the club is amazing; they call it Club Agbaye (world club) irrespective of how the team are faring. The problem with coaching all over the world is that you’re never guaranteed of retaining your position whether you succeed or fail. It happened at Bayern Munich where Juup Heynckes was replaced with Pep Guardiola despite winning the Champions League and the German title. Chelsea also sacked Roberto Di Matteo after winning the Champions League. Any coach that is hired today should remember he can be fired the next day; what is important is that you leave a legacy of success behind.
What will you be doing differently in your second coming?
The target is a quick return to the Nigeria Premier League, but we must first carry out a self assessment in the club. There is the need to quell displeasures and in-fighting among the players. It is only when all these are done that we can take steps on how to strengthen the squad. We’re not going to take any team lightly; I don’t see the lower league any less challenging than the topflight. They are as tough as any side. I can’t make predictions now but I’m focused on what I want with the club.