Amapakabo: From Grace to Grass

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Barely seven months after he was celebrated for leading Enugu Rangers to their first trophy in 32 years, by winning the Nigeria Professional Football League title, Coach Imama Amapakabo was on Monday given the sack after a poor run in the league. The final straw was the club’s lackluster performance in the CAF Confederation Cup. Is the problem of the Flying Antelopes that of coaching or inept management? Kunle Adewale asks

Enugu Rangers on Monday terminated the appointment of their head coach, Imama Amapakabo. The coach signed a two-year contract with the Flying Antelopes last season, but only saw out just over a year of the deal. His assistant, Chukwuma Agbo, will take charge of the team on an interim capacity until a new coach is appointed.

Amapakabo will however have ample time to concentrate on his duties as one of the assistant coaches for the Super Eagles.

Before Amapakabo was given the boot, he and his technical crew had earlier been given a “three-match must win” ultimatum but could only secure a win and two loses in the three games. The last straw that bro9ke the carmel’s back however was the team’s 2-2 draw against Zesco United of Zambia in the CAF Confederation Cup in spite of having led by two goals.

Confirming that he had been relieved of his job, he tweeted, “It’s official. I have received a termination of my contract with Rangers International Football Club by email by 5:35.pm. Thank you lord for everything.”  

Sylvanus Okpala, an ex-international and also a former assistant coach with the Super Eagles during the reign of late Stephen Keshi is being mooted as a replacement for Imama.

In a chat with THISDAY, former Nigerian international, Peter Nieketin is of the opinion that the problem with Enugu Rangers was beyond coaching.

“How can a coach be rated very high and few months later, he was no longer good on the same job? Definitely, something is wrong somewhere. I am not an insider and could not really know what really went wrong with the team, but I know it is not a coaching problem,” Nieketin said.

Asked if the management of Enugu Rangers was justified to have sacked Amapakabo, the member of the Nigerian team to the 1987 World Youth Championship in Chile said, “I don’t know the terms of the contract and the clause in it, but I know Imama to be a very good coach and if given more time, he would turn things around in the team.”

For Friday Ekpo, however, he blamed the club management, coach and players for failure to manage the success that came their way last season.

“It is a pity that such is the lot of Imama Amapakabo after leading Rangers to break 32-year trophy drought, but that is football for you. What indeed really went wrong was that after winning the league last season, they went to sleep. The management, the coaches and the players took things for granted and did not prepare well for the coming season,” Ekpo told THISDAY.

Continuing, the former Nigerian international said, “Rangers were too much in a hurry for more success after 32 years without really knowing how to manage it. The three-match win ultimatum even piled the pressure on Amapakabo.”

Ekpo blamed Amapakabo for not tendering his resignation after the three-match ultimatum.

“In Nigerian football, when a coach is given an ultimatum, it is always difficult to survive. If he had studied the three matches involved, he should have known that there was no way he would have met up and resignation would have been a better option rather than wait to be booted out,” he noted.

He advised Amapakabo to take time and reflect on what really went wrong, just as he charged Rangers’ management to give the new coach a free hand to operate.

Football could be cruel at times, was it not the same Claudio Ranieri that led Leicester City to unprecedented Premier League win last season that had to be sacked earlier the season,” Ekpo asked.

Aside from being a former junior international and a stint with Enyimba of Aba, very little was known about Amapakabo in the Nigeria soccer scene until he led Rangers to end the clubs’ 32-year trophy drought.

Before now, no football club in the country had dominated the Nigeria soccer scene more than Enugu Rangers and if there is one football club that had produced notable players for the national team, it is the Flying Antelopes.

In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Rangers dominated the Nigeria soccer scene like a colossus and names like-Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okalla, Stanley Okoronkwo, Kenneth Abana, Dominic Nwobodo, Aloysius Atuegbu, Sylvanus Opkalla, Jay Jay Okocha, Michael Emenalo readily come to mind.

At a stage, the Coal City side was producing about 10 players for the national team, and the popular saying then was “no Rangers, no Nigeria.”

But all the dominance came to an end in 1984; it was the last time Rangers won any trophy of any kind in the country. Since then, the team has been struggling and moving from one crisis to another.

Decades later, at the end of last season’s league, the famous “Holy, holy, holy, Enugu Rangers another champion,” again rented the air and the man at the centre of it all was Amapakabo.

On the secret behind the team’s success last season, he  had said, “I can’t say there is anything so special. I think the secret of any achievement is hard work, determination and a bit of luck here and there. One can define luck as when preparation meets opportunity. Ours is a story of adequate preparation and opportunity meeting luck.”

He also praised the effort of Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, for his support and commitment to the team. “I learnt for nine years plus, no sitting governor of the state had paid the club a visit. This present governor has shown more than just passive commitment to the club,” he said.

The impact and effort of Amapakabo did not go unnoticed as the eggheads of the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, drafted him to assist Super Eagles Coach, Salisu Abubakar.

 “In whatever human endeavour you find yourself, if you do not aspire to get to the top, then you are not worthy of being there. I aspire to one day coach the senior national team. It is also my dream to one day coach the Super Eagles to win the World Cup. These are my aspirations. I believe the time will come for me to be called to come and handle the Super Eagles,” Amapakabo said.

Meanwhile, in a twist of fate, the Enugu State Government has debunked reports suggesting Amapakabo had been sacked.

The Commissioner for Youths and Sports in the state, Mr. Charles Ndukwe, made this clarification to journalists at the end of the State Executive Council meeting held at Government House, Enugu Wednesday.

He stated that Amapakabo was only suspended by the state government based on the club’s recent run of poor performance which was also evident in their home match, last Sunday, against Zesco United Football Club of Zambia. Noting that a sack letter could not have been issued to the coach without the state government’s consent, the commissioner said, “the general manager has no right to sack a coach, and Enugu State government cannot take an abnormal action.”

Amapakabo, at the end of last season became the beautiful bride of many prominent clubs both within and outside the country, but chose to remain with the Enugu side whom he piloted to break the long standing jinx of Enugu Rangers trophy drought by wining the Nigeria league.