Victor Anichebe: Gone Down With Black Cats

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Victor Anichebe could not rescue Sunderland last Saturday as a win at home against Bournemouth could have kept alive their faint hopes of survival. Losing meant they have been relegated to the Championships. With hope of Super Eagles’ call-up a seeming mirage, Kunle Adewale writes about options available for Anichebe

When Victor Anichebe’s name was excluded from the 23-man Super Eagles’ list to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa by the then national team coach, Lars Lagerback, on the ground that he was nursing an injury, which his club denied; many Nigerians cried foul over the exclusion of the then Everton of England striker. By the next mundial in Rio four years on, his wish to wear the jersey of the national team did not attract sympathy as spate of injuries denied him of regular shirts for his club.

To revive his dwindling career, Anichebe signed a deal with Sunderland until the end of the 2016/17 season after being without a club following his release by West Bromich Albion.

However, the striker over the weekend fired blanks as his troubled club finally got relegated from the Premier League to the English Championships following terrible season under David Moyes as they were beaten by AFC Bournemouth at the Stadium of Light.

“I have a lot of good friends here and everyone knows that I know the manager really well. He brought me through as a young player and was a big factor in me coming here.

“I had a few options in England and Europe but the manager was a huge pull for me. He knows me inside out and I feel like he can get the best out of me,” added Anichebe.

Before joining Sunderland, the 28-year old Nigerian had only played professionally for two other clubs, Everton and West Brom – spending a decade at the former right from the youth team. He was signed from Everton September 2013 and played 63 times for West Brom, scoring nine goals.

In a telephone chat with former Nigerian international, Friday Ekpo, he opined that China would not be a bad idea for Anichebe considering that he was prone to injury and an opportunity to make some money before finally calling it quits.

“The English Championship is very competitive and tough too. For a player to thrive there you must be 100 per cent fit and tough. So it’s not suitable for a player that is prone to injury. It’s just unfortunate that such is the lot of Anichebe because he had a very bright future coming up.

“Not every footballer will get to its height, some due to injury and others to loss of form. It’s always very sad when injury knocks out life out of the career of a player,” Ekpo noted.

For another former Nigerian international, Paul Okoku, it is a shame the way Anichebe’s football career turned out after a promising career.

“Anichebe had all the potential to be a great player but injury never allowed him. If you look at the way he started, if not for injury he would have been one of the top players in world football today. Any other player would have bowed out long ago, but not Anichebe. He is a fighter and really gave it a real fight. But what can one do when a nagging injury would not allow you play?

“Anybody that has been following his career would not be really surprised at his decision to go as a free agent to Sunderland last season. It is shame that injury did not allow him to do what he knows how to do best. Maybe he would have added bite to Super Eagles attack in Nigeria’s last two World Cups if he had been fully fit,” the 1984 Africa Cup of Nations silver winner pointed out.

In the summer of 2014, Anichebe underwent surgery for a persistent groin injury that would hamper him during the 2014/15 campaign. The injury flared up in December 2014, but he shrugged it off and appeared to enjoy a new lease of life when Pulis was appointed as Alan Irvine’s successor and scored in the 7-0 FA Cup hammering of Gateshead in January 2015, in what was Pulis’ first game in full control of the team.

Pulis picked him on a regular basis and used him as a substitute in the first game of the 2015/16 season. But the Welshman was not enamoured with Anichebe’s overall fitness as evidenced in his exile from the team.

Big Vic was not seen again until late September when he started the 3-0 Capital One Cup defeat at Norwich as a holding midfielder. Another three months elapsed before Anichebe, capped 11 times by his country, returned to the pitch against Newcastle.

A flurry of substitute appearances materialised early in 2016, but Anichebe did little to rescue his career or earn a new contract.

Popular with his teammates if not the fans, Anichebe left having scored nine goals in 63 games.

Before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, former national team coach, Stephen Keshi, was toying with the idea of persuading Anichebe to end his international exile and the former Everton man was then not ruling out a comeback for the finals in Brazil.

“Right now, I’m playing well, feeling fit, strong and helping my team in the situation we are currently in at the moment. If I continue to play well from now to the end of the season, then we can take it from there. I’m grateful the coach says he is willing to give me a chance, but I think everybody in Nigeria and around the world knows what I can do. Yes, the World Cup only comes once every four years and it could be my last opportunity – this is something I’m aware of but I haven’t spoken to anybody,” Anichebe said then.

In his last appearance for the Super Eagles, a 2-0 win over Madagascar in 2011, he suffered a groin problem. Since then he has opted to concentrate on securing regular first-team football at club level. That decision has led to criticism from some Nigeria supporters but Anichebe rejects any suggestions he does not care about the country.

“I believe I have some good fans in Nigeria that understood and respected my decision to concentrate on getting fit,” the footballer stated.

“Some players would have just joined the team, not in great condition but for personal gains. I see the bigger picture in things and it’s worked for me. Nigeria also won the Nations Cup in 2013 and we got to discover other talents that we may not have got the chance to see.

“So any ‘fan’ that sees me as unpatriotic is just being unfair because if you check the meaning of patriotism it’s the love and devotion you show for your country and I love Nigeria. I grew up in England but only see myself as a Nigerian and my long-term objective is a lot bigger than this because I hope to give back to my country.

“Football has given me a great platform but my aim is to help young people in Nigeria, so to say I’m not patriotic is ludicrous.”

Anichebe is also keen to make it clear he did not decide to withdraw from international duty because he failed to make the World Cup squad four years earlier.

“I must commend the players that got Nigeria to last year’s World Cup because I did the same thing a few years ago,” he said.

“But then I played a friendly game and got man of the match in nearly every newspaper in Nigeria yet I still didn’t go to South Africa, which was a shame and a great disappointment. But I held no grudges and still returned to play for Nigeria before I suffered an injury. What happened in 2010 showed that some decisions obviously have no logic but that’s life at times.

“The break has helped me to stay fit and enabled Nigeria the chance to discover other players.”

Anichebe was born in Lagos but raised in Liverpool, made his Nigeria debut in 2008 after switching allegiances from England but missed out on selection for the 2010 World Cup. He played several times after the tournament in South Africa but then made himself unavailable to focus on his club career.