After gaining promotion to the Nigerian Premier League after 11 years in the lower division, Bendel Insurance will begin life in the topflight on Sunday in Sagamu against Remo Stars. DURO IKHAZUAGBE takes a look at the team’s journey back to the top
The excitement generated by the promotion of Bendel Insurance FC back to the top flight of Nigerian club football is still resonating around Edo State and beyond.
The faithful of the Benin Arsenal will be in Cloud Nine when their darling team takes on another newly promoted team, Remo Stars, in Sagamu on Match-day 3 of the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) on Sunday. It will be the beginning of another era in the history of the club which started as Vipers FC and was a powerful brand along with traditional teams like IICC (Shooting Stars), Enugu Rangers, Mighty Jets, Stationery Stores and others.
Was Insurance’s return to the top flight after 11 years in the wilderness of the country’s club an easy task? It certainly wasn’t. The credit for the new lease of life must go to Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki, who made the team’s promotion to the NPFL a priority. As someone with private sector background, Obaseki saddled his deputy Phillip Shaibu with the mandate of getting the job done. He was not ready for excuses of any kind. It therefore was not a surprise to see a serving deputy governor of a state joining the football club at training and even attending and playing some of their matches when time permits as a registered member of Insurance. Of course, critics who didn’t understand the scenario playing out at Insurance took it for granted and called Shaibu’s involvement with the team as a huge joke. Now they all know better. Obaseki has fulfilled his promise to get Insurance amongst the country’s top clubs again.
However, those familiar with the club cannot forget in a hurry the circumstance that led to the relegation of the team that is the pride of the Edo people.
The team’s woes started in its first month of the 2007–08 season which was delayed because of a management dispute over who controlled the team. There was ownership tussle between the Chairman of the club Igbinowanhia Ekhosuehi and the then Edo State Commissioner for Sports Brown Ebewele.
While Ekhosuehi claimed he had the right to run the club the way he wanted because he funded it solely when previous administrations in the state left the team to die, Ebewele insisted that as a government agency, the chairman must be accountable to his ministry. There indeed, was a deadlock. While the state refused to fund the team, Ekhosuehi soldiered on with the little he could muster from his poultry business. The team eventually hit a cul de sac when the Sports Council under Ebewele decided to have another Insurance. Then began the shenanigans of having two Insurance teams file out at Ogbe Stadium for the same match. The then Premier league board led by Chief Oyuki Obaseki tried to resolve the matter to no avail. With Insurance missing crucial away matches and forfeiting points at home due to the matter of having two home teams for one game, it was inevitable that relegation was bound to be the final solution to deny Edo fans Premier League actions at the Ogbe Stadium. It was the first relegation to be witnessed in the life of the club since its days as Vipers FC. That broke the heart of passionate football followers who remember the 1970s and 1980s with nostalgia. It was more painful because the other teams in the state like New Nigeria Bank FC and Flash Flamingoes had gone into extinction. Attempts to bring back Flash as Bendel United failed to fly. And so, for 11 years, without good funding to attract quality players, Insurance wallowed in self-pity in the lower rung of the country’s club football.
According to a former Media Officer of the club, Ben Ogbemudia, Bendel Insurance’s ill-fortune in the 11 locust years as underdogs, was occasioned by a mix of a lack of governance structure; lack of transparency in the management of the finances of the club; low players’ morale and disenchantment, a weak technical crew and management team that had no vision for the club, which ranked as one of Nigeria’s best teams for decades, winning the 1978 FA Cup.
“The players used to wear tattered jerseys, no provision was made for a serviceable vehicle to transport players and officials to and from match venues.
“The team used to travel on match days and players usually were exhausted by the stress before matches. The players did not have a camp that was conducive for training,” Ogbemudia recalled in a chat with THISDAY.
It was in this state of all-time low Obaseki met the team and went to work to restore the lost glory.
“Obaseki took Bendel Insurance from an all-time low period in which salaries and allowances were not paid and when paid, the salaries were irregular, to a truly rebranded Bendel Insurance FC with a knack for winning matches as we have seen in their promotion to the elite NPFL.
“The players have demonstrated their appreciation to the Edo State Government for investing resources and faith in them.
“With the revamp, the players welfare is now top priority as their entitlements are paid immediately after matches. They now have a conducive camp with good beds, good food, water, a new technical team and all the things they need to excel. In fact, the players are ready to sacrifice their legs in matches now,” Ogbemudia said.
Speaking in the same vein, the Special Adviser to Governor Obaseki on Media and Communication Strategy, Crusoe Osagie, said the governor’s vision for the sports sector, particularly, football encompasses players’ welfare, infrastructure such as stadium, and a sound management for the club, amongst others.
According to him, “On assumption of office, Governor Obaseki declared his resolve to turn around the fortunes of the state in sports. He entrusted the task to his deputy, Rt. Hon. Philip Shaibu, a sports enthusiast and footballer, to execute.
“You will recall that right from our days as Bendel State, we were number one in sports. The governor was clear about his vision and it was to return our profile in sports to what we were as Bendel State and surpass those achievements.
“The short, medium and long-term plans were designed to attend to all the issues that blighted the growth of Bendel Insurance Football Club.
“The quick wins included an intervention in the welfare of the players, a new technical team, provision of kits and a bus to move the players to match venues amongst others.”
He added: “I must admit that the direct involvement of the deputy governor brought in fresh air into the team as the players saw that the Obaseki administration meant business.
“In the medium to long-term, the revamp of the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium, the institutionalisation of reforms and the governor’s vision with constitution of a Sports Commission while the development of 20 mini-stadium in all the 18 local government areas of the state featured prominently.
“The point must be made that the successful campaign of Insurance FC to the elite football league in two years, after an 11 flip-flop performance, was not a fluke. It was the outcome of a deliberate plan, anchored on best practice.”
Interesting as the Insurance story reads, the deputy governor who executed Obaseki’s mandate of getting insurance back to the top without failing had explained his role shortly after the team won its final NNL Super 8 Playoff match against Shooting Stars in Aba penultimate weekend.
“In 2017, the state governor gave me a marching order to rebrand Bendel Insurance FC and other sporting activities in the state.
“We did a lot of rebranding in the club and we commend the governor for ensuring prompt release of the budget of the club and the payment of salaries.
“At the moment, Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium is being rebuilt. It will be ready for use in April. We cannot spend taxpayers’ money in rebuilding the stadium without attracting continental football to it.
“So between now and April, it would be ready for use. And not just that, we are building 20 mini stadia in the local governments of the state.”
Speaking on the long-term plan for the club, Shaibu who was registered with jersey number 40 in Insurance this past season said: “We want to make Bendel Insurance the apex football team in the state by creating feeder teams in the 18 local government areas of Edo State.
“We don’t want to be buying players for Bendel Insurance. Instead, we want to create a chain of supply of football talent for the team. We want to localise and internalise Bendel Insurance by using our own home-grown players,” he said.
Shaibu said his participation in the club as a player does not conflict with his role as deputy governor of the state, instead he disclosed that his involvement with the club as an on-field player has served as extra motivation to the team.
“I was a player even before I was elected as deputy governor of Edo State. When I decided to join the team’s players’ rank, it was aimed at boosting their morale.
“My presence in their training sessions and matches has a way of encouraging them. The most important thing is that Mr. Governor gave us a mandate to re-brand Bendel Insurance last year which we did.
“The purpose of that was to bring them back to the NPFL and that mandate has now been accomplished,” he gushed with enthusiasm.
The governor, who could not hide his happiness at the return of Bendel Insurance to the Premier League promotion, said it was another fulfilment of his administration’s promise to Edo people and residents.
“My joy knows no bound because of what you (Insurance) have done. I congratulate you and congratulate myself. I say this because it is another promise kept. We promised Edo people that we would bring Bendel Insurance to its lofty status which we all will be proud of and make sure they go on to play in the Premier league,” the governor noted at the welcome ceremony for the team at the Government House in Benin.
He described the deputy governor of the state who led the team to gain promotion as the father of the New Bendel Insurance FC and commended him for the giant strides he made in rebranding the club.
“We have built a team and have a machinery that will win the Premier League and I urge you to go beyond the NPFL and bring home continental trophies for the state,” Obaseki charged the new improved Insurance.
How that mandate will be fulfilled begins with the first outing against equally well funded Remo Stars on Sunday at the Sagamu Stadium.
With eight teams to be relegated at the end of this abridged season to return the NPFL to its original format of 20 teams, the players and officials of Insurance cannot afford to led down Obaseki and his deputy in the drive to reposition football in the state. Coaches Monday Odigie and Baldwin Bazuaye will certainly need to go beyond what they did in the lower league to stay afloat at this level.