ROCHAS, NDUBUOKE AND THE HEARTLAND DREAM
In the past, when a carnival atmosphere was created at the arena, we used to join the Supporters' Club in chanting 'Owerri wu oke mba (Owerri is a great city)'. If the team was awarded a free-kick at a vantage position with Mike Obi thumping his power-packed left foot in readiness to power home the kick; the stands would erupt in chants of: 'Obi kererenke Obi!' Obi's shots were so ferocious that during a Sekou Toure Cup (as the CAF Champions League was then known) tie in 1989, an ASEC Mimossa of Cote d'Ivoire's player stood in the way of his goal-bound effort and was immediately taken to hospital when hit. The performance of the club has not been anything to write home about since its earlier stellar showing, prompting a need for change.
It was at that point that the Fan Ndubuoke-led management was put in place just about six months ago. It was saddled with the responsibility of entrenching professionalism in the club's management, while ultimately setting the tone for the club to be self-sustaining. The management has been up and doing. This could be seen in the innovations such as the Heartland Club House situated inside the Dan Anyiam Stadium. The Club House is the first of its kind in the country. It creates an enabling environment for ground-breaking deliberations that could drive the club forward.
Frankly, Ndubuoke and co have shown tremendous potentiality. You would expect the club to be up there at the summit of the league table given its industry but no, the team is languishing in the 12th position. In search of the roots of the club's problems, I had travelled all the way from Abuja to Port Harcourt to watch the Heartland/Sharks game two weeks ago. Sharks won 1-0, far from being a reflection of the flow of the game. In fact, the goal came from Sharks' only attempt at goal, while the Heartland's strikers missed about six begging chances.
Two things were possible; either the strikers were of low quality or they lacked commitment. It is an irony that a high quality management could not produce commensurate results on the field of play. Throughout the season, the club had, at least, eight players in the various national teams each week. If the players were not top class, they wouldn't attract the attention of the different national team coaches. At the last WAFU Cup, the club provided five regulars for the Samson Siasia-tutored side namely Bartholomew Ibenegbu, Home-based Eagles skipper Chibuzor Okonkwo, Osas Okoro, Gege Soriola and Julius Ubido.
The fact is that Heartland is always deprived of the services of the top quality players while they are on national duties and the quality of those left behind to prosecute matches week in week out is not high. I think there should be a massive clear-out after this season. For the first time, Ndubuoke should be allowed to recruit players. He should go into the next season with a team that epitomizes his management's resourcefulness. I think we need to give this him some time to turn the club's fortunes around. The management has been let down by the present crop of players.
Interestingly, Ndubuoke and Co are in good company with the Imo State Governor-elect, Owelle Anayo Rochas Okorocha. Rochas says he is on a 'rescue mission' in Imo State. Ndubuoke is also on a rescue mission to Imo State soon after losing out in his bid to become NFF president last August. The Rochas/Ndubuoke should be the Dream Team that will re-enact the golden era of Heartland. It was heartwarming to see Rochas at the Heartland/Warri Wolves match in Owerri last Sunday.
He had addressed the boys in the dressing room during half time. That pep talk was not enough to lift the team as the game ended goalless with Heartland captain Chinedu Efugh missing a dying minute penalty. This shows we are now in a new era where an Imo State governor will become the number one fan of Heartland. The last time we saw a governor (Orji Uzor Kalu) show such a commitment in Abia, Enyimba won the CAF Champions League in 2003 and 2004 while winning the domestic league for three consecutive years.
Since Rochass is on a rescue mission, we expect him to devote more time to the club. His predecessor, Ikedi Ohakim's inability to pay attention to details was a huge factor in the club's dip in fortune. The new governor should not stop at appropriating money; he should ensure prompt disbursement of funds to prosecute the club's activities.
While on a visit to Owerri earlier this year, I had spoken to a few people who should know about the causes of the club's poor run this term. Top on the reasons deduced was negligence on the part of the state government. Funding was a huge factor. Most times, the Management went cap in hand soliciting for funds to offset the players' allowances and sign-on-fees. There is still a backlog of players' sign-on fees inherited from the previous Management. If Heartland must lay a solid claim to the league diadem next season, there must be improved funding. The bureaucratic bottlenecks that impede the flow of appropriated funds to the club should be reduced. It takes a sports-loving governor to effect the latter.
Rochas is like a tsunami sweeping through the Imo political firmament. This tsunami is expected to wash away poverty and deprivation in the land. It should entrench the live-and-let-live spirit whereby Imolites will no longer feel like second grade citizens in their land. This tsunami should erode fear and intimidation while fostering peace and harmony in the land. It is a revolution that should boost infrastructural development and make life more comfortable for Imolites.
It is a tsunami that should remove all bottlenecks on the way of all talented Imolites realizing their potentials Yes, this is a tsunami that should sweep away the ill fortunes that have trailed Heartland in recent years. He should 'rescue' the club from the shackles of neglect. The best way to restore the fortunes of this club is not by sacking this Management. I will attest to their resourcefulness and professionalism. I will attest His Excellency to visit the Heartland Club House. That is a testimony to how inventive this Management can be given improved funding.
Owelle should beware of sycophants and lobbyists. He should be wary of charlatans who will claim to know it all; those who will be parading themselves before him as Sports Messiahs with the Midas touch that should restore Heartland's glory. Sacking the Management will be counter-productive. The problem with that club is not in the Management. It is in the playing personnel and Technical crew. In a bid to plug the hole in the technical department, the Management had recruited a Dutch coach. Incidentally, the new helmsman has not
had ample time to turn around the fortunes of the club. Rochas just has to lend his support to the Management. Soon after assuming office, I expect him to have a meeting with the Management on the way forward. That will be an avenue for him to find out their impediments and how he can support them. Rochas has not come early enough to change the fortunes of the club this season but he should borrow a leaf from Orji Uzor Kalu. When OUK assumed office as governor of Abia State in May 1999, Enyimba was battling relegation (they were used to the relegation battle those days) but he helped the club retain their Premiership status and vowed to turn the club into a major force the next season. This he achieved as the club won the League the next season. He also enthused that the club will be the first Nigerian club to win the CAF Champions League. Few months after his re-election in 2003, the club had conquered Africa.
Rochas can have the same effect on Heartland. OUK achieved all he did with Enyimba under the Felix Anyansi-Agwu-led management. Rochas should cooperate with Fan Ndubuoke and take Heartland to the pinnacle of success.