OPINION: The Mistakes Ihedioha Made On Heartland FC Crisis
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By : Peter Chukwuemeka Onuoha
I was returning from my annual vacation from the US in February 2019 when I met Heartland FC team at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja. The team was returning from an away game from one of the states in the northern part of Nigeria.
The footballers looking young and athletic in their fine red and blue track suits were easily taking the shine among the passengers waiting at upper room departure hall of the airport. Majority of the boys chatted cheerfully among themselves while others seem glued to their head-sets as they listened to the music from their phones.
As we waited patiently for the Dana Air flight that will convey us to Owerri to arrive, I can tell that the presence of the footballers and their smart looking uniform added both colour and relief to co-travellers who were no longer looking boringly at the flat screen televisions by the walls but could intermittently steal some admirable look at these up-coming football stars.
At the tarmac after boarding, the co-pilot took the microphone to announce the presence of Heartland FC of Owerri as she welcomed all the passengers on board.
Immediately, there was a cheer and then she handed over the microphone to one of the attendants who proceeded with the reading out of the routine flight instructions.
Being an Imolite, I was impressed when I over-heard the positive comments people were making about the team and how it was being re-branded by one young man that came back from the UK to take over the chairmanship of the club.
To my amazement, Junior, my 19 years old son who came to receive me at the Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport in Owerri, was putting on Heartland FC jersey. It was a brilliant looking red and white jersey made by JordanRed. I must confess that the jersey was of faultless quality. My son knew the players and was shaking hands with most of them. On our way home, he began to fill me in about the man called Bash and what he had been doing to rebuild our darling team, Heartland FC.
My son had joined the Heartland Feeder team and they were playing both the FA Cup and Nation-wide league. In 2018, some of his teammates had made the trip to Turkey for a training tour which was one of his motivations to join the team. As a member of the Feeder team, he was receiving N35, 000 as monthly salary that was the reason he no longer disturbed me for money.
People were used to complaining about every government programmes but then, not where it concerned Heartland FC. The people there (in the management then) knew what they were doing and we all hoped that they would stay long enough to complete the transformation that was going on in the club.
After Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha took over as Governor, I was at the Sam Mbakwe Exco Chambers when he held a meeting with all the heads of parastatals and agencies in Imo State and the presentation made by Bash received the highest ovation. Impressed too, Ihedioha promised to give Bash all the resources that will enable him bring back Heartland FC to that international reckoning that we all desired. At this, my hope grew.
However, a few weeks later, Bash was removed as chairman and my son told me how gloomy the camp of the players became on hearing the sad news. It didn’t take long before the players fears began to manifest. The replacements appointed by the governor were people we had not heard of before in the football circle.
As an IT and communication expert, I had to run a quick check on the background of these new appointees and what I found did not bring any excitement. The Board Chairman, Barr. Charles Ezekwem was a career politician and sitting state chairman of a political party who had never managed a football team before. The General Manager, Chief Chukwudi Ifeanyi also had no basic knowledge in football administration.
Ifeanyi’s quest to become the chairman of Heartland FC started way back in 2011 under the administration of Governor Ikedi Ohakim when he was introduced to Chief Tony Chukwu ( Onweghi Ihe Kariri Chineke) at Umueze 2 in Ehime Mbano as the man that would replace Chief Fan Ndubuoke in Heartland FC but the failure of Ohakim to win a second term in office temporarily put paid to that ambition.
Through some of my friends, I was able to check the records at both the Lagos State football Association and Imo State Football Association and did not find any academy owned, managed or that was associated with Chukwudi Ifeanyi as was being promoted by his supporters.
My worry then was, if he has not managed a team that participated in organized association football, where then did he get the vaunted experience being peddled by his supporters? Maybe, somebody was trying to pull a wool over our faces, by attaching such false profile to the man.
If I was mistaken, the story of his six months reign as Heartland FC general manager has vindicated me. No sooner had he mounted the seat than trouble ensued everywhere in the team. The feeder team is no longer in existence. Stories of inflated costs for renovation jobs done at the Heartland’s new office at Orlu Road became hit scandals leading to his removal by the same Ihedioha’s government.
Going further, Ezekwem then consolidated the position of his crony, Godson Onyenobi but rather than improve, things became worse. Today, players’ contracts has became an issue even though, those players had already served one year of those contracts without any problem regarding the contracts before this management team would take over. Today, Heartland, our dear Heartland FC is facing both LMC and FIFA bans. The remaining or retained players are being owed arrears of salaries. Some of them now, either go round in Owerri begging for money or engage in brick-laying labour jobs in order to feed.
Something like this never happened under Bash.
Perhaps, this was what the Imo State Football Association Chairman, Chief Amanze Uchegbulam foresaw when he advised the then Ihedioha-led government not to remove Bash but that if he must remove the man, that he should not do that in a hurry and neither should he use Heartland FC job as compensation for aides and cronies.
Football is not run by political considerations alone. For example, the present Imo State Governor, Hope Uzodinma on assumption of office, did not immediately sack the Heartland FC management team he met on ground. Rather, he set up a committee that would review sports in the state before he can take any decision.
Everybody saw the innovations Bash was introducing into Heartland FC. Under him, instead of the players and officials crying and begging over unpaid salaries around Owerri, they were happy doing spectacular road shows in their colourful jerseys to the admiration of the public.
For me, the greatest mistake Governor Ihedioha made in his seven months of leadership in Imo State was to allow political considerations to becloud his decisions on Heartland FC management. I wish that we can set back the hand of the calendar to January or February 2019. I wish that Bash was given the chance to complete his marvellous work in Heartland FC.