Sam Onyeaka was one of the stormtroopers who made Enugu Rangers African Winners Cup champions in 1977. A veteran of many battles, he survived the Civil War, survived Demba Diop Stadium, Dakar and met with Idi Amin in Kampala. One outcome that continues to haunt him is the 3-0 loss to Insurance of Benin in the grand finale of the 1978 Challenge Cup.
Our Columnist, Emeka Obasi, got him talking from the United States recently.
One of your team mates, Nwabueze Nwankwo, was buried on February 5, 2021. I understand you were close.
Yes, we were quite close. Captain Nwabueze Nwankwo of the defunct Biafra Army, a Rangers pioneer, former Green Eagles’ defensive midfielder, was a great footballer. A vigorous player, built for the game, one could easily match him with Dick Tiger for his body building. He took the lead on our marathon races.
You have sad memories of the 1978 Challenge Cup final in Lagos. Rangers were given a thorough 3-0 battering by Bendel Insurance.
It was my worst match. A strong team does not care about home or away ground. The business is to win home and away matches. Enugu Rangers of the 1970s did it. In 1977, Rangers did not lose a game, home and away, playing in the African Winners Cup.
Against Insurance in 1978, we played about four hard games, including continental assignments, in 10 days. The fatigued Rangers players could not stand the pressure. The Insurers were good but not so good to beat Rangers 3-0 under normal circumstances.
No team in Nigeria could play more than three important games under 10 days and survive it. Insurance rested for 10 good days and the NFA refused to give Rangers a breather by moving the duel.
Ok, let us talk about your most memorable match.
My most memorable definitely must be the African Winners Cup quarter finals second leg match against AS Police of Senegal at the Demba Diop Stadium in 1977. I was at my peak and had everything going my way. No player could match my speed.
We needed at least a score draw to advance since the first leg in Lagos ended goalless. We sensed trouble right from touchdown. On match day, it was obvious that hell would be let loose.
READ ALSO: Okala angry over neglect of ex-internationals, declines interview
Trust Rangers, we gave them more than a good fight. Chimezie Ngadi got the opener. I made it two. The Senegalese were lucky to get one past us. It ended 2-1. Come and see beating. I was stabbed in two places. Nnamdi Anyafo, Okey Emordi and reserve keeper, John Uwanaka were not spared.
As we made our way to the dressing room, more beating and stoning continued. All the players were cramped in a tiny four by nine feet toilet room. We had to be smuggled out in a police truck.
What of the semi finals clash with defending African Winners Cup champions, Shooting Stars?
That game really divided Nigeria and General Olusegun Obasanjo saw it and took the right action by moving the second leg to Kaduna. Obasanjo had also done well after we defeated AS Police by sending a military aircraft to bring us back to Nigeria.
The tension generated by the semi final match involving Rangers and Shooting Stars made it uninteresting. Both teams played below their normal standard even if we won through penalty kicks.
Who was your toughest marker?
Without any doubt, my toughest opponent was Sam Ojebode of Shooting Stars. He was a tough defender to beat, experienced player.
You crossed over to Rangers from Vasco Da Gama. Tell me about the Enugu derby.
Vasco kept Rangers on their feet. Playing against Vasco then was like Rangers taking part in the Challenge Cup or a continental championship. Anytime both teams met, it was internal war.
You had two nicknames, 404 and Achimota. Let us talk about them.
Chief Ernest Okonkwo, the greatest soccer commentator known to Nigerians, named me 404. He coined the name apparently because of my speed, with or without the ball. I was one of the fastest players in the country. The French car Peugeot 404, known for its speed was common at the time.
Achimota came from Achimota College, Ghana. I had intention of securing admission into that famous elite school before I diverted attention to the United States. I fell in love with the name and it became my nickname throughout my High School period at the GTC Awka. I am from Awka too.
You saw battle during the Civil War. That experience should interest your admirers.
I was a Biafran Air Force officer in charge of the Airport Fire Fighters Squadron based at the Uga Air Force base.
The landing Airstrip was constructed at a secondary school, about three miles from Uga and used as BAF base. It was a mile off the Aguluezechukwu-Ekwulobia- Uga Junction. The runway was not tarred. The runway lights were giant lanterns. Air Force personnel inside the trenches along the runway will light up the lanterns and place them above their dugouts.
The plane blew them off as it passed each lantern on both sides of the runway.
We covered the runway with palm fronds after the landing and during the day. The plane taxied into hideouts near Aguluezechukwu, about a mile or more off the landing strip. Nigerian Air Force aircraft were unable to hit Biafran planes on the ground because of that. Even when they finally detected and bombed the Air Force base, the Biafran Babies (minicon) were never hit.
You must have been familiar with Count Gustav Rudolf von Rosen, the Swedish philanthropist who donated five jet fighters and also fought for Biafra.
The man was my hero. As a group leader in the Biafran Air Force Fire Fighter Squadron, I was there during take-off and landing on a daily basis, mostly at night. The DC-3 was converted to a war plane together with the Biafran Baby.
The small two-seater training plane was fitted with two six rocket launchers, at each wing. Von Rosen and his pilots destroyed more military hardware than the Nigerian Air Force, with their best Russian MIG planes.
Operation Biafra Babies and Swedish Air Mission, better coded as OPS BB and SAM did not miss your name
That’s a funny one… you’ve got me thinking.
How did this soccer trip begin?
My soccer journey started in Jos, at St. Paul’s Elementary School, before the war. I was born in Jos, Dankalfana Lane, in 1950. We left in 1966 for good.
After the war, I continued with soccer at Government School Awka and the Government Trade Center (GTC) Awka. I also played for Awka Iron Founders Football Club. Upon leaving GTC Awka, I was gainfully employed by the Nigerian Construction and Furniture Company (NCFC) Enugu. I was part of the company’s football team, Dragons.
In 1973, I joined Vasco Da Gama, Enugu briefly before I was recruited by Enugu Rangers where I ended my career.
My post-secondary education was at Alabama A and M University and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, USA. I qualified as an engineer.
At GTC, we won the All GTC Cup in the then East Central State of Nigeria and the Ejidike Cup in the early 1970s. I also played for the University of Alabama in Huntsville (alongside Ndubuisi Luis Isima and Idika Aku). We did not win any national trophy but we left indelible marks within NCAA.
You sacrificed so much for Rangers and were unable to attend your dad, Ichie Johnson Nwofor Onyeaka’s burial.
We, the players appreciate what Ndigbo did for us. It was an honour to play for Enugu Rangers and I am ready to do it all over again if old age should allow me.
What about your children, are they interested in soccer?
None of my siblings or any of my sons was interested in playing football. In America, football (soccer) was not a popular game among the youth. So my kids were interested in Basketball and American football.
I met my wife (Cathy) in Nigeria as I was approaching retirement. We have four boys: Benjamin Nweze, Samuel Jr., Kenneth and Kevin.
Vanguard News Nigeria
The post Sam Onyeaka: Why Insurance hit Rangers 3-0 in 1978 appeared first on Vanguard News.