By John Egbokhan
F ormer Super Eagles holding midfielder, Garba Lawal has said his attacks on Super Eagles Coach, Stephen Keshi were not personal but technical.
Ques: The last time I saw you was at the Campos Square mini-stadium on April 8 when you reunited with your former teammates in a novelty match and most fans were dazzled with your display. It seems the game is still part of you long after your retirement
That is the way it has been even after many years of quitting the game. I still train to keep fit and because football is what I love and what I have played throughout my life, it is difficult for the game to leave me.
At times, I feel like coming out of retirement when I see the way our present players are playing but that is not possible again because I have left the scene for the young ones to thrive.
The only worrying thing is that the young ones are not living up to expectations. They are simply taking things for granted and that gives me sleepless nights having once played to the highest level for this great country.
And from your experience, what do you think is missing in the Super Eagles midfield?
A lot is missing in that position. In fact, we seem not to have a functional midfield again. We don’t have that kind of creativity we had in my time. We don;t see that transition from midfield to attack. When one midfielder is overlapping, we don;t see the midfielder who is covering for the one overlapping.
Today, the holding midfielder is almost non-existent. The midfield is the engine room of the team. If you have a solid midfield, you are as good as having won the match already. But today, our midfield seems like a house on fire. Sometimes, I wonder when will the real Super Eagle that I used to know of come back. I really hope that things will change sooner than later because the situation is very bad.
How worried should Keshi be given the picture that you have just painted?
I think that he should be very worried because it was our midfield that gave us away during the last qualifying race for the African Cup of Nations. Other departments also had their fair share of the blame but the midfield was simply not there to support the defence and attack,.
I am not comfortable with the set-up because Keshi was a defender and should appreciate the importance of having a solid midfield. Germany won the World Cup because of their solid midfield. Spain also won the 2010 World Cup because of their strong midfield.
Eagles did well at USA 1994 and the Atlanta Olympics because of the great midfielders the coaches had. But today, the reverse is the case as we don;t have midfielders who can tackle without committing fouls. They also don’t know how to cover up for their colleagues and easily loose concentration on the heat of an attack. Creativity is also lacking.
Imagine the way they lost concentration and allowed Uganda to surprise us during the last friendly match in Uyo. It was an avoidable situation if we had a strong midfield.
Turning to the issue of a coach for the Eagles, a deal has been struck with Keshi for the next two years. Given that you were one of his fiercest critics, when things were bad for him, what is your position now
I came into the national team in 1994 when Keshi was about leaving. He’s my senior and I respect him a lot for all he has done for Nigeria, from being a defender to captain, then to coaching the team. I was not at the 1994 Nations Cup and USA World Cup of same year, so I missed playing with him and experiencing what it felt like playing with such a great centre half.
Nobody can take away Keshi’s contributions to the Eagles because he gave his all for the nation. When I came into the team, Keshi was one of the persons who canvassed for me and always supported me. He was one of my closest friends and always wanted the coaches to feature players who were disciplined and able to deliver on the pitch.
My attacks on Keshi when the Eagles were going down last year were based on technical matters. We all saw that things were not going well for the team and given my openness on national matters, I thought that by telling him the truth that I was helping him but some bad friends went to tell him that I was one of those pushing for his ouster.
They sold lies to him, pitting him against me and generally causing more damage to the team. In the heat of the controversy, Keshi called and referred me to a headline in the newspapers, where I was quoted to have attacked him.
I calmed him down and told him to read the story and not just the headline because the headline was just captioning what I was saying but the text of the story conveyed the message I was passing out and apparently he didn’t read the full story. At my level I should be able to say the truth about certain things.
I told him that I did not have anything personal against him and wanted his success but would not fail to point out his errors when called upon to do that. He appreciated me after that discussion.
Today, we call regularly. At times, when I call him and he does not respond, he calls back later to explain that he was busy at that time. When he was assistant coach to Bonfrere and later to Amodu he was always there for me, so I do not see any reason why I would just stomach personal issues against him because he is a good person.
I told him that no one can claim to be all-knowing and that if I didn’t do the right thing, he should point out my mistakes to me
In your estimation, what were the other things that Keshi did not do well and how should he approach them this time around?
Football is all about team success, and if a team is not doing well, it is the coach who bears the brunt. One thing I want him to do this time is to take responsibility for what happens to the team. One of Keshi’s mistakes was his constant invitation of players, who were unable to justify their inclusion in the team.
Some of the players he invited had no reason to be in the team given their poor performance in the matches they played for their clubs or those who were not even playing.
In Hausa land, when a coach keeps inviting players who were not doing well , the general view of an average Hausa man is that the coach is up to something and that was why I had to speak against Keshi.
It was simply on principles, nothing personal as my detractors wanted Keshi to believe. Is not curious that when the nation was against him, none of the Super Eagles players spoke in his defence?
If they loved him so much, why did they not jump to his defence when Nigerians wanted to swallow him with criticism?
It tells you the nature of these players and he should be wary of those he invites to the national team in future. They must be fit. No favours to anybody. No sentiment. After all, it was some players who also told the minister that their problem was with the technical crew – that one coach will say something and another says another thing.
I was happy when I read him, after signing the new contract, say that he was going to invite players playing regularly and doing well in their clubs. I hope he keeps to that promise because that is the only way that we can engender competition in the team again.
One of the questions begging for an answer is John Obi Mikel’s continued relevance in the team, given his low playing time in Chelsea and general low performance for the Eagles?
That is for Keshi to decide but I need to know what role Mikel plays in the midfield because I don’t know who holds the defensive midfield position between both players. The coach says he wants to invite players who are playing regularly, so if Mikel isn’t playing every week, it is going to be difficult for him to command a regular shirt in our team.
Some African players will also taunt him that he cannot get his way like he gets in Europe because African football is more physical than what Europeans play.. If I were in Keshi’s position, I will not only invite players playing regularly but also monitor European league.
I will watch these players and if these foreign-based can’t give the results, Keshi should come to our league and get players. In fact he should monitor our league and also monitor Europe.
The 2017 AFCON draw is out and we have Chad, Tanzania and Egypt in our group, with only one team assured an automatic ticket to Gabon. How easy or difficult will it be for us?
Every country now know how to play football. In fact, any match between Eagles and all these supposedly minnows is always going to be explosive. It is a cup final when Nigeria play against other teams, who believe that once they beat Nigeria that their ratings go up. Nigerian is seen like the giant of Africa.
Even Chad will play us as champions when we meet them , so our players must buckle up and know that the home games here will be more difficult than the away games because home fans want victory at any cost and if they are not seeing goals, they will start supporting the away teams and that will be counterproductive to the team, as they might concede goal at home and that is very difficult to overturn when playing under pressure.
We all know that Egypt have a very good record in Africa and know what to expect from them but we don’t know much about Tanzania and Chad. My message for Keshi is to play Chad and Tanzania the way he will approach the match against Egypt.
What things should Keshi instill into the team?
Focus and discipline. He should carry the players along even if he feels he does not need a particular player, he should call him to explain things to him if that player is a regular because players love to be carried along. He should talk to his players in a polite way.
Even a player who is not playing well, should be treated well by the coach, who must encourage such a player that things will be well for him again. But he must also do that with some authority so that the player must return the respect.
Discipline is the key to success, no matter how well you prepare, you will not succeed if you don’t have discipline. Success is not permanent.
We all have to support Keshi because if he fails, it is Nigeria that has failed. His success is our success while Keshi’s failure is our failure and shame. It is about Nigeria and that’s why the NFF brought him back and what happened in the past should be put behind us for good.
There is nothing we can do but to support him
What is your perspective on inclusion of young players in the team by Keshi?
The rave of the moment today is Taiwo Awoniyi, who has played for Golden Eaglets, the Flying Eagles and now the U-23 team.
He has proven that he can play and if Daniel Amokachi , who didn’t play for any of the age-grade teams can be invited to the Eagles by Clemens Westerhof at the age of 17, I see no reason why Keshi cannot invite Awoniyi to the Eagles for the upcoming qualifying matches against Egypt and Chad.
Even if he does not play, the young boy will be motivated with such in invitation. I hope the young chap can go to a top European side soon so that his full potentials will come out
On Amokachi’s exit from the new Eagles technical crew
Well, he is my friend. We actually started together in Kaduna and when I saw the new appointments, I called him and he said that is the way he saw it and I told him that is the way God wants it. I told him that he should not see it as the end of the world and should count himself as one of the luckiest Nigerian coaches, having been around in the Eagles for about a decade.
I told him to take it in good faith and thank God for making him to be there for such a long, time. The likes of Shuaibu Amodu, Adegboye Omghinde and Christian Chwukwu were once there but were not as lucky as Amokachi.
Secret of 1994 and 1994 success
Every coach wants to win the midfield because if you do, the defence will not be under pressure. During my time in the Eagles, I was there with Sunday Oliseh, We were the two holding midfielders. We had great players in that team like Chidi Nwanu ,Goodwin Opara, Juliius Aghahowa and Austin Okocha.
The substitutes on the bench were as good as the starting team, making for stiffer competition because a bad performance was capable of earning the player the axe. The quality on the bench made those of us on the pitch to work harder because the bench was so good, that we were always looking at them and scared of what might happen with one bad play.
Personally, I was only interested in working hard and playing well. I also had the advantage of playing in the left-back position or holding midfield role. The options were there for me, so I was almost guaranteed of a starting role but I did not take things for granted
We succeeded because we had good coaches and good players. The 1996 team might have ranked higher than the 1994 team because by the time the Olympics were going on in Atlanta, the players who featured at the World Cup in USA in 1994 had matured and had more experience which helped us to win the gold for the first time.
It is pretty amazing how we succeeded the 1994 team. They had their class but the 1996 side were extraordinary. Their mix gave us the edge to fly higher. But who succeeded us? I think that’s where the problem started until we won the Nations Cup in South Africa. We have to work hard to prove that it was no fluke as many are already saying.
Highest point of career
I count myself very lucky to have played in two Olympics, winning a gold and playing at two World Cups and four Nations Cup. I thank God for these great feats because many Nigerians are praying to have just one opportunity to play at the Nations Cup while I have played in four tournaments. Nothing can be better than these
I didn’t know I was going to get this far with football when I set out to play football , so I don’t have any low point or bitter memory.
When I was playing I had no time for the family but thank God I now have time for them now but the journey has not been easy. My son loves to play football and if he wants to play it professionally, I would certainly encourage him