Shooting Stars opened the door for James Udemba to earn an Eagles call- up. It was in a match that P and T Vasco Da Gama, Enugu stunned their Ibadan hosts by avoiding the tunnel and shocked the Oluyole Warriors with three goals. The fans did not know when it was game over as they were glued to their seats in utter disbelief.
Udemba told me the story of that Vasco feat and how it turned out to be a red letter day for the less respected Coal City team. Of the three goals scored, he had his leg in all, with one goal and two assists.
He said: ” On that day in 1975, Vasco players had been duly informed by some Igbo fans, not to enter the pitch through the tunnel. There was a myth that juju was always poured on the floor in the tunnel and once the visiting team stepped on the water, the match would be lost. And from records, it was confirmed to be true.
“The home team, Shooting Stars, were actually waiting for us at the tunnel but we accessed the pitch through the fans entrance gate at the back of the stadium. The fans were seated and were surprised to see Vasco players enter the pitch. As our hosts were informed that we were already in the field of play, they were demoralized. Before they overcame their trance, we won 3-0.”
While Ibadan went to bed early because of that drubbing, Udemba was on top of the world. He rated himself and came out with the verdict that there could not have been a better performance all through his career.
“That game was my best moment. I personally played my best game on earth that day, scoring a goal and assisting in the other two goals. One week later, I was invited to the Green Eagles camp”, Udemba added.
At the end of the season, Rangers won the league without losing a match in the eight team arrangement. The leaders bagged 25 points from 14 matches. Lagos NEPA finished second with 17 points. Shooting settled for the third position with 16 points. Vasco followed with 14 points and their goals in Ibadan helped them ahead of Shooting Stars in terms of goals conceded. The Enugu team let in 14 goals while Shooting Stars gave away 15 goals.
The other four teams were Bendel Insurance, Stationery Stores, Mid-West Textile Mills [Asabatex] and bottom finishers, Darma United of Kano. Winners, Rangers found it difficult to get past NEPA, no thanks to keeper Joe Erico. The Electricians were the only team that did not lose to the Flying Antelopes. They drew in Lagos and forced a barren draw in Enugu.
That same year, Udemba could not bear the frustration offered by the East Central State Football Association. Enugu Rangers were the favourite team of the FA and everything was done to sink Vasco. It began in 1970 when both teams were born. The Flying Antelopes were coupled together by Chief Jerry Enyeazu with the support of Chief A.W. Ibe. The P and T team came through Territorial Controller, East, Chief Jonathan Ogufere.
Rangers meant so much to the Igbo. It was made up of young Biafran fighters and they still wore that war mentality on their faces. Vasco also had Biafran combatants but Ogufere was neither Igbo nor Biafran. He was Urhobo and he brought a fellow Mid- Westerner, Alabi Aisien to coach Vasco. It did not matter that the visible face in Vasco was Engineer Augustine Otiji who bore the Ogbunigwe sounding nickname, ‘AU Jah’.
Udemba was from the Mid-West, like Ogufere and Aisien but hails from Ubulu Uku which made him an Igbo man. He had joined the team straight from school, Anglican Grammar School, Ubulu Uku, in 1972. The player was part of the Mid-West Academicals team of 1972. It was the Civil War that forced him back to his roots in 1967, from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School, Surulere, Lagos. Udemba was a typical Alakara, Idi-Oro boy.
He was part of the Vasco team that dealt with Rangers in 1973/74 season. Patrick Ekeji had joined from Holy Ghost College, with Obed Ariri and Johnny Nwadioha. They were in the East Central State Academicals team that won the Adebajo’ Manuwa Cup in 1971. Three other members of that squad, Keeper Ahamefula Umelo, Innocent ‘Trigger’ Nwokeji and Paul ‘Babadudu’Agu chose Vasco.
Some of their mates like Captain Godwin ‘Pele’ Ogbueze, Dominic [ Ugo Harris] Ezeani, Christian Chukwu, Kenneth Ilodigwe [Kendo] and Damian Odo [Arabi Chocho] teamed up with the Flying Antelopes. In the first leg of the Enugu derby, Vasco defeated Rangers 2-1. The second leg ended 1-1. The P and T club were tormented by state officials for trying to take the shine off Rangers.
In 1975, Vasco was depleted because Udemba and some of his mates decided to move away from the Coal City. Patrick Okonji, Ignatius Ilechukwu, Alphonsus Dike, Sylvester Onwuekwe and Ope Kanakana joined Bendel, Insurance , Benin.
In 1977, Udemba returned to Enugu. He took part in the Kaduna ’77 3rd National Sports Festival wearing Anambra colours. The journey ended at the hands of Oyo who won through penalty kicks. He relocated to the United States after that when Alabama A and M university offered him scholarship. More Nigerians got admission to the University after him. Players like Azuka Habor who went on to play for the US National team, Emman Akpan and Tosin Adebambo became Bulldogs too.
Travelling to America did not affect Udemba’s Eagles attention. He was invited to play at the Algier ’78 All Africa Games. His University team , the Bulldogs, were the reigning National Collegiate Athletics Association [NCAA] defending champions and Udemba was voted Athlete of the Year, 1977/1978.. He also emerged as the Most Valuable Player [MVP] at the NCAA National Tournament Miami, Florida.
The Vasco exodus of 1975 did not stop the team from tormenting Rangers. Rangers had a to devise another means of killing Vasco. At the end of every season, the best from Vasco were lured to the Flying Antelopes camp. The first Vasco player to move to Rangers was Charles ‘Mortimor’ Okoroigwe in 1973. It became open borders. Stanley Okoronkwo, Ignatius Ilechukwu, Charles ‘Wagner’ Adimora, Okey Emordi, Ekeji, Mike Ogbodudu followed.
Ekeji meant so much to Vasco because Otiji had to beg him to play for the team. The latter visited the former severally at Holy Ghost College , Owerri to convince the full back. He as the one who called the player, Power House. Ekeji had gone to beg Dan Anyiam to be taken as a Rangers possible. However, there were a few players who never went to Rangers. Nwadioha, Francis ‘Old Ghana’ Okorie, O.J. Chukwu, Umelo, Tony Uzoka and Innocent Nwankwo avoided the rival team.
Udemba lives a quiet life in Lagos. He has not forgotten Ibadan. He reads Segun Odegbami and may have answered the question about juju in soccer. There is a James Udemba, Junior. He played for the University of Lagos.