In this interview, the Chairman of Bayelsa United Football Club of Yenagoa, Ebiki Timitimi, speaks on the team’s scintillating performance in the Aiteo Cup, the club’s prospect of gaining promotion to the elite professional league next season, football administration in the country and other sundry issues. Excerpts ……
QUESTION: It has been a brilliant run for Bayelsa United in the Aiteo Cup competition so far and now you are at the quarter-final stage. What would you say is responsible for this exciting performance?
ANSWER: First, I wish to give God the glory for our performance so far. I want to thank our governor, Senator Douye Diri for approving a standing order for funds to be made available whenever the team has an engagement and this has gone a long way in motivating the players. As you know in sports, motivation is very important.
On our part as management, we also do our bit to keep the boys happy. We pay them their allowances and match bonuses as and when due. Sometimes, we give the players their match bonuses even before the match starts …. (cuts in)
QUESTION: How is that possible when you have different amounts for different levels of performance, for instance, if the players win or draw the match?
ANSWER: Yes, that is true, there are different figures for a match won or drawn. We have a benchmark, something like a baseline that is less than the bonus for a win or a draw, that we give. So, if they win we top it up to the amount for a win and if they draw we do likewise and make it up to what they are supposed to get. That goes a long way to motivate the boys.
QUESTION: Is this pattern of paying bonuses even before a match different from the experience you had in your playing days?
ANSWER: Oh, sure, it was different then but even at that there were a few administrators who were very good at motivating their players and Dr Peter Singabele, the current chairman of the state Civil Service Commission, is one of such exceptional administrators. He used to pay bonuses in advance and he was also very caring. He gave his all to his players.
Other good football administrators include Akpofini Odogu and Ramson Baribote. They didn’t joke with players’ kits so, in all, I try to emulate these gentlemen by adopting their model and it has been working well for the players and the team.
QUESTION: So far, Bayelsa United has had a roller coaster ride in the Aiteo Cup defeating Enugu Rangers and Lobi Stars of Makurdi, both Premiership sides, in your last two matches. Do you see Bayelsa United going all the way to the final and winning the cup?
ANSWER: In football, anything can happen. I keep telling people, football is a game of 11-a-side and once you play to instruction and take your chances as they come, you can go all the way. The fact that Rangers and Lobi Stars are Premiership sides does not hold water with me. Premiership is just a name, both teams have 11 players on the pitch so, for us, there is no big deal being a Premiership side. The fact that you are playing in the Premiership does not make you a better player. Besides, some of the present crop of players in Bayelsa United have played in the Premiership at some point in the past so they have the requisite experience.
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If not for the fact that our players didn’t take all of the chances that came their way, we would have defeated Rangers by as much as four goals. Premiership, for me, is just a name. The important thing in football, like most other sports, is to play to instruction and take your chances.
QUESTION: So far, what team would you say has been your strongest opponent in the Aiteo Cup?
ANSWER: In the three matches we have played so far, I would say Rangers gave us more problems.
QUESTION: Now, let’s move away from the Aiteo Cup. What would you say are the chances of Bayelsa United gaining promotion from the Nigerian National League to the elite Nigerian Premiership Football League next season?
ANSWER: First, let me say man proposes but God disposes. By every standard, our chances are very bright, the reason being that right now we are second on the table in our group. All we have to do is to continue to work hard, take our chances on the pitch and hope that at the end we will qualify for the playoffs, from where four teams will be promoted.
QUESTION: There is a new trend now in Bayelsa and indeed the rest of the country, where former footballers are holding sensitive positions in football administration. What does this portend for football?
ANSWER: There is no point even debating it because it is the way to go. When you put a motor mechanic in a mechanic workshop, he knows what to do and he will surely deliver. It is the same for previous footballers manning football. They have played the game, they understand the rudiments of the game, so almost half the job is already done.
In whatever one does, he or she needs favour and the grace of God. So, on top of that, if someone who has played the game is given the task of managing players, he will certainly do well. With this development, I want to say our football will go places.
QUESTION: Are there plans to commercialise Bayelsa United and make it a brand like clubs in Europe where they have sponsors and their players enjoy endorsements, where they pay the clubs a certain percentage of the proceeds while the players take the lion’s share and they also sell players jerseys and other club memorabilia like branded mugs, wristwatches, belts, armband, headband, towels, mufflers and many other such items?
ANSWER: Yes, there are. We have our business plans, which I may not be obliged to divulge now, but certainly, we are thinking in that direction. Gate takings is also an avenue of revenue generation but one big problem in this area, especially in Bayelsa, is that virtually everybody wants to watch matches for free. Things will be a bit better if such people can have a change of mind.
In Europe, football club supporters demonstrate their support for their teams by paying to watch matches, some even buy their tickets for the entire season, upfront before the league commences and not reduce the revenue target of the clubs by watching free matches.
In addition, the culture of watching football matches is not very strong in Bayelsa as it is in Enugu and Aba, when Rangers and Enyimba respectively, are playing or what used to happen at Onikan Stadium in Lagos whenever Stationery Stores was playing. From about 2.30 p.m. the stadium would be filled to capacity such that people coming later than that time will not find seats to sit. We are yet to imbibe and implant such football match-watching culture here in Bayelsa.
Let me also add that supporters can demonstrate their love for the team by supporting with bags of sachet (pure) water or packs of bottled water on match days, supporters can also support by contributing good quality balls and for those who can afford it, they can buy and donate training bibs and jerseys to both Bayelsa United and Bayelsa Queens. All of these will go a long way in motivating the players.
QUESTION: Does Bayelsa United have a feeder team from where you can call up players to the main team, when the need arises?
ANSWER: For now there is no feeder team. We came on board mid-season and there isn’t much we can do but I can assure you that by next season we plan to put one in place. Our plan in this direction is to engage the local government council chairmen, visit their headquarters to discover talents at the grassroots.
When we put this is motion, all we will require from the chairmen will be accommodation, feeding and of course, small logistic support for the officials who will conduct the screening of the players. This was how a good number of us got to where we are today. I am a product of the Porbeni Football Cup Competition. A good number of us were picked from that grassroots competition, we were subjected to rigorous screening and the successful players formed Bayelsa United. That was how the club came to be.
QUESTION: The present squad of Bayelsa United is good all right but with your sights fixed on gaining promotion to the Premier League next season, are you looking at the possibility of recruiting a few more quality players to strengthen the team?
ANSWER: For sure, that is on the cards. We will certainly be needing players. If your team is good, other teams will certainly come for your players. In the event of that happening, we shall surely fill the vacuum that will be created so, we shall be going for some new players.
QUESTION: Much as you are looking at buying a few players to strengthen your team, are you looking at how to prevent your players from leaving?
ANSWER: Football globally is business, very big business. Let us be realistic, if another club is coming for your player and offering what you cannot pay, it is only fair to let the player go.
QUESTION: You were once chairman of Bayelsa Queens Football Club and now chairman of Bayelsa United. How do you compare managing both teams, any serious difference?
ANSWER: Football is football and in the same vein, management is management. For me, it is the same thing.
QUESTION: After a match, especially if you lose, what runs through your mind, do you openly express your anger, do you scold the players?
ANSWER: As a matter of principle, I don’t scold players. During matches, I sit on the bench with the players and coaches, make my observations and take notes. At the end of the day, if per adventure we lose, we will go back home, review the match and look at the circumstances that led to the loss. I tell the coaches my observations and make suggestions but I don’t impose my ideas on them, no. I don’t do that. We are a team working together. I do my job and I allow them to do their job but we are all open to suggestions.
QUESTION: There is the allegation that some coaches receive bribe to feature players that ordinarily should not have made the team list. Do you subscribe to that?
ANSWER: In all my years in management, I have not experienced it so, I can’t speak about what I don’t know since I have not experienced it.
QUESTION: But do you agree it exists?
ANSWER: Sure, I have heard about it, just that I have not experienced it.
QUESTION: What is the situation in your camp?
ANSWER: The camp situation is ok, team spirit is high and everything is going on smoothly…. (cuts in)
QUESTION: How about logistics when you are travelling for a match?
ANSWER: For now we do not have a functional means of transportation so we hire a bus whenever we are travelling but His Excellency, Governor Douye Diri has promised us a Coaster bus. We are yet to get the bus but I must hasten to say that I appreciate the fact that in governance there are procedures in doing things; there is a step by step procedure that must be taken before things get done so, we are waiting, very certain that in due course we will get the bus.
QUESTION: How has officiating been this season?
ANSWER: Refereeing in Nigeria has been dismal; nothing to write home about. We have seen some very bad officiating in the Nigerian National League, so I am not too impressed.
QUESTION: Would you say there was some improvement this season?
ANSWER : Yes, there has been some improvement but there is still room for improvement. But if we’re are talking about the professional league, officiating has been good and I want to give the referees kudos. We have seen Premiership teams go away and win convincingly but with the NNL, it hasn’t been too good.
QUESTION: How about officiating in the Aiteo Cup, how has it been?
ANSWER : Officiating in the Aiteo Cup has been wonderful, very okay and that is because it is Premiership referees that are officiating the Aiteo Cup. If it had been NNL referees we would have seen a lot of issues.
QUESTION: Some Premiership matches are beamed live on Supersport. Do you think this has anything to do with the good officiating we see in the professional league?
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ANSWER: Most certainly, the fact that the matches are shown live is impacting positively on the league. With the matches being beamed live, if a referee collects bribe and does anything to favour one of the teams, the whole world would see him! And that is why the league needs sponsors so that matches can be beamed live and by extension officiating too will improve.
So for me, sponsorship is a major issue. The league management should go all out to get sponsors if our league must improve. To buttress the importance of sponsorship by credible companies, when Coca Cola was sponsoring the FA Cup, at the round of 16, they give all the clubs branded jerseys and footballs, which was a big boost but most unfortunately since Aiteo took over there has been no such gesture from them and it is not encouraging at all.
QUESTION: What would you say has been your most serious challenge?
ANSWER : Finance is usually the main challenge but I must say we are lucky that with the governor’s standing order, finance is not a problem for us. So, what I will consider as challenges would be how to win the Aiteo Cup final and then secure promotion to the elite Premier League at the end of the season.
QUESTION: Before we wrap up this interview, let me briefly take you back to the recently-concluded EURO 2020 Championship. England had not any manor football cup since their World Cup victory in 1966. At the Euro final, England was leading one goal till about a few minutes to the end of the match when Italy equalised and went on to win via penalties. Do you believe in luck in football?
ANSWER: Certainly, there is luck in football. Sometimes you may play very brilliant football, totally dominate the game but goals may elude you. We have seen cases where an attacker dribbles the opponents’ goalkeeper and only needs to tap the ball into the empty net but he inexplicably hits the ball against the goal post and the opposing defenders clear the ball out of danger. We have also seen cases where a team plays against a much better side that dominates the game but in the end, the team that didn’t impress, carries the day. How do you explain that, if not luck?