Congrats on leading Tirana to the UEFA Champions League qualifying stage. How do you feel about this, as the first Nigerian manager to achieve such feat?
I’m elated and satisfied for helping my club achieve this success after 11 years without winning the league. For a club that is used to winning the league and cups almost on a yearly basis, to wait for 11 years to win it, is an unbelievable feeling. And being the first African to achieve this feat is awesome.
What are Tirana’s prospects in next season’s Champions League? Do they stand a chance of advancing to the group stage?
We are looking forward to taking this feat of winning the domestic league championship to Europe, to show that it was not a fluke or by chance that we achieved it. I believe we have a good chance of advancing to the group stage of the Champions League, or at least to the group stage of the Europa League. We just have to give our best and believe in ourselves and for sure it’s possible. Impossible is nothing. Better is not good enough, the best is yet to come.
Another Nigerian manager, Eddie Ikem Newton, though born in the UK, won the Turkish Cup after he was recently employed as Trabzonspor’s manager. Do you think black managers have started finding their way into the top coaching jobs in Europe?
Yeah I was overwhelmed when I saw it in the news. Like you said, even though he was born and brought up in the UK, it’s still something to be proud of, when we have the likes of Dwight Yorke, Ashley Cole and other black players, big names in English football, yet to be given an opportunity to showcase what they can offer. So it’s good news. It’s something to be proud of as Africans.
Getting a top European club’s job as coach isn’t easy for black coaches. Can you tell us what it took you to get there?
It was not an easy road for me, like you said, but we have to be resilient and work harder, believing in ourselves that we can do it and for sure we can. You have to know and understand the mentality and culture of the country where you live and work, learn to speak their language and mix up with them to be accepted as one of their own. This made it a bit easier for me to succeed. I learnt from the mistakes of other coaches and also took a bit from their methodology of work to form my own coaching philosophy.
Recently, ex-Man United striker Dwight Yorke complained about favouritism in coaching, saying whites were favoured ahead of their black counterparts. Do you agree?
I listened to Yorke’s interview and I was moved, but we should not expect the job to be thrown at us. We have to work hard and go through the ranks just to get a small opportunity and we have to use it to the maximum to prove ourselves because we will not be given a second chance if we fail.
What’s Albanian football like?
The Albanian league is developing and has been growing in every aspect of it: infrastructures, training equipment etc. They adopt the Italian style of play, with emphasis on tactics and power because the school of coaching here is done in partnership with the Italian coaching school that produced the likes of (Roberto) Mancini, (Antonio) Conte and the others.
In Africa, most FAs prefer foreigners to manage their national teams, shutting the doors to their own home-grown coaches. What’s your view on this?
I think local coaches should be given opportunities and full support to coach our national teams because they know and understand the language, culture and mentality of their people. That is one of the things that helped me to succeed here in Albania, having been living here for many years. I have been accepted by the people as one of their own, respecting their culture and mentality and trying to work with them on aspects that needed to be changed. Many of the foreign coaches who are hired to take charge of our national teams are not even living in the country, don’t understand our culture and mentality and it’s no surprise that only Clemens Westerhof, who we can all say was like one of us, was able to do well with the national team. After Westerhof and Jo Bonfrere, no other foreign coach has been able to excel with our national team. It was a Nigerian, late Stephen Keshi that won the last African Cup of Nations for the country.
Racism has been on the rise globally. As an African, have you been a victim?
Racism is an issue that should be treated with care or it will used in the wrong way. It has been around for more than 400 years and will continue to be whether we like it or not. We just have to develop a stronger mental strength to overcome it. Often, Africans have been accused of playing the race card to be seen as victims, but I think we should not let that put us down. Rather, it should be a motivating factor to push us to work even harder, to prove to those who treat us that way that we cannot be broken no matter what. That is exactly what I’ve been able to do to help prove that even in the midst of difficulties and people not wanting you to succeed or give you merit for what you are doing, that you can still stand your ground and prove them all wrong to the glory of God.
If you get an offer to coach any of Nigeria’s national teams, will you be willing?
Any time there is a vacancy to coach our national team and if I’m free or can be free to come and serve my country, for sure I’m open to it.
While you were with the Super Eagles, you were not the first choice goalkeeper. Why were you not able to feature more regularly for the national team?
During my time in the national team, I was in camp with the best goalkeepers in the country and they were playing in major European leagues, so having succeeded to be in goal for my country in about 10 to12 games is a fulfilling experience, even though I would have loved to played more match, but no regrets.
You were a member of the 2000 squad which lost the AFCON to Cameroon in Lagos. How did you feel after Eagles lost the final on penalties?
Losing in the final to Cameroon at the 2000 AFCON was so devastating that we locked ourselves up in our hotel rooms and couldn’t even eat the whole day, the next day after we lost. That was one of the most difficult days of my career.
You were also part of the 2002 AFCON squad where senior players like Finidi George, Sunday Oliseh and Tijani Babangida were axed from that year’s World Cup-bound team over alleged player revolt. What happened?
The 2002 AFCON is another era in my career that I will not forget easily because I lost my place in the team that went to the World Cup after that incident and the national team took a downward spiral after that because you cannot change almost an entire team and expect to do well after that. That is one of the best teams Nigeria ever produced. I didn’t see anything wrong in what the players did to warrant such treatment from the then minister of sports and his entourage, but that is past now and we look ahead.
You were also dropped from the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup. Do you regret not playing at the World Cup?
For sure, I regret not being part of the team that represented my country at the World Cup, having come so close.
What were the highlights and low points of your playing career?
The highlights of my career are winning the league championship with my club KF Tirana and becoming the first African and Nigerian to do so, winning laurels in almost every club that I played for and being part of those who represented Nigeria at the 2000 and 2002 AFCON. The low points are not winning the AFCON in Nigeria, having came so close and in front of our fans at the National stadium Lagos, not going to the World Cup, and when my club KF Tirana got relegated to the lower division in 2017.
You were unable to play in the major European leagues. What was the reason for this?
Playing in the Albanian league at the time I came here affected my chances of playing in other major leagues. Also, during my days, foreign goalkeepers were not that in demand in European leagues, strikers and attacking midfielders were in demand, unlike now that you have African goalkeepers playing in major leagues.