Defunct Abiola Babes captain Toyin Ayinla, now coach of second tier Gateway FC, recounts his career as a footballer, scoring an own goal in the 1986 FA Cup final and more in this interview with JOHNNY EDWARD
What do you think are Gateway’s chances of gaining promotion to the NPFL this season?
We have a good chance because we started well in our group. We will not relent in ensuring that we achieve our aim at the end of the season.
How challenging has it been coaching in Nigeria?
It’s a very challenging environment because the equipment are not there for coaches to impart their knowledge on the players. We still need good pitches, not every player at this level can afford to buy good boots for themselves.The club management demands a lot from the coaches in terms of results, they have to be patient too because the coaches are human as well. Coaches need time to understand their players and the players also need to imbibe the coach’s philosophy because with that it helps both parties to understand themselves well.
Having played and coached the game in Nigeria, how would you compare your era as a footballer and now?
The difference is too obvious for everyone to see. During our time, it was only players who had passion and talent that played football but these days we see a lot of players who don’t have the talent and quality on the pitch playing maybe because they could not find other jobs or other means to survive. I hear people say there was no money during our time but I differ on that because if you consider the exchange rate at that time it was a dollar to a naira and a pound to a naira. At some point it was even 50 kobo to a pound or dollar back then. Cars, houses and clothings were very cheap and affordable. We had good times back then as footballers just as these current players are having.
Let’s take you back a bit. Can you recount captaining the defunct Abiola Babes, a club owned by late MKO Abiola?
Playing for Chief Abiola’s team was one of my greatest moments as a footballer. I played for his team for three years and during that period we reached the FA Cup final three times and won it twice. We could have won it three times consecutively, but I scored an own goal against Leventis United in the 1986 final. During that time, we had lots of senior players in the team and most of us were playing for the national team. Some of my teammates were Kadiri Ikhana, the late Best Ogedengbe, Dominic Iorfa, Muda Lawal, Yisa Sofoluwe, Rashidi Yekini and Friday Ekpo.
Can you share with us your personal experiences with Abiola?
I have fond memories of the late Chief Abiola. I joined the team in 1985 and was the captain in 1987. In 1986, we lost the FA Cup final to Leventis. Three days after, we were invited to his house and prior to that visit, there were rumours that I took bribe from Leventis to score the own goal, which of course was not true. The Alaafin of Oyo at that time graced the final and he promised that he was going to give the first scorer money and many thought that was the reason I scored that own goal. I told him (Abiola) during our meeting that I was the player that scored an own goal and that I didn’t take bribe. I also promised him that I would bring back the FA Cup title back the following season in 1987, which I did as captain. Chief Abiola attended the final with his wife and family as we defeated Ranchers Bees on penalties. Immediately, I received the cup from the guest of honour, I ran down to my coach to seek his consent to present the cup to Abiola. It was Abiola Babes that introduced car loans to footballers at that time and a lot of us benefitted from it. At that time there were players who sustained injuries playing for the club. Abiola flew them to Germany for special treatment and didn’t collect a dime from them. When he disbanded the team in December 1987, most of us had just taken loans worth N12,000 at that time and the debt was written off by him. When we played in the league back then, the only areas we didn’t travel to by air were match venues that were close by. There were lots of good things to remember the late philanthropist for.
Can you recall what led to the own goal, which is the most talked about in FA Cup folklore?
I had the intention of giving a back pass to our goalkeeper then Raymond King and I played the ball towards him but Raymond was out of his goal. The late Uwem Ekarika, Leventis striker, was breathing down my neck and he kicked my left foot, which I used to kick the ball. That added more force to the ball. I was not happy at all but it was not down to the own goal but the fact that we lost the final. We would have made history by winning the title three times in a row. After that defeat, former FIFA president Joao Havelange congratulated me for not losing my composure during the game. My performance in that game earned me an invitation to the Eagles that year but I did not honour it because I knew how the vociferous Lagos fans could react because of the own goal and that was why I missed the U-20 World Cup in Chile in 1987.
When Abiola Babes was disbanded, how did the players feel?
I felt so bad when the news of the team’s disbandment came. So many people frustrated him (Abiola) out of the game. There was a time when we were representing Nigeria in the Mandela Cup in the semi-final against Esperance. We won the first leg in Lagos 1-0 and traveled to Tunis for the second leg. Some of my teammates didn’t take the game serious. After the first leg, these players left camp and returned back for the second leg trip two days before departure. They were big name players in the team and were included because the coach could not drop them for their unprofessional attitude. These two players cost the two goals that we conceded in the second leg and we crashed out. It made Abiola so sad, after all his efforts. One of the players conceded a penalty. After the defeat, we had a meeting with the leader of the delegation – the late Chief Lekan Salami, who was very angry at our performance and he suggested that 12 of the players should be sacked. Two other players who were not part of the team to Tunis joined the 12 and we were left with only 16 players in camp but as God will have it we won the FA Cup title that year. If Abiola was still alive his influence would have helped Nigerian football. Infact it would have developed more than this.
Today, the National Stadium, Lagos is undergoing renovation after it was abandoned for decades. What was it like playing inside the stadium?
That stadium is the Mecca of football in Nigeria and I pray they complete the renovation soon. The dream of every footballer was to play at that stadium and I am very fulfilled to have played there on several occasions. The Lagos national stadium is one place you don’t want to play and lose.
What were your best and worst moments as a player?
My best moment as a player was when I won the WAFU Cup with New Nigeria Bank in 1983. Also some other moments I cherish was winning the FA Cup in 1985 and 1987 with Abiola Babes. My days with Iwuanyanwu Nationale were also memorable. But the worst moment was scoring an own goal in the 1986 FA Cup final, but funnily this made me very popular.
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