AT times, it was just unbearable to watch — the gripping drama, the twists and turns, a flash of hope here, a cloud of despair there, a ray of light now, a veil of darkness there.
By Robson Sharuko
They call it Super Sunday, in the English Premiership and, for a very good reason too.
Charles “CNN’’ Mabika knows it well because, as his Middlesbrough have come, and gone, he has endured a fair share of the heartbreaks, which are part of the DNA of this cruel, and unforgiving, show.
But, until Sunday, the majority of us have been mere witnesses, from a distance, as the world’s most-watched football league says goodbye to those, who would have failed the test to retain the badge of honour, which its exclusive company brings.
Sixteen years ago, the world watched as a distraught 11-year-old boy, whose tortured face, and battered soul mirrored the misery of millions of Leeds United fans, cried for his beloved football club.
With the famous Yorkshire club going down, as they trailed Bolton Wanderers 1-4, on May 2, 2004, the cameras captured the image of Ricky Allman, his shirt off in that summer sunshine, the tears rolling down his cheeks, his chest beaming a message of defiance.
“Leeds Till I Die,’’ screamed the message.
And, somehow, despite his famous club’s then hopeless situation, he just kept singing, kept supporting, kept hoping and kept crying.
Inevitably, when Leeds United ended their 16-year wait for a return to the Premiership, the journalists went looking for Allman whose celebrations, popping the champagne, outside his house, captured the mood among the Leeds fans.
But, for many of us on Sunday, the focus wasn’t on Leeds United but a faraway club from the West Midlands area of England, as it launched one final bid for the right to remain in the English Premiership.
As someone who once stayed in the tough Birmingham neighbourhood of Lozells, just about five-or-so minutes’ drive from Villa Park, this really felt strange.
For, never during my stay there, did I ever imagine one day I would have such a profound attachment to the fortunes of Aston Villa.
It didn’t matter to me, back then, that Villa were a franchise in the neighbourhood and steeped in the history of world football.
That they were the first club, to pay a three-figure transfer fee, of £100, to get Scottish forward, William “Willie’’ Groves, from Black Country rivals, West Bromwich Albion, wasn’t something that interested me.
Never did I ever imagine, back then, that one winter day in 2020, I would be glued to my seat, following Villa, supporting them, and wishing the likes of Watford and Bournemouth should fall.
Now, I was holding my breath, and praying that a club, supported by British royalty, Prince William, and a Hollywood legend, Tom Hanks, should win its fight against relegation.
But, that’s how much the sheer power of patriotism can seduce you and, before you even know it, you would be doing things you never imagined possible.
For me, in a way, this was a return to factory settings, to the innocence of my boyhood days, back in Chakari, when supporting my hometown club Falcon Gold was influenced by the fact that it was our community’s team.
My old man had played for the club as a goalkeeper, which provided the intimate attachment, defender Aidan Sweet was our neighbour, which provided the personal attachment and coach George Marabishi was a relative, which provided the romantic attachment.
Midfield maestro, Mutambarika Chirwa, a football genius who would have walked into the national team had the mine owners allowed his talent to be exposed, at a bigger club, when Rio Tinto came knocking on the door, was a cousin.
However, because he was so good, the mine management threatened to dismiss all his close, and extended family members from their jobs, should he decide to follow David Mwanza and play for John Rugg and his Rio Tinto side.
The problem for Mutambarika was that his father, Salisbury, his brother Plan, his other brother Iwell, all worked in Chakari, which they had long considered home.
And, for them to lose their jobs, simply because he had to play football at Rio Tinto, was something the elders of the community, who wielded so much power, just could not sanction.
Boy, the youngest in the family, also later showed great promise in football but, everyone knew, the real gem was Mutambarika.
VILLA, A RICH HISTORY, A LIKABLE CLUB
So, because Marvelous Nakamba is at Aston Villa, the club’s fight for Premiership survival on Super Sunday became quite personal for a number of us.
It was the same when King Peter played for Coventry City, we adopted it as our other club, the one we always wanted to do very well, its decision to sign one of our own, providing the umbilical cord which united us.
It was the same with Portsmouth, when Benjani arrived there and, suddenly, a number of social football clubs in this country were calling themselves Pompey as a sign of their adoption of the south England side.
Suddenly, we all liked Harry Redknapp, not because he was an excellent coach, but because he seemed to have this strong romantic attachment with Zimbabwean footballers.
We all remembered he had come close to signing Norman Mapeza at West Ham, at the turn of the millennium, only for the then Warriors skipper’s move to be scuppered by world permit bottle necks.
That’s the beauty of football, it provides a platform for a romance to bloom, between the fans and some people they might never see, let alone talk to them and, today, when Jurgen Klopp smiles, millions of Liverpool fans around the world, smile with him.
It becomes something like a cult, and it’s easy to hear the Reds fans these days say, you know, German coaches, just like their cars, have always been their favourites.
They will tell you it was the same story when Reinhard Fabisch was here, as the choir leader of the Dream Team, and it’s the same story today, when Klopp is now the choir leader of the Kop.
And, so, because of Nakamba, we found ourselves rooting for Villa on Super Sunday, praying they survive and, you know the game has changed when even die-hard Red Devils like us, find joy in the success of John Terry.
When an Arsenal win, of all things, somehow, becomes a result that can make us smile.
In a season written in the stars, where the events of 1990 (Liverpool winning the league, Leeds being promoted and Luton surviving relegation on the final day with an identical 3-2 win) replayed themselves again this year, fate just couldn’t let Villa go down.
For some strange reason, Liverpool’s trophy presentation this season had to be done after they reached 96 points, exactly the number of their fans who died in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.
Thirty years ago, Villa made history by becoming the first English top-flight football club to have a non-British manager, when Josef Venglos of Czechoslovakia, succeeded Graham Taylor.
It opened the doors for the likes of Klopp, who finally found a way to end Liverpool’s 30-year wait for the league title and, in the process, became the first non-British manager to lead them to the Promised Land.
The previous season, Villa had finished 17th, the same position they finished this season while West Ham, the team they played on Sunday, was the one which went down back then.
NAKAMBA DIDN’T ILLUMINATE THE EPL BUT WAS HE A FLOP?
It’s fair to say Nakamba didn’t set the stage alight in his debut season in the English Premiership, he looked too conservative, someone who was desperate not to make a mistake and, in the process, transformed himself into something like a robot.
He appeared allergic to possession, and for a club that is always defending, his basic touch-and-pass type of football, didn’t appear, on face value, worth the investment into a foreign player.
Maybe, he was playing according to the instructions of the manager but he is likely to admit that he could have done more, in terms of expressing himself, and showing the qualities which have taken him this far.
But, to suggest he has been a complete flop, as some have been claiming, would be unfair to this guy.
Even by our standards of self-hate, and self-destruction, where we find comfort in negativity, suggesting Nakamba was a complete flop, and not good enough for the English Premiership, would be taking issues too far.
Nakamba is not Peter Ndlovu, who could score a hattrick at Anfield, something that had never been done in more than 30 years by a visiting player.
And, one tends to get the impression some critics wanted Nakamba to match the standards set by King Peter, for them to say he had written a success story, when we all know that someone like the Flying Elephant only comes once in a generation.
Nakamba isn’t N’Golo Kante.
And, one gets a feeling some critics wanted him to match the standards, which the Frenchman has set, for them to consider him a success.
Interestingly, for all our vicious criticism of him as a hopeless flop, an English journalist, Ashley Preece, whose job is to cover Aston Villa on a day-to-day basis for the Birmingham Mail, clearly felt otherwise.
“Nakamba endured an up-and-down first year at Villa Park,’’ Preece said in his end-of-season report card for every Aston Villa player.
“He looked good from the outset with form dipping thereafter. He was Villa’s best player prior to the pandemic break.’’
To try and judge Nakamba, I have taken a different formula, which has made me understand that, from a distance here, it’s easy to get lost, in a storm of hate, savaging a player who probably didn’t do as badly as many are claiming.
I have decided to use Tanzanian forward, Mbwana Samatta, an £8.5million January signing from Belgium, where Nakamba also came from, as a figure who can possibly help me understand whether our boy was really a hopeless flop, as some are suggesting,
Samatta scored just one league goal, in 14 league appearances for Villa and, given he was still in the first XI of the side in the final game of the season, told me a story.
Now, if Samatta, who was good enough to be in the CAF Team of the Year in 2015, in the same attack as Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Sadio Mane, could score just one goal, in 14 league appearances, in his maiden season in the EPL, weren’t we judging Nakamba harshly?
If Samatta, who made the same 2015 CAF Team of the Year, which also featured Serge Aurier and Yaya Toure, could only get one league goal for Villa last season, weren’t we being unfair in our ruthless judgment of Nakamba as someone who isn’t good enough?
If Samatta, who was chosen as the CAF African Inter-Club Player of the Year in 2015, ended up as the CAF Champions League top scorer that year and made the CAF Team of the Year, could only score one league goal for Villa, weren’t we being too harsh in our judgment of Nakamba?
If Samatta, who won the 2019 Ebony Shoe, the award given annually to be the best player of African origin in the Belgian top-flight league, could only score one league goal for Villa, shouldn’t that give us an idea of how difficult it is to adjust to the challenges of the EPL?
It’s the same award which, in the past, has been won by Daniel Amokachi, Mido, Celestine Babayaro, Aruna Dindane, Vincent Kompany and Victor Ikpeba, great footballers in their own right, which shows it isn’t a Mickey Mouse award.
Maybe, we are just a people born with an allergy for positivity and, to many of us, we would rather see Nakamba struggling rather than thriving.
Lucky boy, Samatta, even for his just one league goal, his people will roll out the red carpet for him when he gets home because, whatever happens, he is their idol — the first player from Tanzania to play in the Premiership.
Source: The Herald