He has etched his name in the record books by becoming the first player from English football to represent Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations.
But Reuben Agboola could have been denied the opportunity to showcase his skills at the international level if his mentor Lawrie McMenemy, who was Sunderland manager when Dutchman Clemens Westerhof invited the defender to play for Nigeria, had the final say.
Westerhof was keen to shore up his defence after guiding the Super Eagles to silver in the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations in Algiers and did not restrict his search to home-grown players.
Agboola’s attacking threat down the flank could have impressed Westerhof, who decided to have him in his team. Consequently, the Nigeria Football Federation informed Sunderland about the country’s interest in Agboola but the player was kept in the dark about the development.
“I was never told of Nigeria’s interests by Lawrie McMenemy; so when eventually I got a phone call (from the NFF) I jumped at the chance,” the 51-year-old retired footballer told our correspondent online during the week.
London-born Agboola, who was 29 when he was invited by Westerhof ahead of a Senegal ’92 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying game against Burkina Faso in Lagos on July 27, 1991, had some problems on his way to Nigeria – for the first time.
“I didn’t have a visa, because things were rushed so much,” the father of two had told jamesmclean84.wordpress.com.
“We were at the check-in queue at Heathrow, and they wouldn’t even give me a boarding card because I didn’t have a visa.
“I was with a friend from the Nigerian FA – he was about 7ft, and dripping in Armani, who basically asked for the names of the staff at the check-in, because he wouldn’t take the rap if one of the president’s Super Eagles players wasn’t allowed into the country. We managed to get our boarding cards in the end!”
On his arrival in Lagos, the former Southampton star hadn’t much time to rest before a warm-up game at the National Stadium in Lagos ahead of the clash against the Stallions.
Westerhof didn’t look like he did his homework before inviting Agboola.
“The first thing Westerhoff asked me was ‘what position do you play’,” the former Swansea player told our correspondent.
“It was my very first time in Nigeria on international duty.”
The Senegal ’92 bronze medallist, whose father came from Osogbo, Osun State, added, “We had a practice match against local Lagos side. I had not slept for 24 hours after our flight (from London to Lagos) got delayed. I played left back in the first half and right back in the second half. (Stephen) Keshi got sent off and we lost 1-0. It was a hard-fought match. I sustained a gash with the first tackle but played on, I think I earned my teammates respect.”
Agboola underlined his reputation as a force in English football when he forced his way into the Eagles’ first team and started in the 7-1 hammering of Burkina Faso.
Agboola swapped Sunderland for Swansea City in November 1991 and was at Liberty Stadium when Westerhof named him in his Senegal ’92 squad.
The Nigerian media hailed his inclusion in the Africa Cup of Nations squad and the player justified his selection by going ahead to command starting roles on the right back in Senegal.
He started in the 2-1 defeat of Senegal (Samson Siasia and captain Stephen Keshi were on the shore sheet) and made the starting lineup when Rashidi Yekini’s brace helped Nigeria beat Kenya 2-1. Agboola missed the quarterfinal match against Zaire, which the Eagles won 1-0 thanks to Yekini’s 22nd minute strike to set-up a semifinal clash against eternal rivals, Ghana. Agboola could not save help the eagles as they slumped to a 2-1 defeat to the Blacks Stars. The legendary Abedi Pele and Prince Polley scored for Ghana while Mutiu Adepoju hit the back of the net for Nigeria. Agboola played for 90 minutes when the Eagles defeated the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon 2-1 in the third-place match to claim bronze.
Friday Ekpo opened the scoring for the Eagles on 75 minutes while Emmanuel Maboang got the equalising goal for the Indomitable Lions 13 minutes later before Yekini bagged the winning goal after 88 minutes.
And Agboola, who was never invited by England at any level, became an Africa Cup of Nations bronze medallist.
Agboola says he has no regrets about choosing to represent Nigeria at international level but he is “very proud indeed (to wear the national colours of Nigeria)and I still have the cuttings”.
He said his father, who died last month aged 89, and his family encouraged him when he opted to play for the Eagles.
However, he said they did not influence his decision to play for Nigeria but only supported him after making up his mind to make the trip to Nigeria to play in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Burkina Faso.
Agboola said, “(It was) my decision indeed. I only got encouragement from my family. I was the very first player from English football to play in the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Senegal.”
After playing in two USA ’94 World Cup qualifiers, Westerhof stopped inviting Agboola. He missed out on a place in the Tunisia ’94 Africa Cup of Nations won by Nigeria as well as the USA ’94 World Cup.
Agboola might have fallen out of favour with the Nigeria manager after he called it quits with Swansea City to join a non-league Surrey side Woking in the summer of 1993.
The former Charlton Athletic player insists he has no regrets not winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia or representing Nigeria in their first ever World Cup appearance in the United States.
“It was out of my control, so I have none (regrets),” he said.
Agboola says he is a great fan of Nigerian football, saying, “I still follow Nigerian football all ages”.
The ex-player is backing the Eagles to make an impact in this summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
“I think the Eagles can give a very good account of themselves and progress to latter stages of the World Cup given the right opportunities,” he said.
He added, “I’m not currently involved in football I work in the automobile industry but I’m planning a come back into the game I love so much.”
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