Onyekachi Apam : A Talent Cut before his prime

Onyekachi Apam : A Talent Cut before his prime
November 04 18:44 2019
Onyekachi APAM – 11.04.2010 – Marseille / Nice – 32e journee Ligue 1 – Stade Velodrome – Marseille, (Photo : Nicolas Guyonnet / Icon Sport via Getty Images)

Enugu State is a place often synonymous with Coal hence its motto “The Coal City State” but it is anything but just a Coal entity as it’s a state that has constantly churned out talents on the field and is home to perhaps the most famous club in the East and in Nigeria- Enugu Rangers. Its rare to hear a true 042 or top player from the Eastern region who went on to achieve a legendary or decent career in Nigeria who didn’t at one time begin their apprenticeship or play at the club. Legends like the Iconic Chairman Christian Chukwu; Nigeria’s first AFCON winning captain, Christian Madu, Emmanuel Okala to rampaging forwards Dominic ‘Alhaji’ Nwobodo, Ogidi Ibeabuchi, Emeka Onyedika to modern greats John Utaka, Obinna Nwobodo, Chisom Egbuchulam have all at one time played for the Flying Antelopes before achieving great things. Rangers are a culturally driven institution and proudly promote the values of the Igbo race and the best of talents from the East. And it is In this matrix that one of the brightest young talents in the East in the mid 2000s would begin his journey to professional football at the Nnamdi Azikiwe stadium and will do it masterfully.

The name Onyekachi Apam often evokes adjectives like “Rock” , “Intelligent”, “Top draw” when describing the defender by fans, coaches as well as teammates, but one cannot help but look at the career of the Aba-born barrel chested lynchpin without associating the popular lamentation of “What could have been” on close examination.  Having started his career at Pepsi academy like most Super Eagles players of the late 90s and early 2000s, he was signed on a free by Rangers after undergoing trials in mid season in 2004 and he would prove to be a decent bargain thereof. Around that time, Super Eagles great Samson Siasia had just been appointed the Under 20 coach and opened camp ahead of the African Youth Championship at neighboring Benin Republic which Apam made the cut and proved a vital component to the team’s cause of going to the world cup- forming a decent understanding with the lanky Dele Adeleye on Nigeria’s unbeaten run to the final. A Promise Isaac double helped the Flying Eagles beat Egypt 2-0 to book their place at the Word Youth Championships in the Netherlands in the summer of 2005.

After a decent season with Rangers, Apam headed to the Netherlands for the FIFA under 20 world cup where he formed a formidable partnership with Dele Adeleye at the back along with goalkeeper Ambrose Vanzekin as Nigeria kept 4 clean sheets against perennial tournament favorites Brazil, Switzerland, Ukraine and Morocco as The Flying Eagles stormed to the grand finale. They would come up against a certain Lionel Messi in the final who had played a major role in his country’s progression at that point. Nigeria would lose 2-1 with Messi scoring both goals from the spot while another budding star in the Flying Eagles side Chinedu Obasi-Ogbuke got the consolation goal.. While Taye Taiwo and the mercurial John Obi Mikel were taking personal awards, the performance of Apam and Adeleye were overlooked but such solid display in The Netherlands landed both moves as Adeleye was signed by Sparta Rotterdam in the Eredivisie and Apam got a trial with modest French side OGC Nice B team who took him on loan for the rest of the season from Rangers. Nice who a year prior were managed by current Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr and was also a home to former striker Victor Agali took a punt on Apam‘s raw talent and his impressive showing whilst on loan would be made permanent in the summer of 2006 for €850,000 and he would work under manager Frédéric Antonetti, a trainer he would cross paths with in future.

He didn’t make his official debut in the early weeks of the season but on the 29th of October 2006, Apam was introduced as a second half substitute against Nice arch rivals Marseille in a 2-1 win at the Stade du Ray for his debut.

He would gradually assert himself into the side, forming a formidable partnership with French-born Malian international defender Cèdric Kantè which would prove key to during the season. His first season in Europe also had its own controversy, when during the winter break, Apam headed to Nigeria for the Christmas holidays, and on new year’s eve it was reported that Onyekachi was robbed and kidnapped in Enugu but was released few days later unharmed. Back at the club, Apam helped Nice survive relegation at the end of the season as they finished 15th and 5 points off the relegation places.

Apam’s start to the 2007/2008 season was seamless as his steady rise to acclaim at the end of the 2006/2007 season and good start to the season didn’t go unnoticed by the Super Eagles and in September 2007, he was given his first call up- making his international bow in a frantic 2-2 draw against Mexico in Juarez, seeing the full 90 minutes. With the AFCON starting in mid season, Apam made Berti Vogts list in the Super Eagles quest for glory in Ghana. A poor opening game defensively at right back by Apam after being terrorized all game by Salomon Kalou who with a moment of magic slalomed past the whole Super Eagles defence to score the only goal of the game for The Ivory Coast proved to be his only game of the competition as Nigeria crashed out in the Quarter final to hosts Ghana. On his return to club duty, Apam played well over 30 games for Nice and even getting an assist at right back for Brazilian maverick Ederson to score in a 1-1 draw at Stade du Ray against Toulouse was a highlight in a solid and improved 8th placed finish by Les Aiglons

Just before the start of the 2008/2009 season, there was a small matter of the Beijing Olympics that summer as Apam and his compatriots shone brightly in the football event coming within 90 minutes of grabbing gold, only to be denied yet again by Lionel Messi’s led Argentina. Apam was impressive in the tournament alongside partner Dele Adeleye as the Dream Team IV only conceded only 3 goals enroute to clinching the silver medal. Apam will take his good form to Nice, as the modest side were challenging for the league at the early months of the season with Apam even scoring his first career goal in a 3-1 loss at home to reigning champions Olympique Lyon in February 2009. Nice would go on to suffer a shock defeat in the semi-final of the Coupe de la Ligue to second division side, Vannes which would derail their sustained effort at usurping Lyon at the top- coupled with a loss in form Les Aiglons would finish in a disappointing 9th place on the table with Apam  yet again playing over 30 games in the league to culminate his best spell without injuries in his career. Come season end, manager Frédéric Antonetti would leave the club to the disappointment of the fans and players alike.

In the 2009/10 season, Apam would begin the season solid as ever but would pick up his first red card of his career in December 2009, for two bookable offences in the fierce Cote d’ Azur derby against Taye Taiwo’s Olympique Marseille as Nice crumbled 3-1 at home. Apam’s good form despite the club’s inconsistency gave him a spot in Shuaibu Amodu’s squad for the 2010 AFCON in Angola were he fared better this time at right back which was often his position on international duty; featuring in 4 of the 6 Super Eagles games with Nigeria winning all 4 games with Apam in the side but losing against Egypt and Ghana in his absence as the Super Eagles finished third in the competition. In March 2010 he was called up for his 14th cap for Nigeria in friendly against DR Congo in Abuja as a side made up of mostly fringe Super Eagles players won 5-2. It was the last time Apam would ever get called up to the national team. During the season, Apam’s body was beginning to give signal for the first time of a longer absence in the sidelines which would have ripple effect on his career long term. Despite managing to play 23 games in the course of the season, he would pick up a knee injury in training around April which would deny him contention for a place at the 2010 World Cup and a longer time away from national reckoning as Nice finished 15th that season- in what would prove to be his last at the Cote d’ Azur side.

In the summer of 2010, OGC Nice agreed a €4 million fee for the transfer of Onyekachi Apam to Stade Rennais managed by the familiar Frédéric Antonetti with Apam signing a four-year contract having played 105 Ligue 1 matches for the Mediterranean side.  He was to replace former Rennes captain Petter Hansson who left for Monaco, with 15% of Apam’s transfer going to Enugu Rangers. The Breton club had also broken their piggy bank to attract the Nigerian international defender and although he was signed with an injured knee, one he picked up in April 2010, it left Rennes & it’s fans disillusioned as few days later after his arrival, he underwent a terrible operation of the external meniscus which kept him out for the rest of the 2010/11 season. A blow to the player, but also to Rennes who had to wait a year and four months after his transfer for Apam to finally make his debut. He eventually made his debut in an away game against Caen on January 14th 2012 as Rennes won 2-0 and Apam playing the 90 minutes to the delight of his  manager Antonetti . Rarely in today’s football do you see a manager believe so much in a crooked player for that long to trust and wait on such player but the Corsican technician had huge faith in Onyekachi, playing him in 11 games of a possible 18 games after his debut. Apam finally managed to have a decent pre-season for the first time in two years going into the 2012/13 season, but be will be plagued by new relapses. On the opening day of the season, Apam picked up a thigh muscle injury 25 minutes in against Lyon which kept him in and out of the team that season. Towards the end of the season, Apam expressed his desire to play in the Premier League to Sky Sports after Premier League after rumored interests from Premier league sides Westbrom, Sunderland and Everton who had all been linked to him in the past even while he was still injured surfaced.“I am injured at the moment but hopefully I can play the next three games,” he said. “I have always dreamt of playing in England and testing myself against the best strikers in the world “Hopefully I will get that chance in the summer. With the big Nigerian only playing 13 games all season, it would have been interesting to see which English side would have taken the risk in Onyekachi whose injury record was on the up at this point. Apam’s mentor Antonetti would eventually depart by mutual consent at the end of the season despite leading Rennes to Coupe de la ligue final which the Breton club lost to Nancy.

In July 2013, new coach Philippe Montanier openly declared that he couldn’t count on the Nigerian defender for the coming season which left Apam in a state of dilemma. Out in the cold through injury and faced with an uncertain future, Apam took up the option of cancelling his contract amicably with Rennes in January 2014, having played only 31 games in three and a half seasons with the Breton club. In September 2014, he went on trail to the United States, where he impressed the coaches at Seattle Sounders; who also had fellow Nigerian Obafemi Martins in their ranks and signed Apam up for a year with an option to extend. But the American adventure did not last, as his contract was cancelled in December 2014 no thanks to his recurrent injuries. Having never played a game under the colors of the Sounders, Apam duly retired from football at 27 and went off the radar. On December 18th 2016, Onyekachi Apam reappeared in the spotlight albeit briefly as he was honoured before the fans by the club of his heart OGC Nice for his whole hearted service to the club just before their Ligue 1 home fixture vs Dijon at their new stadium the Allianz Riviera and hasn’t been in the limelight ever since.

In a time when Nigeria needed a solid partner for the legendary Joseph Yobo for most part of the 2000s after the post Taribo West era, Nigerians had high hopes for Onyekachi Apam but his injuries at crucial moments plus inability to play in bigger sides worthy of his potential denied him a stake for that claim. Considered as one of the best defenders of Ligue 1 when he played at OGC Nice, Apam’s story is just another sad tale to the unequal placing life throws at us. It is one thing to be talented in the game but it’s only with a little bit of luck with injuries which has truncated many careers before and consistency can any talent blossom & shine eternally in the hearts of endearing football souls.

BY ALVIN JIDIAKA

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