Amid feverish speculation about his Heartland future, Fidelis Ilechukwu has distanced himself from recent reports of his purported departure from the Naze Warriors insisting the reports are “fake news” but admits the cloud of uncertainty around the club portends danger and causes him grave concern.
Heartland have been plagued by myriad, unresolved off-field issues that engendered an uncertain atmosphere which lingered throughout the truncated 2019-20 season affecting on-pitch performances and cast a pall that threatens to spill into the upcoming season.
The “indefinite suspension” of Ifeanyi Chukwudi from his position as general manager a few weeks from Ilechukwu’s appointment and just three weeks before the season was due to kickoff precipitated a crisis that swiftly snowballed into a power tussle and has seen the club beset by infighting over who takes charge of the club’s top management.
The situation was exacerbated further by the Supreme Court decision to annul the election of Emeka Ihedioha as governor and install Hope Uzodinma in his place with the latter swiftly cancelling all appointments made by the former, soon after he was sworn into office.
Governor Uzodinma’s directive supposedly affected Heartland which is government-owned but this is being disputed by officials of the club.
Another directive surfaced on 28 July attributed to the governor and directing the current board to handover “within 48 hours”. When nothing happened, Commissioner for Sports Rodney Tony Ajaelu directed club accountant Emmanuel Oparanozie to take charge of the club pending the appointment of a substantive general manager.
However, in a swift reaction, Heartland Director of Media and Communications Solomon Onu accused the commissioner of failing to carry out “his due diligence and fact finding” and declared Ajaelu’s actions an “absolute nullity”.
Added to the destabilizing squabbling over who runs the club, is the decidedly unsavory spectacle of a salary backlog for players and officials seven months long – a situation that even earned the club sanctions from the League Management Company.
The picture that emerges is one of a rudderless, distressed club which is certainly very different to what the highly-rated Ilechukwu envisaged when he ended a 13-year association with Lagos club MFM to cast his lot with the Naze Millionaires, a move that was widely celebrated at the time.
It came as no surprise then, when news broke that a manager of his calibre had had enough of the internal strife and lack of clarity and decided to end his association with the club.
But while Ilechukwu confessed that the current state of the club leaves much to be desired, he told busybuddiesng.com that despite being owed for seven months, he is not one to unilaterally shred a binding contract and would always seek civil means to resolve his future were he to leave.
“That leaving Heartland is fake news, you understand me? That means it’s not true,” he said. “Although the state of things here is not too good, because they’ve not paid us for seven months if I want to leave Heartland, there’s a proper way, I have a contract. There’s a way we do it and we live in peace, not by having issues.
Heartland have struggled in the past few seasons, getting relegated in 2018, barely escaping the same fate in 2019 and were 13th in table when the 2019-20 Nigeria Professional Football League season was suspended and then prematurely ended because of the coronavirus.
Ilechukwu’s arrival was supposed to herald a rebirth of the five-times league champions with the idea being the man responsible for near-miraculous feats at MFM could gradually make the club competitive once again.
But that plan is in danger of being upended by the uncertainty around the club and Ilechukwu fears the club’s on-field struggles could get worse next season.
With the federal government recently lifting restrictions on non-contact sports, there is an expectation that professional football could follow suit and the Nigeria Football Federation has set September/October as a tentative kickoff date for the country’s professional football leagues.
While other clubs have flown into action bolstering their squads, sorting out players’ contracts and making preparations for the upcoming season, Ilechukwu has watched helplessly, caught in limbo and unable to plan with any certainty stymied by the lack of clarity at Heartland.
While he is loath to point the finger at any body, he says the lack of transfer activity and uncertainty about his players’ status leaves him unsatisfied and rapidly running out of time to build a squad for next season and could be a recipe for a difficult campaign.
“There’s no how I’m going to be satisfied with the situation of things at Heartland Football Club. But I don’t want to blame anybody,” Ilechukwu says.
“I’ve begged the government to look into it, because the most painful one is that now club are signing players, you know when you’re online you see what is happening, people call you that this player has gone here and this this that. And our players too, and we’re not hundred percent sure of most of our key players. And you know, to build a structure to this philosophy and methodology is not using under one month, and talk less of using a few weeks.
“So, looking at that, if the new league is going to start in October, that is why I am lamenting concerning the condition of Heartland Football Club,” the U23 national team assistant coach said.
While he awaits a resolution of Heartland’s woes, Ilechukwu is hesitant to pledge he would say for the duration for his contract but says his future is with the Naze Millionaires at the moment even as he warns that as ever, nothing is sure in football.
One thing he is certain of, however, is eventually returning to “his home” Lagos sometime in the future.
“You know, one thing is certain. I don’t want to talk about my future now because I never can tell what is going to happen tomorrow,” he says.
“I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, you know life is always ups and downs. But for now, I’m still at Heartland Football Club. I don’t want my fans to lose hope on me, in any situation or anywhere. Lagos is my home and I know one day I will still come back there.”