Aikhuomogbe was a maverick, Nigeria’s response to Colombia’s Rene Higuita and Mexico’s Jorge Campos in showmanship, sharp reflexes and outspokenness in equal measure. He was flamboyant in a quietly efficient way and took no prisoners whether when saving a goal-bound shot or firmly putting an erring official in his place.
Yet, the world would have missed out on this exciting and colourful goaltender if his father, the senior Aikhuomogbe, had his way with his ‘stubborn’ son who was hell-bent on playing football against the father’s wish that he studied to become a doctor.
Of his early years, Aikhuomogbe recalled: “My father always wanted me to go to school to become a doctor but all I wanted to do was play football. I started out as a striker and was actually good at it but I was always injured. Once my father saw the injury, he would know I’d gone to play football and give me a good beating. I devised a means to stop these beatings. I noticed that goalkeepers are rarely injured and as long as I don’t get injured, my father will not know I still play football so I switched in between the goalposts.”
That was how, instead of scoring goals, he started stopping them from going through him. And, before long, he became a goalkeeper of repute. By then he was a pupil of Ogodo Primary School, Sapele and a star goalkeeper for the school team. He continued his heroics at St. Malachy’s College where he also was a first-choice keeper even from his junior years in the school so much that his fame went all over the city of Sapele.
Naturally, he joined KB Stars, a youth team from where he got an invitation to the Bendel State Academicals team. He was in the Academicals for two years, simultaneously playing for KB Stars (where he had players like Ufuoma Izu, Okey Marere, Omamihe etc as teammates) and St. Malachy, before he got an invitation to sign for Hawks of Markurdi in the second tier of the Nigerian league. After four years with KB Stars, the boy-wonder was finally on the way to the top.
He was soon to become first-choice for Hawks and made a name for himself as one of the fastest-rising youngsters in the league. His performances attracted the attention of national team selectors and he got a call-up to the U-17 team which was preparing to qualify for the U-17 World Cup in Scotland ’89.
This Lawanson, Lagos-born budding star was already living his dream. He got to the camp of the Eaglets to meet about 12 other goalkeepers all striving to be in the final two that will make the World Cup cut.
The coaches were meticulous but helpful, strict but fatherly as they put the players through their paces. The over a dozen goalkeepers where pruned down to four and, by the time the qualification matches for the World Cup were concluded, they picked the best two, namely Lemmy Isa, from the 1987 set in Canada, and Andrew Aikhuomogbe.
In Canada, Isa was first choice and was so brilliant, keeping goal of every single minute as the Golden Eagles marched to a second successive final, that Aikhuomogbe was expected to be confined to watch from the bench. However, he worked so hard that the coaches had no choice but to hand him the starting role.
In Scotland, the Eaglets breezed through the group games, winning two and drawing one. At the end of the first round, Aikhuomogbe was the only goalkeeper in the competition who had not conceded any goal and he was already earning plaudits as a likely winner of the Golden Glove as best keeper.
However, against Saudi Arabia in the quarter-finals, the Nigerian team came up against a brick-wall and got stuck. Both sides failed to hit the back of the net in regulation and extra-time so they headed for the inevitable penalty shootout. Aikhuomogbe saved two kicks but Nigeria failed to advance as the Eaglets missed four of their own kicks and the Saudis escaped with a 2-0 victory.
Back home, Aikhuomogbe had done enough to catch the attention of the bigger teams and it was obvious he had become a big fish in the little pond of Hawks. At the end of the 1989 season, he teamed up with Calabar Rovers where he had such crack players like Friday Ekpo, John Ene Okon and the late Christopher Edem as teammates.
Without showing any nerves that he was finally playing with the big boys, Aikhuomogbe continued his fine form and was soon the talk of the sporting fraternity. It was expected that, after the U-17 exploits, he would graduate to the U-20 but a FIFA ban on all Nigerian under-age teams following the age scandal involving Dahiru Sadi, Andrew Uwe and Samson Siasia. The ban was lifted in 1991 but it meant that dream was scuttled.
He was soon back in the national consciousness when he got picked for the U-23 team to represent Nigeria at the All-Africa Games in Cairo, Egypt in 1991. With players such as Tijani Babangida, Jide Oguntuase et al, Aikhuomogbe won bronze with a team that was considered the best team of the competition who were just unlucky to lose to Cameroun in the semi-finals.
After the competition, he was invited to the Super Eagles team which was preparing for the Senegal ’92 Africa Cup of Nations. However, possibly due to his age and relative in-exposure, he was still less than 18 years old at the time, coach Clemens Westerhoff settled for the more experienced trio of Alloy Agu, David Ngodigha and Ike Shorunmu for the championship where Nigeria won bronze.
Not to be perpetually put down, he was ‘transferred’ to the U-20 Flying Eagles team to Mauritius ’93 African Youth Championship. However, despite parading a team with the quality of Taribo West, Austin Okocha, Emmanuel Amuneke, Emmanuel Teberen, Tijani Babangida and Garba Lawal, the Flying Eagles could not make it out of their group and crashed out.
After his second season with Rovers, Aikhuomogbe returned up north to join BCC Lions where he experienced his most fruitful years in the domestic league. In his four years with BCC, he helped the team to two FA Cups and a league title in 1994. He was soon on the move again and berthed with Katsina United, a team bank-rolled by former NFA chairman, Col Abdul Mumini. He led the Katsina team to back-to-back FA Cup final loses and left for 3SC at the start of the 1997 season and won the league and WAFU Cup with the Ibadan side in 1998.
He joined Enyimba of Aba for the next two seasons before quitting the domestic league for Belarus where he signed with FC Gomel. He returned to Africa and joined El Shams of Egypt in 2006 where he was for three seasons before hanging up his gloves in 2009, thus bring the curtains down on a career that had spanned 21 years at the top level.
One blot on the immaculate copybook of Aikhuomogbe’s dazzling carrer happened in a Super League match against Julius Berger at the National Stadium, Lagos in 2000 and he regrets it even up till this day.
The former Enyimba player, who until then had been the best player by a mile in the game, called for his substitution with scores at 0-0, a result which would have been enough to hand the league title to his team. With just a few minutes to the end of the game, he felt the team was home and dry and complained of dizziness. He was substituted in time added on but with less than 30 seconds left to play, Julius Berger scored with the last kick of the game.
Aikhuomogbe says it was a mistake to have asked to be replaced and it was hurtful that he won the MVP even though his team lost.
“I could’ve managed to complete the match but I just wanted to leave the pitch. I regret the decision till today. It’s more painful when I was voted the Man-of-The-Match. My action denied the team the trophy and the reward they would have got for winning the competition. I made a big mistake.”
All through his career, Aikhuomogbe suffered the perception of being a stubborn and difficult player, a fact which was probably responsible for why he missed out on the France ’98 squad despite helping the Super Eagles to win the LG Cup in Hong Kong a few months earlier.
He pleads his case thus in an interview with a Nigerian newspaper thus: “Westerhof refused to invite me to the national team due to politics, despite being one of the best keepers in the country then. Some people didn’t want me in the team. Some of the Nigeria Football Federation officials didn’t like my face. They labelled me a troublemaker and ensured that I was not given the opportunity to fight for a place in the Eagles.
“I was in top shape and ready to fight for the starting role but I never got the chance. I thought I would make it to the France ’98 World Cup after helping the country win the Hong Kong Tournament months before the World Cup but surprisingly, I was ignored. I have no regrets not winning trophies with the Eagles because I was not given the opportunity to play, despite my talent. I won a lot at club level and I’m proud of my achievements.”
Aikhuomogbe says he was misunderstood while he played in both the domestic league and the national team. According to him, there were a number of times people got the wrong impression of him during his playing days in Nigeria. He was seen as a stubborn and arrogant footballer.
After calling time on his illustrious career, Aikhuomogbe attended the NIS for his coaching badges and is imparting his vast knowledge of the game into the younger generation of goalkeepers on the continent of Africa.
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