One of the few coaches that saw it all through with late Stephen Keshi during his illustrious managerial career is Valere Houdonou.
During Keshi's successful stints as head coach for the national teams of Togo, Mali and of course with Nigeria, Houdonou was a constant figure in Keshi's backroom staff.
The Beninese who was a physical trainer saw Keshi more than a close friend but as a 'twin'
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Houdonou opens up on how he was badly devastated by the demise of the 'Big Boss' and considered throwing in the towel as a coach.
Keshi's well-known right-hand man also touches on the recent bribery allegations targeted at his former boss as well as his thoughts on the current Super Eagles coach, Gernot Rohr.
PT: You suddenly went underground after Keshi's death. You must have been devastated by his passing?
Houdonou: It was a sad experience for me because he was my closest friend right from our time in Togo and Mali. Then, we returned to Nigeria and God saw us through it all. I never saw it coming. It was like separating twins from each other. It took me years to get over the shock and each time I think about him, it becomes even more difficult to believe he is no more.
At a time, it became so depressing to the extent that picking up another job was impossible for me. I almost quit coaching. I had to summon the courage to take up a job with Kwara United before joining Sokoto United.
PT: As the only indigenous coach to have won the AFCON, what did Keshi do right in South Africa?
Houdonou: Every coach has its own methods, and Keshi felt if Togo and Mali can excel in Africa with a mixture of local and foreign-based players, why not Nigeria that is blessed with a higher percentage of talents? He kept to his policy of going for home-based players that are hungry for glory.
Big boss knew everybody in Nigeria wanted to see attractive and efficient football because they hadn't seen that at that time. He knew a Super Eagles that is made up of foreign-based players won't give him that. That was why we went for rookies and won the AFCON.
PT: What was the support like from NFF?
Houdonou: Honestly, NFF gave us the much-needed support at that time when we presented our programme. Big boss then assigned my humble self, Dan Amokachi and Silvanus Okpala to watch league matches and discover good players. We wanted to create a pressure at a higher level for all the players to compete. That was how we got Egwueke, Oboabona, Mba and Oshaniwa
PT: Some players said Keshi demanded cash for shirt before 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Houdonou : (Cuts in) Let people talk. These accusations cannot be substantiated. It is just a ploy to run down local coaches so that NFF will stop having faith in them. With due respect to Gernot Rohr, no foreign coach has gone beyond the second round at the World Cup except Westerhof.
I had a contract with the then NFF and was owed for 12 months after our AFCON triumph. I was later told it was Keshi that will pay my salaries. I decided against going to court because you can never tell what the future holds. Silvanus Okpala dragged NFF to court over unpaid salaries and he was paid every Kobo. It is unfair to label Keshi and his backroom staff as corrupt.
PT: The inclusion of Shola Ameobi, Michael Uchebo was also questioned by Nigerians.
Houdonou : Shola Ameobi was doing well in England at that time while Ideye failed to deliver as a striker. How many goals did Ideye scored in South Africa 2013? Did you see the game against Mali? What about the finals? The game against Cote d'Ivoire would have been won in the first half had Ideye converted his chances.
Ideye and Mba did not perform at the Confederations Cup. It leaves much to be desired if a team has to depend on wingers and defender to score goals in a match. You cannot compare the experience of Osaze and Ameobi with that of Mba and Ideye.
PT: What about Uchebo, Babatunde Michael and Azeez Ramon?
Houdonou: Are you saying Babatunde didn't justify his inclusion at the World Cup? Of course, you know Uchebo and Ramon didn't get enough playing time. We didn't have enough quality in the midfield apart from Mikel and Onazi, so we needed to bring in Ramon Azeez.
The fact that he is still part of Rohr's Eagles today means nobody can fault Keshi decision to pick Ramon at that time.
PT: Rohr said the league is not producing good players. What is your take on this?
Houdonou: I totally disagree with him. We discovered homegrown players before 2013 AFCON and Nigeria emerged as African champions. With all due respect to Rohr, his army of professionals could only win Bronze at the last AFCON. Rohr is a good coach, he is doing a good job with the national team, but to say there are no good players in the league is totally not unacceptable.
It means our league is dead then. I believe if Rohr can give his local coaches the needed tools to scout, they will fish out good players from the league.
PT: Pundits feel Amuneke is the best candidate to take over from Rohr.
Houdonou: I have nothing against Rohr. He is a good coach most especially if you look at the way his team play. I strongly believe a local coach will also do well once they enjoy the same support foreign managers get from NFF, it's that simple.
We have ex-internationals like Eguavoen, Amokachi, Oliseh, Amuneke, and Finidi who know their onions, but they must be fully supported. If NFF can give them the same support white coaches enjoy, they will give you the right results.
PT: Any final words for this interview
Houdonou: Keshi is a legend! He gave a lot to this country as a player and a coach. He deserves our respect and not condemnation. God bless Nigeria.
Editor's Note: Interview was conducted before the NFF's official confirmation of a new deal for Rohr.