BY KUNLE SOLAJA.
The only surviving member of the first Nigerian national football team, Titus Okere is 94 years old today. He remains the only point of contact for the famous 1949 UK Tourists.
Okere, the left wing wizard of the team who was initially projected to captain the 1949 squad, lives a quiet life in Kent, some 61km to London in the UK.
His 94th birthday coincides with the 43rd anniversary of Nigeria’s first victory at the Africa Cup of Nations. When the then Green Eagles lifted the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time on 22 March, 1980, it was like a divine tribute to the pioneer Nigerian left winger. He was 51 on that day.
Similarly, Joseph Meads, the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) inaugural secretary who was also the convener of the 21 August 1933 meeting in which the Nigerian football body now known as NFF was founded (not 1945 as wrongly claimed), was also born on 22 March in 1907.
He should had been 73 years; the day Nigeria beat Algeria to win the Africa Nations Cup for the first time in 1980.
Okere in 1949 was described by Edgar Kail in UK’s Daily Graphic as having a net worth of £15,000 and a row of houses.
The Liverpool Echo edition of 1 September 1949 was astonished about the speed and brilliance of Titus Okere at the outside left and averred that given his experience, “he could find a place in most European League sides.”
Four years later, Okere found himself in the UK at the height of winter. Since his 1953 venture abroad, he seemed to have escaped everyone’s radar.
Sports Village Square have been in touch with the legend through his grand daughter, Frances Okere.
Having left Nigeria in February 1953 and never came back, he was believed to have passed on.
Titus Okere was the first Nigerian citizen to play football abroad and registered as a professional when he signed for Swindon Town
His adventure abroad after the initial UK tour of 1949 had an element of luck. He was highly rated by the British press during the UK tour of 1949 even though like most of his colleagues, he was playing barefooted.
Until now, Okere was widely believed to have died since he never return to Nigeria since he left Nigeria in February 1953 as the country’s first ever professional footballer.
Sports Village Square gathered from archival research that Titus Okere had always dreamt of returning to the UK after the Nigerian team tour of 1949.
So prominent was he in the squad that he was the first consideration as the skipper since he was also the captain of Railway club that supplied the bulk of the 18-man squad.
In the Daily Service publication of 1 July 1949, three players were short listed as possible captain – Etim Henshaw, Dan Anyiam and Titus Okere.
The latter was not chosen by the NFA on account that “it was impossible to select him as captain in view of his position as outside left. It was thought it is impossible for him to control the team from his position in the forward line.”
Dennis Hart, an English journalist writing in the Daily Service edition of 27 February 1953 narrated how Okere landed in England.
He reported that returning to the UK and to play as a professional footballer had been Okere’s dream. He was then 25 and working as a clerk in the Nigerian Railway which he also played for as captain.
Hart wrote: “To fulfil it, he has taken one big step already. He has joined an English League club, Swindon Town as a professional, the first Nigerian ever to do so.
“Imagine his excitement when four years ago (1949) he was selected as outside left as a member of the Nigerian team to tour England, to play the leading amateur dubs.
“Waiting for the tour to begin weighed heavily on Titus’ hands. But when the day finally arrived, the time, flashed by all quickly. The tour whetted, rather than satisfied his appetite for English soccer. Having tasted it, he thirsted for more.
“He returned to his job as a clerk with the Nigerian Railways in Lagos. But in spirit he was still in England, re-living the tour over and over again in his mind.
“The months slipped by, and with them, it seemed his chances of playing permanently in English soccer.
“But then fate took a hand. The coach to the Railway team for which Titus was playing for was Leo Robins, a native of Swindon.
“He was in Nigeria on Railway work. Leo was a keen supporter of his town’s club. He wrote to the manager, Louis Page, recommending to him to sign Titus.
“After consultations with the club’s directors, Mr. Page wrote to Titus, asking if he would like to join Swindon. Titus needed no persuasion. It was a gamble and needed throwing up his job.”
Hart remarked that he later interviewed Okere after his first day training at Swindon. “He told me that he could hardly believe it.
It was a typical English February morning with frost still on the ground and a keen east wind which penetrated the thickest of overcoats.
Hart asked Titus how he felt 4,000 miles away from the sun and his friends. “Well the sun might be a long way away”, replied Okere in his normal quiet-spoken manner, “I certainly miss it. But I ‘ve already made lots of friends here.
“The players and staff of the club here have done everything to make me feel at home, and so too, my landlady, Mrs Wakeley.” Okere told Dennis Hart that one of his main problems was to get used to playing in boots.
He has never done this before. When he toured England in 1949, he did wear anklets, a crepe bandage covering his ankle and instep, but otherwise all his football had been played in bare feet.
There was no rule in British football which insist on players wearing boots. But after a few steps, Titus found the cold was too much.
To start with them, he will wear hockey boots which are rubber soled with light studs and when he gets used to these, will graduate to normal English boots.
His grand daughter informed Sports Village Square that Titus Okere “retired from football not long after moving abroad sadly.
“After leaving football, Titus worked for Parcel Force on the railway until he retired around 1974/75.” Frances further remarked that her grand dad is keeping well and in good health.
The grand daughter also informed that Titus Okere lost his wife, Patricia Okere three years ago. His son, who is Frances’ father also goes by the name Titus Okere.
He has two grand daughters, Frances and Georgina Okere who is now Mrs. Coates. Also, there are two great grandchildren, Maxwell Okere, son of Frances and Sebastian Coates.