In 1950s Ireland, a Nigerian medical student made a stir in Irish soccer circles but his later life remained a mystery until a perhaps tragic ending, writes Cian Manning.
The one thing that both sport and education can offer is opportunity. For decades English football has provided Irish players the chance for careers as professional players, sadly lacking on a similar scale in the League of Ireland. The 1950s in Ireland was an oppressive decade, where religion dominated and, rather than creating a country for all, often people were ostracized. A society that didn’t cater for everyone was exacerbated by an economy that saw thousands of Irish people emigrate in the hope of earning a living.
However, Ireland did provide some opportunity of its own, particularly in education. A scholarship by the Nigerian authorities for its students was put in place in the early ‘50s to provide access to training not then available in Nigeria. The hope was that these students would return to increase standards in their native country. One such student was Francis Obiakpani who undertook a Bachelor of Medicine/Surgery degree in University College Dublin. The Irish capital, over 7000 kilometres from his homeland, was not only the setting for the start of his career but also a remarkable sporting tale.
The college football club was founded in 1895 under the name Catholic University Medical School Football Club. Subsequently a founder member of the Leinster Junior League in 1896, they played under the moniker of University College Dublin from 1908 (when the medical school was assumed by UCD) and were the first winners of the Collingwood Cup (the Irish inter-varsities soccer competition) in 1914. In fact, the college were invited to join the League of Ireland in 1922 but declined due to the academic year starting after the commencement of the Irish football season. Winning the FAI Intermediate Cup in 1945 was the crowning achievement of an impressive early football tradition.
The personality of the college team
In February 1953, the College were drawn away to Sligo Rovers in the first round of the FAI Senior Cup. A 3-3 draw spared the ‘Bit O’Red’s’ blushes from an early cup exit to Leinster League (and student) opposition. “J.H.” of the Sligo Champion recorded: ‘The personality of the [college] team, Frank Obiakpani, a Nigerian gave an amusing display… [filled with] grit and determination and many thought it a pity that a few of the Sligo players did not show even half his enthusiasm.’ The replay was fixed for Milltown where a crowd yielding a gate receipt of £254 gave witness to another spirited display from the students, narrowly losing 3-2. Seamus Devlin of the Irish Press opined that ‘Not even the genius of U.C.D.’s equivalent of Raich Carter – the black curly-headed bundle of energy, Frank Obiakpani – could save them’. He continued:
‘The Nigerian student played himself into the hearts of Dublin and Sligo followers with a display of plucky, clever football’.
A year later, University College Dublin won their 23rd Collingwood Cup, defeating Queen’s University 2-1 in the final. N.J. Dunne of the Sunday Independent described their victory: ‘Considering that they had already played four hours [of] football in the two proceeding days, U.C.D. fully deserved their victory, for although the signs of weariness were there…the defence came through a testing afternoon with honours, and the forwards on the whole, were more united and dangerous than the Queen’s attack.’ Obiakpani had a hand in the winning goal, allowing a cross from the right to go through his legs to Cassidy who finished to the back of the net. The College had won the competition eleven out of the previous twelve times but their ’54 season could have worked out very differently if Frank Obiakpani hadn’t scored the winning goal against University College Galway in the first round (3-2 the final score).
Success in third-level competitions was matched by competitiveness against League of Ireland opposition. Just two months after the Collingwood Cup, UCD gave a brave performance with a weakened team against Longford Town. 3-1 down, the College came back to level the game at 3-3 before eventually losing 6-3. Obiakpani scored two goals and the Longford Leader detailed: ‘The Nigerian took his scoring opportunities in fine style, giving [the] goalkeeper… no chance.’
A superb year for the Nigerian
More silverware was to come Obiakpani’s direction by May of that year, this time with the Mater Hospital. Beating Mercer’s Hospital (4-3) in the final of the Hospital’s Soccer Championship, it was the Mater’s first victory in the competition. Special praise came from the Irish Independent: ‘Outstanding for the winners were F. Obiakpani at centre-half’. In October ’54, UCD secured a notable 2-2 draw with Shamrock Rovers B at Milltown in the Leinster League. Dominating the first half, UCD took the lead through an Obiakpani goal. A superb year for the Nigerian was capped off in December when he passed his exams for a Bachelor of Surgery which was conferred in January 1955.
The beginning of 1956 saw another respectable draw between UCD and Rovers B in Division 1 of the Leinster League, UCD finding an equaliser fifteen minutes from time with Wadding scoring the rebound from an Obiakpani shot saved by the Shamrock Rovers goalkeeper. The Irish Press wrote: ‘Star of the match was Nigerian outside-left, Obiakpani who has sampled English football since he played for the College a year ago.’
UCD reached the semi-finals of the 1956 Metropolitan Cup where they were defeated 3-1 by Jacobs, though the Irish Press expressed the opinion that Jacobs were ‘gifted’ the goals in what was a lucky win. As the second oldest club with Shelbourne under the Football Association of Ireland, they had yet to win a senior competition organized by the FAI. The Irish Press had prefaced the game by stating UCD’s “Nigerian Frank Obiakpani, who has taken over the leadership of the attack, and his compatriot, F. Ezemenari, have both been hitting plenty of goals recently, and will worry Jacob’s defence.”
Hutchinson was the hat-trick hero for Jacobs but the match report noted: ‘The College XI gave a delightful display of football, completely out classing their opponents in speed and ball control, and but for centre forward Obiakpani playing throughout the second half with a bandaged left thigh, would certainly have wiped out the deficit.’ The result was the continuation of a ‘hoodoo’ over the College in the tournament.
A second winners medal in the Hospital football tournament with the Mater came in ’56 with Dr John Seery later recalling that Mercers were ‘well in control of the match at two-nil, Frank (Obiakpani) knocked their keeper unconscious in a “collision”. In the days before substitutions, the absence of the Mercers goalkeeper for the rest of the game greatly facilitated a Mater fightback to win the game 3-2.”
A story perforated with holes
In 1959, Obiakpani obtained a diploma in Anaesthetics from the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Unfortunately, Frank’s story is perforated with holes. The sporting descriptions of his character, talent and strength across national and provincial newspapers in Ireland convey some of the traits that explain why a young man would travel from one continent to another to learn and seek opportunity. His brief foray in English football remains a mystery. It’s very much a case of a jigsaw missing many large pieces leaving us an uncomplete picture. One strand that may shed light on the later life and career of Obiakpani is at Asaba in the Midwest of Nigeria in October, 1967.
During the Nigerian Civil War, a struggle over the secession of Biafra saw its troops forcing their way west of the Niger occupying Benin before eventually being made to retreat from Ore by the Nigerian Second Division. Eventually the federal troops pushed the Biafran soldiers back to Onitsha, opposite the city of Asaba. The 2nd Division entered the city nicknamed ‘Ani Mmili’ and reportedly proceeded to ransack and murder over 700 men and boys. A name listed as one of the victims was a Francis Obiakpani of Umuezi, an anaesthetist.
Five years previously in 1962, the University of Lagos Medical School had been established where a Department of Anaesthesia was created and led by a Prof. Shirley Fleming from the University of Toronto. A second anaesthesia department was formed at the University of Ibadan five years later. An article on the history of the University of Lagos notes: ‘Not long after this, Nigerians who had been training abroad started returning to join the two academic departments; thus, forming the pioneers of indigenous physician anaesthetists in the country.’ One of which was named Obiakpani.
Is this the same man that had come to the attention of those in Ireland when UCD faced Sligo Rovers in the FAI Cup first round? Is it the same person educated in Dublin and London, who he even ‘sampled’ English soccer? Did he return to improve his homeland and a become a victim genocide? Again, more questions than answers. Perhaps the best way to finish would be with an Igbo saying borne out in the life of Frank Obiakpani: “Out onye tuo izu” – “Knowledge is never complete.”
Main image: csimedicine.com