As one of the pioneering footballers especially from this part of Nigeria, the loving and caring memories of Late Elkanah Onyeali has been rekindled with activities of a foundation set in his name and after his life style.
Apart from providing succour and help for the needy and less privileged ones in the society, Elkanah Onyeali Care Foundation established by Obidinma Onyeali, the son of late ex international, Elkanah Onyeali to also give the youths of Ihette Mbieri an opportunity to actualize their dream of becoming football stars like their mentor (Onyeali).
Born in 1938 to his parents at Port Harcourt, Rivers State Onyeali started playing football as a Secondary School boy at Holy Ghost College Owerri where he also played alongside Chief Arthur Nzeribe (goalkeeper) under the tutelage of Bishop Shanaham (Who was their Principal and coach).
At his young age, Elkanah who was branded “Black Mercedes” was also invited to the national team (then known as Red Devils) before he moved to England for his academics but the English couldn’t resist his mercurial football skills.
According to a renowned English writer, Fegurson;
“One of the most important men ever to wear a Tranmere shirt is also one of the most overlooked.
“A student who wanted to play football in his spare time, Elkanah Onyeali spent just a few months on the books at Prenton Park. “Nevertheless, his trailblazing efforts as Rovers’ first foreign-born player deserve greater exposure.
“By signing Onyeali, Tranmere became the first major club on Merseyside to hire a black player, and one of the first in England. “That’s a very important distinction, and this is a very important story that has rarely been explored.
Many decades after Onyeali the likes of Kanu ” Papilo” Nwankwo, Austin “Jay Jay” Okcha, Daniel Amokachi, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho have all followed his footsteps as footballers from Nigeria that made or are still making waves in England.
Young Elkanah while at Holy Ghost College in Owerri, the capital of Imo State, where his talent for the game first became apparent, reports has it that he was signed by the Port Harcourt Red Devils, a local team that rose to fame across the nation. His reputation was enhanced by many dazzling performances, including the 1958 domestic cup final, when Onyeali put on a sensational display as his team emerged victorious. A place in the national team followed shortly thereafter, and Onyeali began to thrill crowds at King George V Stadium in Lagos.
He even set a record by scoring four goals in one international game, a feat that has only been matched once by another Nigerian.
The country was then under British rule, and it wasn’t uncommon for young Nigerians to study in London and beyond. Onyeali was a dedicated pupil, and a desire for excellent qualifications brought him to Wirral in the summer of 1960. Elkanah studied electrical engineering at Birkenhead Technical College, and succeeding in that endeavour was very important to him. Still, he yearned to play football. Onyeali wanted a familiar pastime in an unfamiliar place. A taste of home, if you will, to smooth the cultural transition. After settling in Birkenhead, he wrote letters to Liverpool and Everton, famous clubs across the Mersey, asking for a trial.
However, it’s doubtful he knew about Tranmere Rovers, the hometown team, but they soon came forward with an invitation that couldn’t be refused.
It transpired, Rovers’ player-manager was keen to see what the lad could do, and Onyeali subsequently played in three reserve matches for Tranmere. The skilful forward impressed enough in his Cheshire League audition to earn a first team contract for the season ahead. Onyeali could only play part-time due to his studies, but the talent was undeniable. He would be Tranmere’s wildcard in Division Three.
This was a time of great progress and innovation for Rovers. Prenton Park hosted its first floodlit game in 1958. That same season, a club badge appeared for the first time, strictly on training tracksuits. A year later, Viktoria Berlin played a friendly in Birkenhead, becoming the first European team to do so. A man who appeared in more than 400 games for Everton, Farrell got Tranmere playing some swashbuckling stuff, and attendances soared to 11,815 on average, a club record. In every department, Rovers sought any edge possible in attracting new fans and raising their profile.
Bournemouth were the visitors for Onyeali’s first game, a crowd of 8,029 flocked to Prenton Park.
This was still a time of relative racial disharmony in Britain, with groups such as the Union Movement and White Defence League spreading hate. It was important to send a message that people of all creeds and backgrounds were welcome at Prenton Park, and all involved should be proud of what they achieved, from Onyeali himself to the executives and fans who made him feel so comfortable. Elkanah electrified the ground with searing pace and lethal shooting ability. Back home, he was known as Mercedes for his sports car-like speed. On his Rovers debut, Onyeali scored twice in a thrilling 4-3 victory that caused great excitement among townsfolk and newspaper cartoonists. Elkanah became an instant favourite with Rovers fans, who affectionately called him ‘Al’ for the sake of simplicity.
On that day against Bournemouth, Onyeali achieved something magical, something that deserves eternal appreciation. He became the first black player in Tranmere history. He also became the first non-British or Irish player to appear for Rovers. Records show that he was also just the second Nigerian to play professional football in Britain, and was among the very first waves of African footballers on these shores. That pioneering spirit is simply brilliant, and it opened the door to future generations, both at Tranmere and beyond.
His football life may have been shortened in England because of his hunger for education which reports has it made him leave England for USA.
As part of social responsibilities and to further immortalize the life and times of a rare gem in football circle, the Elkanah Onyeali Care Foundation will in the second edition of the Elkanah Onyeali Memorial Cup for all the Five Villages in Ihitte Mbieri, Mbaitoli LGA aim to rekindle his memories by inviting football scouts from Europe and America to identify talented footballers.
The competition Trumpeta Sports desk will commence this December at Ihitte Mbieri with fun fare.