AfricaSports

Villain to hero inside two weeks – Nigeria coach Randy Waldrum’s having the last laugh

With just days to the start of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Super Falcons coach Randy Waldrum was one board member away from being fired by Nigeria’s football federation. Instead, he’s led the team to the round of 16.

After an explosive interview with On the Whistle podcast in which he laid into his employers, the American coach endured a stinging rebuke from the federation, with its spokesman Ademola Olajire labeling him an “incompetent loudmouth”.

What a difference a month, and great results make. Three games, one win, two draws against the Olympic champions and the hosts, a place in the World Cup round of 16, with a first ever unbeaten group stage performance in the World Cup, and things are certainly looking much better for Waldrum.

With just days to the start of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Super Falcons coach Randy Waldrum was one board member away from being fired by Nigeria’s football federation. Instead, he’s led the team to the round of 16.

After an explosive interview with On the Whistle podcast in which he laid into his employers, the American coach endured a stinging rebuke from the federation, with its spokesman Ademola Olajire labeling him an “incompetent loudmouth”.

What a difference a month, and great results make. Three games, one win, two draws against the Olympic champions and the hosts, a place in the World Cup round of 16, with a first ever unbeaten group stage performance in the World Cup, and things are certainly looking much better for Waldrum.

To the point where his son, Ben Waldrum, was trolling the NFF with a post on Facebook saying, “Congratulations Mr Blabbermouth”.

Waldrum is now being celebrated by football fans across the country for leading Nigeria to the World Cup knockouts. Admittedly, it is for the third time in nine appearances, but Waldrum did what no other coach before him has managed before — avoid defeat in group play.

Even better, he did so by conceding only twice, the lowest goals allowed by the Super Falcons in all their previous World Cup appearances.

None of that happened by accident. Waldrum has had to weather some serious headwinds to get here, some self-inflicted, but the results are doing the talking. From going on a seven game losing streak, friendly wins over Costa Rica, Haiti, New Zealand and the three World Cup games means the Super Falcons are now unbeaten in six, a first time for them outside of Africa.

Nigeria has always played with attacking verve, sometimes in a madcap fashion which left exploitable holes in their rear large enough to ram a cruise ship through. When former NFF president Amaju Pinnick was looking for a new coach, his preference was for a foreign coach, the reason being he wanted someone who could get some discipline into the side that local coaches had failed to do.

In came Thomas Dennerby, and then Waldrum.

But the American did not get off to the most auspicious of starts, losing game after game to the point where he was derisively referred to as ‘007’ after losing seven games on the bounce. Even worse, he not only failed to win the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON), his team lost three games, including two consecutively to Morocco and Zambia.

There were many who wanted his head on a spike, especially when he stirred controversy by leaving veteran midfielder Ngozi Okobi out of the World Cup squad. The only reason he wasn’t sacked was because the tournament was too close, and a broke NFF were not about to risk getting into the quagmire of paying any contractual penalty fees.
On that last score, Waldrum finally gave them the perfect out with that interview, where he criticized the NFF for everything from owing player bonuses, to bungling World Cup preparations, through owing him 14 months wages and finally tossing out a veiled corruption allegation by asking what they had done with nearly $1m of FIFA preparation funds.

The NFF fired back through Olajire, and the relationship instantly went from cold to pure ice, with neither side talking directly to each other. A hasty conversation was held by the NFF leadership, the decision was made to fire him, and a letter to that effect was immediately drafted and sent to NFF President Ibrahim Gusau to sign.

In stepped Aisha Falode, former head of the Nigeria women’s league, and a member of the NFF board. Falode used a huge chunk of her political capital to pull strings in government and save Waldrum’s job.

“She worked really hard,” an NFF official told ESPN. “She called people in government, and convinced them that Randy should be given another chance. She also spoke to other board members and the NFF president and persuaded them to let him stay.”

It worked. Randy, who had already arrived in Australia but left his bags unpacked for nearly a week fully expecting to fly back home, got a reprieve. That reprieve came with the caveat that he shut it and focus on football.
Focus he did. On building a team based on solid defensive foundations, even with the loss of his trusted assistant Lauren Gregg, whom the NFF had kicked out in retaliation, leading to her giving a tearful interview just before the tournament kicked off.

In her place, up stepped Terry Eguaoje, a US Soccer coach and instructor who was seconded to the team from the Super Eagles by the NFF after the WAFCON debacle. Eguaoje, a Pittsburgh resident like Waldrum, has become the coach’s defacto Number One. His arrival last year coincided with the beginning of the reversal of that seven match losing run, and Eguaoje says the devil is in the details.

“There were changes that needed to be made,” he told ESPN. “You could see that whenever Randy spent time with the team, the players performed better. Look at the second of the two friendly games they played against Canada and the USA and how much better they did than the first game. Those little changes were important.

“Other coaches may have done it before, but what Randy has done is to have specific detailed plans for attacking, defending and transitions for each opponent. Not just to have it in the head, but detailed documentation with specific roles and responsibilities for each player on what they need to do during the game and for each group of players, in midfield, attack and defence.

“We also had a clear plan of being defensively disciplined, and keeping our shape, even if that meant allowing the opposition to have more of the ball.”

Waldrum, who showed a complete disregard for public opinion by dropping star player Asisat Oshoala after an underwhelming performance against Canada, said two things stood out to drive the team to success.

“The first thing is the chemistry and the bond we have,” he told the media. “You heard Asisat speak after the Australia game, she said it’s not about whether she plays for 90 minutes or not, she’s going to give her best no matter how long she has on the field.

“She also very quickly complimented her team-mates and the effort of the team. She gave them the credit even though she scored such a big goal for us. That’s the attitude all of our players have.

“The other thing that really impresses me is the fight this team has. It’s one thing to have talent and have a good team, but there’s something to be said about your heart and what’s inside you. That’s innate and it’s part of their DNA.

“Against Australia, it would have been easy to have folded after going a goal down late in the first half, yet we came back and got the equaliser before the break. This team’s resolve, competitiveness and fight has been nothing short of amazing.”

After the loss to the USWNT last September, Waldrum acknowledged that although the losses did not look good, it was part of his building process.

“Look at the teams we have played, Japan, Canada, USA, they are the best teams in the world,” he told ESPN at the time.

“I don’t put a lot of weight into what everybody outside says or the results in some games where we know that half of those games we have not had our team together. Our goal is to go to the World Cup and do better than we have done before.

“I’m proud of the development we are making and I think the fans will be proud of the performance in the World Cup.”

That has now proven prophetic. Success means the temperature in the room has risen enough to melt some of the ice, so much so that some officials have backtracked on the idea of pushing Waldrum out after the World Cup.

“When somebody has done well, you cannot be talking about that,” NFF Vice President Felix Anyansi-Agwu said. “Let us finish the World Cup first and then we see what happens.”

Another official, who did not want to be named, acknowledged that while the coach would still be let go after the World Cup, where he was definitely going to be pushed, they are now open to the idea of just letting him jump.

“Nobody expects him to remain after the World Cup, even if he is not sacked, he will go on his own. But after what he has done, I think we will just let him resign by himself, so he can go with dignity,” the official said.

Irrespective of what happens against England, and however he leaves, Randy Waldrum, who has taken his fair share of flak on this job, would take that walk with his head held high.
-ESPN-

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