When Daniel Amokachi became the first African to play for Everton in August 1994, the euphoria that surrounded his £3million arrival hinted that he might be the biggest thing to pull on a blue shirt since Dixie Dean.
Previously without a significant black player in their ranks, Everton had been tarred with unsubstantiated accusations of racism within the club’s hierarchy and among its support. Yet the sheer scale of the Nigerian’s welcome put paid to any such suggestions for good, and although Amokachi failed to live up to the substantial expectations placed on his broad shoulders, most Evertonians will remember his two-year Goodison sojourn with fondness.
Born in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna in December 1972, after a spell with Ranchers Bees of his native Kaduna, Amokachi followed the traditional route of many young African footballers and moved to Belgium. Here, with labour restrictions on non-EU immigrants less strict, he was able to join the youth side of Club Bruges. By 18 he had moved up to the seniors after his trademark rampaging, attacking style impressed coaches.
Outstanding performances in the Belgian league and European competitions catapulted Amokachi, known as ‘The Bull’, to fame and several awards, including the Ebony Boot for Best African Player in Belgium. At the 1994 World Cup Finals in the US, his renown became global after a 25-yard goal against Greece was one of the tournament’s best: taking the ball just past the halfway line, he slalomed past four Greek defenders before letting fly with an unstoppable shot from the penalty area’s D.
HIS MOVE TO EVERTON just weeks later was meant to herald the onset of Peter Johnson’s Everton revolution after a hitherto frustrating summer in the transfer market. Big-money moves to bring in players such as Jurgen Klinsmann, Martin Dahlin and the Brazilian, Muller, had all collapsed, so Amokachi’s signing was not just greeted with elation, but relief, too.
Unable to play immediately due to work-permit restrictions, he had to wait a fortnight to make his debut, in a 3-0 defeat at Blackburn, but a goal on his home debut against QPR had Evertonians in raptures about a player who claimed he could run 100 metres in 10.1 seconds. Amokachi certainly had pace, but it became apparent that he lacked the spontaneity in front of goal to turn around the club’s worst ever start to a season. When Mike Walker was sacked in November, Amokachi figured in only the first of Joe Royle’s games as manager before a prolonged spell in the reserves.
Indeed, Royle, it seemed, did not rate Amokachi at first, even picking the hapless Brett Angell ahead of him. Part of the Nigerian’s problem was that he was not an out-and-out striker, nor was he a traditional target man. Instead his best position – the one he played for Nigeria – was as a deep-lying forward, operating in the so-called ‘hole’ behind a front man or forward pairing. But Royle had rebuilt Everton around a tight defence and compact midfield; put simply, there was no room for a luxury player like Amokachi.
Only when faced with an injury crisis in spring 1995 did Royle see fit to recall Amokachi and he was on the substitute’s bench when Everton faced Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup semi-final at Elland Road. On this day the forward entered Everton lore.
EVERTON WERE LEADING a closely fought contest 2-1 when, on 67 minutes, Paul Rideout picked up a knock and Amokachi was told to warm up. As he was about to be brought on, Les Helm, Everton’s physiotherapist, indicated to the bench that Rideout would be fine to continue. Amokachi either did not notice this – or pretended not to – and entered play before the Everton bench could stop him.
The game’s pivotal moment came fourteen minutes later when Neville Southall saved magnificently with his legs. What could have been 2-2 promptly became 3-1 as Southall’s clearance was manoeuvred upfield by Anders Limpar. Barry Horne’s lay-off was crossed to the far post where Amokachi met it with a downward header. Nine minutes later, Amokachi made Everton’s FA Cup Final place a certainty when he scored a second – and Everton’s fourth – following link-up play between Limpar and Gary Ablett.
Rehabilitated by his semi-final exploits, Amokachi was a second-half substitute in the FA Cup Final victory over Manchester United. Through the 1995/96 season the African showed glimpses of his potential, but was again noted more for his inconsistency in front of goal. Having signed only a three-year contract when he first joined the club, the onset of the ‘Bosman ruling’ meant that Everton were faced with the very real risk of losing him for nothing. When, in August 1996, Turkish side Besiktas made a £1.9million bid, Royle decided to cut Everton’s losses and sell the African. Amokachi left just days after scoring in the Olympic final against Argentina, adding an Olympic gold to his FA Cup winner’s medal.
In Turkey, Amokachi prospered at first, but after the 1998 World Cup Finals struggled with a persistent knee injury that brought his career to an end by his mid-twenties. Besiktas released him in 1999 and a multinational search for a club – that took in France, Germany, the US, Qatar and even Tranmere Rovers – yielded him nothing.
In his early thirties he became involved in the coaching set-up of the Nigerian national team, and would remain so for most of the next decade, serving as Stephen Keshi’s assistant and eventually serving as interim national coach in 2014-15.
There were also spells in charge of Nigerian clubs Nasarawa United (2006), Enyimba (2008) and Ifeanyi Ubah (2015). He later spoke of the difficulties of managing in Nigerian club football, telling the Observer in 2016 ‘to survive back home in Africa you have to be someone who kisses assess, and I’m not one of those’
For the 2016/17 season, Amokachi managed JS Hercules in the Finnish third tier, but the experience of managing a team with an annual budget of £100,000 was fraught with frustrations for the Nigerian amidst allegations that Finnish football was undermined by matchfixing and he returned to Nigeria at the end of the campaign. There followed a successful career in media punditry and as a footballing ambassador, but his sights remained on his national team.
‘I know that one day I’ll be the head coach of the Nigeria national team and I will take Nigerian football to a level nobody has taken them to before,’ he said in 2016. ‘They seem to have given everybody except me an opportunity but, by God’s grace, it will happen.’
Amokachi’s twin sons Nazim and Kalim were in the noughties part of the Everton youth academy, but left the club without being taken on as professionals.