With the upcoming Sports Journalists’ Awards ceremony just a month away, The Standard reached out to Gambian sports historian, football commentator and journalist extraordinaire, Tijan Masanneh Ceesay for some historical facts on some veterans that will be briefly profiled for a special magazine for the March 27 award gala. This interview is not only informative but also emotional as sports editor Lamin Cham convinced Tijan to open up on Gambian sports one more time. Enjoy:
The Standard: A new GFF executive has been elected and since you follow Gambian football, what can you say about their performance so far?
Tijan: I will be unfair to make any assessment of their performance. I am only a fan, and one from a distance. I believe the fans that work with them first hand are the ones to assess them. One of my former players at Roots FC Ebou Faye is a member and I have utmost confidence in his leadership because he is a Father Gough product. He knows that second best is not an option and I am confident he will do all in his power for the success of Gambian football.
The Standard: There are rumours circulating that your beloved Roots Football Club is about to come again. How true is this?
Tijan: That is correct. We are working to get Roots back on its feet. The Saint Augustines alumni that are scattered all over the globe have reached a consensus to reform the team. You see Roots has a very rich history just like Real de Banjul. Roots was a school boy team and we do not intend to let this history die out. In the 80’s, if you look at the great schoolboy internationals, Boy Badou Nyang, Aziz Corr, Sheikh Ndure, Gerry Gomez, Mustapha Minteh, James Freeman, Saul Faye and Ardi Fofana, they were all members of Roots. Now you do the mathematics yourself. Take the names I have mentioned out of a starting eleven and I bet you’ll agree with me, we do have a rich history.
The Standard: In your book, An Insiders’ Review of Gambian Football, you talked about the national team then with so much passion and emotion, what was so special about this group?
Tijan: Laughing! You see anywhere you had Goalkeeper Babou Saho (Ginae) at the time, there was joy and fun. Babou Saho brought the best out of everybody and also Bai Malleh Wadda. These two were the pranksters and they were responsible for the harmonious atmosphere we had. That team in particular, the 1984 one, always drove me extremely emotional. I was the “chat”, by the way a very troublesome one; and they never spared me whenever I proved naughty. They gave it to me real good and to this day Saho reminds me of an incident at Brikama where the team was camped preparing to play Ghana. We also had Father Laos who was the captain, a class act by every stretch of the word. Laos was the General and when he spoke every one listened. Alagie Njie Biri was the senior citizen and he too, played his part. Like I said in previous interviews, there never ever was any major problem amongst the players. It was one big family and looking back, credit must be given to the custodians of the team. The likes of Alhagie Housainou MM Njie, God bless his soul, Momodou M Dibba, Alhagie Omar Sey, Alhagie Ousman Bassi Conateh, Cherno Barra Touray, the late Soggie Sock, Alhagie Babou Cisse, Alhagie Mustapha Ngum, Alhagie Gabbie Sosseh, our Uncle Mr B.O Fofana, Omar Amadou Jallow OJ, Mayor James Furmose Gomez, George Furmose Gomez, Coach Macoumba Kabba Jallow, Mass Axi Gai and also the medic, BB Makalo. All of these men deserve a place in the Gambian football hall of fame. They built the fort, held the fort and passed it on. This cannot and will never be disputed. Their work from those years is what has translated to the Papa Gassamas of today and we should be proud of them.
The Standard: You are on record calling Momodou M Dibba, the current head of the National Olympic Committee the best secretary general ever of Gambian football. Quite a statement, can you elaborate?
TIjan: I will always stand by this statement. You see Momodou Dibba assumed a half baked cake if you like and he finished it off by putting the icing on it before serving it. When Gambian football was undergoing the revolutionary transition with Dr Ebrima Malick Samba at the helm, the task was a huge burden from the word go. In just a year, Dr Samba and Anthony LR Blain had to put the structures in place and hand over to a new association which Momodou Dibba served as secretary general thus making him the chief operating officer. From the word go, it was another difficult task for him. This is where we saw his unique organisational and administrative skills. Not only did he took the football association out of that crisis situation, but he also put in place mechanisms that allowed the game to grow outside Banjul. He was the master communicator and also a strict disciplinarian who never once compromised his strong values. He led with grace and class and for generations to come, he is the man that transformed the administration of football in The Gambia. In summary, he earned international respect for the way Gambian football was being run at the time. There is absolutely no match in my book!
The Standard: Alhagie OB Conateh, you worked with him, what can you tell us about him back in the day?
Tijan: I called him a football junkie and Mr Football. Let me tell you how much this man loved football and his dear Wallidan. Wallidan was in a big final against Starlight and it was a rare loss at the time. Daddy, as we fondly called him had just gotten his brand new Mercedes Benz (GO 8100) and had driven to the game. Now the story continues that he totally forgot his car at the park and walked home because of the loss to Starlight. When he got home of course mad, Aunty Ndey our mother, his lovely wife, asked if he’d love steak for dinner. Daddy said: “No No No, give me mburu ak sardines. Fact or fiction, this should tell you how much he loved football. He has done so much for the development of the game and I honestly think no one can match him. I had a close working football relationship with him outside of the father-son relationship. I remember returning from Freetown in 1984 and convincing him to sponsor the first football daily in the history of Zone Two Football, which he graciously did without even thinking about any financial risks. Thank God, the project to this day stands by itself! He was a respected figure in African football and served in the West African Football Union (WAFU) at the time. A gentleman of the tallest order who would do anything for The Gambia and Gambian sports.
The Standard: You mentioned Papa Gassama, what do you have to say about his accomplishments?
Tijan: Indeed a sense of national pride. The fellow I think should be a model for young Gambians. He has demonstrated that determination and commitment are the keys to success. Watching him in Brazil, I concluded he was among the top three in the world. While they may have never reached this level, lest we forget, Gambian referees have always been the pride of Gambian football at continental level in the 80’s. Dodou Njie Barracks was the first ranked Gambian referee and the likes of Alagie Gailoub Faye, Seydou Sowe, Osseh Obrien Coker, the late Uncle Badou Jasseh and Modou Sowe were also held in high regards. Papa Gassama took off from where they left off and ran with it. It’s great for Gambian referees and hopefully, this personal triumph can translate to our national teams.
The Standard: The greatest rivalry in Gambian football is between Real and Wallidan. Who do you think have more wins?
Tijan: I hope you are not putting on the spot here! Well I can’t comment on what happened after 1985, but during the time I covered Gambian football, I can say Wallidan had more wins over Real. It’s not even close. Then Wallidan was the best team. Financially they were up there and the talent level too was not comparable. We must also in Real’s defense mention that no other team went through and survived the experienced they went through. In 1975 they lost nine players out of their starting eleven either by way of the newly formed Ports Authority or overseas travel. So for them to have been able to be competitive, let alone be one of the top teams, was a significant achievement on their part. One thing that is certain is that Real de Banjul in the 70’s transformed the way Gambian football was played. Ball possession, space passing and collective football were what they were known for. The beauty of seeing Yusupha Sibi the general directing the Real midfield alongside Saihou Sarr and Musa Njie, is unimaginable and I don’t think we will ever see a midfield trio as prolific as they were. Nyanga Sallah, Kebba Diaz and Badou Foon all knew how to put the ball behind the net with ease. Real de Banjul is really one of the most all time successful teams in Gambian football history and I am so delighted that the tradition is continuing.
The Standard: By position can you tell us who you think were the best?
Tijan: That’s a tricky question. I don’t think I am able to do so. We had so much talent back in the day and I believe the one consensus every Gambian football fan at the time agreed on was the fact that Biri Biri is the best that ever played the game and I will leave it at that.
The Standard: But can you just give it an attempt?
Tijan: Great, you see my mentor Fr Joseph Gough use to tell me that, people who don’t make an effort are the ones that never make mistakes. The question is one that entertains different views and opinions based on how every fan evaluated the players at the time. Now since you have insisted, I will try. My all time best Gambian goalie is Kebba Masaneh Ceesay. He was quite a smart keeper and use his intelligence very well. Lamin Owens ( Lor def bah na) is the best sweeper. His skills set was rare for that position. Baboucarr Baha Edakarr is the best attacking full back in my book. He was physical, big, strong and great player in the air. Garba Touray and Commy Owens are the best half backs ever. They changed the way that position was played before them. Baboucarr Sowe, Laos, Saihou Sarr and Sherrif Jobe are my candidates for top midfielders. Essa Faye is by far the best right winger ever, of course no one will question Biri being the best centre forward. Saul Samba is always my candidate for the best left winger, he was fearless and was skillful. If you will allow me, this is also my all time Gambian eleven. Mind you, there are notables that should be mentioned here that for others could have been starters, Bai Malleh Wadda, Aziz Corr, Tony Joiner, Dodou Saine, Sang Ndong, Babou Saho, Lie Ndure, Ndow Njie, Ebou Kah (EK), Joe Tennis Gomez, Eduard Manga, Charlie Boy and Boy Corr. I will recommend you follow up with my mentor, the football encyclopedia, Pap Saine and see what he has.
The Standard: Tijan Masanneh thanks for sharing the past on Gambian football. You are an inspiring source of information for young sports journalists of today. I am again grateful to you for agreeing to share your knowledge on Gambian football. We surely will get back to you for more information; our readers are always impressed with you. Thank you very much.