SOME months back, I got a call from a top former soccer rep. He was disappointed with his district team's poor performances.
He told me he had been trying for long to get a shot at coaching the team but was not getting any positive feedback from the association officials.
The call was from Anirudh Singh and by the mention of his name, you will know I am talking about Nadroga.
Singh was a household name in the late 80s and 90s. He was part of that history-making Nadroga side that won the Inter-district Championship for the first time in 1988.
Singh and company, the likes of goalkeeper Jo Kurivitu, Abraham Watkins, Mesulame Titifanua, Waisea Tale, Bineshwar, Ramendra Dutt, Charles Work, Jese Morgan, Masi Natisiwai, Ilikimi Tulalevu and Radike Nawalu, were the feared lot in Fiji football back then. They were the team to beat. Traditional giants Ba and Nasinu were perhaps the only teams that would offer them any real competition.
In 1988 at the National Stadium, Work's well-placed effort in extra-time beat Nasinu goalkeeper Tagi Vonolagi and Nadroga announced its arrival on the winning podium by bagging the Lloyd Farebrother Trophy with a 1-0 win. That was only the beginning. The following year, under the leadership of Watkins, Nadroga went on to do a clean-sweep — winning the BOG, IDC and the league titles (there was no Fiji FACT or Champions League series back then).
In a space of six years, the side won seven trophies — the league in '89, 90 and 93, the BOG in '89 and '90 and IDC in '88 and 89.
Those were the days when the opposition, even the best of them, feared to take on Nadroga. The men from the Coral Coast team were ruthless. If they could not make it with the style and guile of Dutt, Work, Nawalu and Watkins then be rest assured that the aggression of Titifanua, Morgan, and ginger-haired Tulalevu would get the better of you.
That was then, this is now. Some weeks back, I was in Nadroga with my home team Navua. The visitors, with the danger of relegation hovering over their heads, were in a must-win situation. Just before the teams walked on to the field of play, someone called out "Tiger".
It was Watkins. He was referring to his good friend, Navua coach and former national rep Ramulo Kaibau.
The two met, had a few words and then it was down to business. Watkins was on the Nadroga bench as their mentor and Kaibau with Navua.
Navua proved too good on the day, winning 5-1. During the match, I watched Watkins cut a forlorn figure in the Nadroga technical area.
I really felt for him. This man, to me is a national icon. He skippered his district to their first-ever league, BOG and IDC titles and then went on to captain Fiji to that stunning 1-0 win over the Socceroos in 1988. He is the only player in the history of Fiji football to win the prestigious Fiji Sportsman of the Year Award. If anyone deserves the highest recognition and respect in this sport, it has to be Watkins. That's why it was sad to see him at the end of such a thrashing and talking about how "only seven to eight players have been turning up for training", the reason why he could not put together a formidable side.
His son Archie, named after his uncle who himself wasn't a bad player, but often found himself in trouble with the referees, is the go-to man for the minnows. Archie is a utility player, a good shooter, reads the game well and is an equally good finisher, especially in set-pieces with aerial balls.
When Archie is in the side, Nadroga is a threat. They have lost some really talented youngsters like Jonas Nacewa, Isikeli Jeke Keli and a few others but they keep coming back, mainly in tournaments.
Goalkeeping is a bit of a worry, so is their lack of threat upfront and someone needs to really take command in midfield. Levi Tawake is okay in goal but he needs to show more consistency with regular good performances. I am not sure who Abraham will use in mid-field but at times you wonder what Archie will be like if given the engine-room role, say, in a four-man midfield either as an attacking or holding central midfielder. Who knows, he could be a revelation? John Rounds Jr will probably lead the strike force but I am not too sure if they have enough depth on the bench.
It would be nice to see Singh, who was a development officer with Fiji FA and works very closely helping young children learn the art of football in his Cuvu area, drafted in alongside Abraham in future. They worked together and were winners, why not as coaches? That though is for Nadroga football to decide. For the IDC, if Nadroga prepares well and, more importantly, if all is well off the field with everyone united for the cause then I'd love to watch them take on Labasa and Lautoka. If they come fully motivated and Abraham gets his tactics right, the big two, or at least one of them, will surely feel the heat at Govind Park.