Ilechukwu, 43, fondly called the ‘working coach’, joined the Jos-based club in August 2021 and has led them in a 10-match unbeaten streak that sees them just a point behind league leaders, Rivers United.
In their last match against Enyimba; fans chanted his name at the Enyimba International Stadium, seeking for him to come and coach the Elephants.
The former MFM gaffer (he was there for 13 years) spoke with Premium Times about his new environment, fans, and expectations for the season.
PT: How did you see the environment, Jos, the team when you joined?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: Jos people are very good people. They are caring you know and they have very great fans. One of the best fans in Nigeria as far as football is concerned. The support we get from fans is massive and the management, the excellency, Governor Lalong, have been the pillar of the team. We’ve got all that we need to succeed. The environment is fantastic and I’m happy about it.
PT: Some said the reason you joined Plateau United from Heartland was that you were owed wages, how true is that?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: It is not only that I’m owed salaries by Heartland; more importantly about me is that I have a lot of patience while working in any place even if you want to owe me I don’t have any issue with that but owing my players…
If my players aren’t comfortable working, it’s a problem. At a time, players refused to train, and because they don’t pay them and it’s affecting me mentally, psychologically and winning games was very difficult. The first thing I did was to find a way and work around the challenges, the results, and other things that are not good for you.
PT; There is a particular story that says that you are still owed salaries by Heartland, how true is that?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: Heartland have not paid me [he had earlier revealed is owed about N11 million]. I don’t want to talk about them because I said I won’t talk about them again but you cannot find grace.
The kind of challenges we faced to remove Heartland from relegation you won’t understand, it must be beyond physical human being to do all that job in that place and work under that condition and you want me to beg before you pay me when you paid other people? For me it is witchcraft character, it is wickedness but I just leave things like that and concentrate on the present, that’s important to me.
PT: Assess the squad you have in Plateau United?
Fidelis Ilechukw: In Plateau United, we have a lot of young players and when you have young players you have the challenges of converting chances but most importantly, the boys are disciplined, very important. They create a lot of chances and score few. You keep on telling them gradually.
They are not the kind of team you put under pressure because if you do that they will run away from trying to do it so that you will not blame them. All they need is encouragement. We don’t have top-class players in that attack but at least we have young players who are ready to learn and work hard all the time.
So my assessment is that the squad is very strong, young, elegant, moving the ball fast, at least the intensity of the training sessions and matches is very high, and this is what is good for the team. We have a good squad.
PT: Coach, your team is one of the teams that has conceded the least in the league; how do you manage to keep your defence compact? Despite the pressure you’ve been able to stand strong, your game against Enyimba for example, how did you change their psychology?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: First of all, after losing our game to Wikki Tourists, we decided that this time around we won’t play home game 4-3-3 formation while we come away, we play 4-5-1 because tactically we’ve started defending from day one in away games.
We decided that the same formation we used in away, we are going to use in the home, tactically in that situation we are telling them they must go out and score. Everywhere is our home, we don’t have home, we don’t have away, we will come out on you no matter who you are. If we come out, if we see a point fine, if we don’t see we go home and work. These are things we understand now.
Another thing is, as a coach when you finish the first half of the game and you go inside the dressing room, most of the things you need to do is motivate them. You need to ‘psyche’ them up, you need to tell them that they can do better in all they have done for you. For them to go outside, they need to fight and create chances, you need to block where the opponent is attacking from, by doing that with their youthfulness believe me it will be better for you.
PT: So far this season you’ve won all your matches at the New Jos Stadium. Is there something you do to your boys because 100% record at home is remarkable, how have you been able to achieve this?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: You know the method we inject in our team, especially our pre-match talk is superb. That morning you already know the team is prepared from the pre-match talk. The preparation is superb, the kind of thing we discuss in pre-match talk, if any player discusses that, believe me, such a player will be ready to give his best.
So it’s not like other pre-match talks, we have an inter-reflection during the pre-match talk where we know the strength and weaknesses of the opponent then we know our strengths and weakness, and then prepare on how to fight.
It has not been easy winning all the matches at home, our last game against Katsina United, it was so tough that we scored around 92/93rd minute. Do you know what it means?
It’s a sign that we also face challenges. It hasn’t been easy at any given time. We never give up, we still believe that at 90 minutes we can still score goals. All this is the advantage we have. There is no pressure when the team isn’t doing well during the game, what we do tell them is you can do better and we believe in you and that’s the reason we give you this jersey.
PT; You have the likes of Mohammed Zulkilful, Izuchukwu Chimezie, and Sunday Anthony who have scored more than three goals each this season, how do you manage them against injury, and do they have the same abilities?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: Most important thing is that we have a medical team, sound and they understand sports injury. First of all, you must listen to doctors, you must take their advice.
What we try to do in training sessions is to determine the pairing of each player, merging players, we need to understand the players that understand themselves. You need to understand one player’s fatigue standing. You need to rest the players a little. You bring in some in the second half or dying minutes of the game when others are tired.
These are the things that make you a super coach because some of them will likely not come to you and talk because they want traveling allowance, they want match bonus, you need to watch deeply inside your team and understand when the body is telling the player that, I need a little rest.
In our team, our training is a competition if you don’t make the 20-man list of Plateau United out of their low performance. You can only be out of the 20-man list if you have an injury or we are resting, out of that condition, if you are not on that list you have yourself to blame. Everybody is fighting day-in and day-out.
It is a place of no sentiment of any type, everybody even fans will come and watch training sessions, most times management will come and watch training sessions. They understand that on the day of the lineup and 20-man list they will say that this coach and these coaches tried their best. What you saw in the training is what you will see in the match also.
PT: About your game against Sunshine Stars, what should we be expecting?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: Sunshine Stars, they are youngsters with a good coach. They have quality players. Believe me, I know their players. I have some players who played with me in Heartland, I know as a Lagosian, I know the team very well, they are a fantastic team.
I watched their game against Rivers United, I’ve also watched their highlights against Akwa United, all those two highlights are superb. There is no small team in the NPFL. If you are careless or kind of looking down on any team because your team is doing well, you have yourself to blame. They are top players. They are young players and that’s the most important thing.
PT: Is Plateau United thinking of bringing new legs during the mid-season?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: Yes we are on that, trying to get 1-3 players. It is very important we do that because you know when you’re working in a place, you need to know some of your players who are going to travel abroad.
All we have done now, there are few players training with us for me to create space for them. So we are watching, we are working, hoping that maybe by next week we will do one or two deals.
PT; You are second on the table, behind Rivers United, how can you keep fighting for the top place in the league?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: This is a tough question. Rivers United are one of the best in Nigeria now, whether you like it or not. They have only lost one game in the league which was against Plateau United.
That will show you the strength of the team, management, and the coach. It will show you the capacity, ability, and quality. They have top players, comparing Rivers United to Plateau United is not going to be good. They are fighting most for the title because they have experienced players but we have a lot of young players but at the same time we are not giving up.
I’m not going to put my team under pressure for the league title. Plateau United have tasted the league. We were league champions last five years if I’m not mistaken, 2017 or so. We don’t want to behave as if we have not won it before, we know our capacity as well.
We are working to make sure I run away from relegation on time and my team won’t be struggling. My boys have done a massive job, they have worked seriously. I don’t want to say I want to win the league, by all means, saying that will put the team under pressure but what we are saying is we are a very hardworking team and we keep on working hard.
At the end of the day, if the trophy smiled at us why not, we go for it. If it goes another way around, there is no problem, we have other seasons to go for the title.
PT: When you visited Aba for the Enyimba game, some fans were calling you to come around to the club; if you get an offer from Enyimba, will you leave Plateau United for Enyimba?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: The truth is we need to address coming to Enyimba because they have a coach right now. Finidi George is a top coach, ex-international, I have respect for him. A good fan or fans must support their team in times of challenges.
If they can’t support Finidi in time like this, believe me, if Ilechukwu goes there and has the same kind of challenges they will not support him tomorrow, that’s the character of the fans. I’m the Plateau United coach and you can’t wake up overnight to be Enyimba coach, it’s not possible in football.
Everything has a process, Enyimba is a team everybody wants to be with because of their antecedents in the Nigerian league. But this is the time the team needs the fans so much, so they should support Finidi George.
PT: Fidelis Ilechukwu, do you see yourself coaching the Super Eagles anytime in the future?
Fidelis Ilechukwu: Why not? Right now I’m still the youngest coach in the Nigerian Premier League, I don’t know as much. I’m not getting any younger anymore but the most important thing is to support the person there now, it is turn by turn.
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