When Theophilus Afelokhai returned to Enyimba at the start of the season, there were concerns over his physical condition.
As a goalkeeper, agility and ease of movement are highly important. If you’re going to spend an entire game jumping, lunging, diving, falling and reacting, then your shape is not a light thing. Neither is your level of motivation, as it turns out.
There were suggestions among the fanbase that he no longer wanted to be at the club, that he was tired, that his heart wasn’t in it. On his day, he remains one of the finest in the country, but maybe that day had long since passed.
What made it worse was that the club, having started the season with three senior goalkeepers, added Ikechukwu Ezenwa into the mix. It looked then like it was the end of the road for Afelokhai at Enyimba. Then, it appeared the hierarchy would be: 1. Dauda 2. Ezenwa 3. Afelokhai. A long way down for a player who was once hailed as the best in the league in his position.
There are two big lessons I will highlight from our unexpected victory in Djoliba last weekend, it is that a team needs all of its components at some point. This is a lesson that applies not just to football teams, but in everyday life: you may feel marginalized at your job, you may feel as though you get passed over constantly.
There really is only one thing you can do, and that is be ready for when the opportunity presents itself. Because it will. Few expected to see Afelokhai on the teamsheet to start. Yet, when called upon, he produced a performance of great quality, and proved to be the savior for us on a number of occasions.
If you work hard enough at what you do for long enough, even if it seems like you’re not noticed, you will not be denied. Diligence is an underrated characteristic, and professionalism is an offshoot of it.
The second lesson is this: learn to take criticism on board. Medicine doesn’t taste good mostly. But you need it to get better. It is to Afelokhai’s credit that when he was spoken to regarding his physical condition and his training habits, he was humble enough to receive it. He made a decision to fight for a place, and that took a lot of bravery and maturity.
It is too often the case that our players, when criticized get defensive and feel insulted. Yes, we don’t all play the game. But some people are keen students of it, and follow it religiously. We may not have the unique perspective you have as a player, but that does not mean our observations are automatically irrelevant.
The irony is that a lot of the time, those who criticize you believe in you more than those who sing your praise endlessly. Criticism means: I believe that you have the potential to get better if you make this adjustment(s). Praise goes: you’re doing great just the way you are. The latter might make you feel better, but only the former will help you get better.