Sunday, 23 February 2014
Didi Dramani aims to set the pace with his pursuit of perfection
By Fiifi Anaman
BABA YARA STADIUM, Kumasi - Mas-Ud Didi Dramani is standing in the middle of the pitch on a warm Saturday morning, surrounded by his players. They are practicing, and he’s observing intently, barking orders in between. His concentration is noticeably engrossing, his gaze philosophical. There’s a peculiar sense of an obsession with being meticulous: he wants everything to be perfect, and he signals them to repeat every drill if he notices the slightest compromise.
Every section of the multi-layered practice after the basic warm ups is an in-game situation – corner routines, counter attacks, crossing across goal, headers, shooting from range, building attacks.
“Have you noticed?” asks Frederick Fosu, a guy everyone affectionately refers to as ‘Motor’, a trusted right hand man and friend of the coach for 12 years. Motor is a football boot dealer popular amongst the players with his supplies too. “You see how everything is something that can happen in a game? That’s how Didi loves his sessions. For him, amidst all the obsession to use ‘ways and means’ to win games here in Ghana, he believes a serious training session is the best ‘juju’,” he adds, staring at the players as they exert themselves diligently on the pitch.
“Didi..you see, Didi is different,” Motor says. “I’ve never seen a coach so serious with his job, so passionate. Do you know? He barely manages two hours of sleep per night. He’s always up reading, thinking. He eats only three days in the week, and uses the remaining four to fast.” Motor has been Didi’s friend since he retired as a footballer, through his meteoric rise as a coach.
“I’ve been with him all these years and every day I learn something new about him. I know, and you can mark this; Didi will become the first Ghanaian coach to manage a top European side. I’ve watched him all these years and I’m convinced.”
After the training session, and the mandatory group prayer, Didi asks the players to greet each other. The sweaty players players undertake an orderly handshake session, amidst laughs and friendly pats.
Didi is already heading towards his car to change, and as he makes his way, he comes across defender Abeiku Ainooson, who is gleefully dancing amidst children who are singing his name. ‘Abeiku woy3 champion!’.
“Look at him!” Didi lets out a loud, warm laugh lined with fascination.
The children are happy, and he is too. It is a reflection of the paradoxical beauty of his training session. The training session is serious, but it is also done amidst a congenial atmosphere.
Didi is a confident coach who is very self-assured and articulate when speaking about football, a sort of demeanor that anybody could easily mistake for arrogance. He looks peculiarly fit, away from the stereotypical coach-look, with a well-trimmed body acquired from his years as a footballer. He played from 1989 to his retirement in 2002, for RTU, Ebusua Dwarfs and back at RTU till he retired in 2000. “I could play anywhere on the pitch,” he says. “But I played as a striker before I finally became a center back. I was quiet deadly,” he laughs. “People who really know me still call me ‘gomash’! [Goal machine]"
A year after retiring Didi enrolled at the University of Education in Winneba in his quest to earn a degree and a life after football. But during one vacation, in 2002, he stumbled across his first coaching course. “I had actually gone there with the mind of applying to study football administration. But the late George Dasobre, who had known my father during their numerous coaching course back in the days, aw me there and asked why I wasn’t joining the coaching training to try out. So I made up my mind, and luckily, being the sportsman that I am, I was wearing a shirt and my sports gear beneath my shirt and trousers so I just changed immediately and joined.”
The rest they always say, is history. Dramani has since undergone numerous courses and has been propelled immensely by his voracious appetite for knowledge through a speedy rise that is rare for most coaches. Within a few years of his first course, at which he topped with high marks with every single course, he went from student to teacher, becoming a coaching instructor.
This included topping a class of 40 in CAF’s first ever license C course organized in 2007. That feat earned him the nomination of the technical directorate of the GFA to travel to Germany to study with the likes of Maxwell Konadu, Ben Fokuo and Shaibu Tanko the following year. “I was riding my motorbike somewhere in Tamale when I got the call that I had been selected,” he remembers with nostalgia.
There, in Deutschland, he earned a DFB license B (an equivalent of UEFA’s licence B) after three weeks, and earned the chance to follow up with a coveted A license in 2009.
In between his giant exploits in the classroom, Didi had an idea. “For me coaching is all about imagination and ideas,” he says. He formed his own team in his father’s hometown in Lepo, Tamale, which he says was to help him experiment his coaching ideas. The team, initially known as Lepo Stars, is no known as Guan Stars. “I wanted to test everything I read, everything I learnt. I wanted to use them to learn and explore so many things.” Guan Stars has since become a well-known team in Tamale, and has fulfilled Didi’s core philosophy of “developing young footballers to the best of their ability” with the production of many players.
After his DFB A license, tragedy struck. His father, George Dramani, whom he considered one of the great pillars in his life, passed away after an unsuccessful surgery. He had been a former coach himself. “We were very close,” Didi reflects. “He was my friend, and we talked every day. He was proud of me I remember one time he saw me engaged in one of my numerous training sessions and he called me aside and told me, “This is just like the Europeans train.’ He told me I would coach the National team one day
The set-back hit even harder. “I remember after the funeral, I talked with Oti Akenteng. And I told him I didn’t have anyone to support me anymore. As soon as I said that that day, I shed tears. But he encouraged me to push on.
“At that time, I was scouting for the Black Queens and other national teams whilst my dad was in the hospital. I remember I’d visit him regularly and leave for assignments. I was on one such assignments in Tamale when I received the call that he had died.”
After all that dark episode, he was finally given the opportunity to understudy coach AK Adusei when he (Adusei) was named the head coach of the Black Queens. Didi remembers working beyond himself to earn the trust and confidence of the senior Adusei, who was a veteran working with a relatively inexperienced assistant. In fact, Adusei had scouted a young Didi from colts level as a footballer for RTU in the late 80s.
“He didn’t know I had grown t that level as a coach,” Didi smiles. “When we started working he didn’t open up much. Even warm-ups he did it himself. But I took my time. I was a good student. I did things that would make him give me the chance to learn more. One day he came late for a session and he saw that I had done a good job. He was impressed, and called me and said, ‘Ok, I’ll give you 30 minutes more to do whatever you want with the girls’. I made sure I took the opportunity. He saw so many things that I believe he had not seen because I was very modern within those 30 minutes.”
Didi says his time understudying Adusei was pivotal for him, as he learnt so many things from the man. “Especially his disciplinary measures, how he composes himself on the bench, how he handles his players, his attitude towards outsiders…so many things. I also learnt never to undermine my head coach.”
In the end, Didi’s propensity to learn and adapt quickly helped him earn the confidence of Adusei. “He became confident in me and gave me more minutes.” He worked hard, writing reports and engaging himself in every activity. “There was a time he went for a two week regional tour and I was left alone with the girls. When he came back he was very impressed because the standard had risen.”
The duo qualified Ghana for the 2010 African Women’s Championship, where they unfortunately fell four points short of qualifying out of the group phase after one win and two losses.
His hard work nonetheless didn’t go unseen. During his time with the Queens, Didi did some scouting work on the side for Right to Dream Academy. “They always wanted me to come to their facilities in Akosombo to see how the players I had scouted were doing,” he remembers. “One day, I decided to go. I was asked to meet them at Tema Roundabout so they take me there. Before I went, I just told myself to prepare ahead. I prepared three session-plans; one for Under 12, another for under 14s and one for under 17s. I was then in camp with the Queens when I did it. I did that because you never know what they might ask me to do.”
Indeed, they ended up asking him to do exactly that. And as is very characteristic of him, he was prepared to fire. Didi put his plan into action once he was asked to show them his coaching skills, and he oversaw all three sessions, to which the handlers of the team were left surprised by his depth of knowledge. “On my way back, the head [Tom Vernon] kept asking me questions upon questions about tactics and others. And I kept answering and enjoying the conversation not knowing it was actually an interview.”
After it all, Didi got a call the following day. Tom Vernon wanted to meet him at Holiday Inn Hotel at Airport Area, Accra. He had been impressed with his knowledge and versatility; his wholesome approach and enthusiastic, hard working attitude. There, Didi got his first real professional contract that his career trajectory deserved; a two-year deal with a Ghc 10,000 signing-on fee and a monthly remuneration of Ghc 3000.
“He put the contract on a pen drive for me to go and edit,” Didi is smiling when he recalls this, a giant leap in his fledgling career. “You can understand why some of us don’t panic when we see white men (coaches), because we also know our worth.”
Just over a year into that contract, Didi saw a rare opening to realize his father’s dream of coaching a National team. The GFA had advertised coaching openings across the various national teams, except the Black Stars, and he made a general application. “The Black Stars slot wasn’t opened but I would have applied for that as well!” he says. “I’m more that qualified to be there.”
He was called for an interview, which turned out to be a mere formality. He went before the panel as a heavy-weight, armed with every qualification conceivable and with an enviable pedigree as a respected instructor after two courses of lecturing in Egypt and Morocco.
Having expectedly passed the interview, he was handed the National Under 17 Women’s team (The Black Maidens), and was tasked with drawing a plan for women’s football from the grassroots. He drew a comprehensive six-year plan, which propounded that the girls would go through a well organized development system through all the various levels; from Under 17 through to Under 20, and play for the Queens when they are around 21 to 22 years old.
“I wanted our women’s football to undergo a smooth flow,” he says. “Because when I was with the Queens there were no players. We used the same players over and over because there was no girls coming through. We would just call players to come and play. There was no league or anything of that sort.”
A year after taking on the job, he led the team to win Ghana’s first ever medal in a Women’s World Cup when his team of determined girls thrilled the world with some exciting football to claim bronze medals at the Under 17 World Cup in Azerbaijan. “We could have done better,” he says, his tone reflecting that noticeable extra edge for perfection despite the history made.
Didi, along with most of the coaches of the various national sides, were only paid in the first two to three months of their tenures, and weren’t paid salaries afterwards due to financial difficulties at the FA. “It was difficult for me because I had left the Right to Dream Academy then to concentrate on the job. It made life very difficult for me because you know some of us are the bread winners of our family.” Didi has been married since 2001, and has five children.
“But it was a learning stage. They come in human life.”
Luckily for Didi, as has been the case for most of his career, his hard work was selling him on the quiet. A giant club in the Ghanaian top flight had noticed, and they wanted him on board. That club was Kotoko. “I didn’t go looking for the Kotoko job,” he reveals. “It came looking for me. And I believe that’s how it should be. Your job will have to speak for itself. I don’t think that Daddy Lumba goes around telling people to go buy his Cds. As soon as he comes out with an album, they come to buy.”
Sometime during his tenure with the Maidens, before we left for the World Cup, he got a strange call whilst asleep, after a hard day's work instructing at a license B course. ‘I’m Dr [KK] Sarpong,’ the person said from behind the other line. ‘The Kotoko chairman.’
“I was like oh, yes sir,” Didi recalls. “He said ‘I want you to come and coach Kotoko’, and I said, okay, I’ve heard, if only you would contract me. And that was it.” Didi reckons that call might've come out of recommendations from people who knew him and had seen his work, most notably CK Akunnor and Maxwell Konadu.
The following day, Dr Sarpong was before Didi in his classroom to talk, after Ben Koufie had introduced them. “I was meeting him [Dr Sarpong] for the first time.” Didi confesses.
Didi was offered the contract, succeeding his friend Konadu, who was departing to assist Kwesi Appiah as Black Stars coach after winning the 2012 Ghana Premier League for Kotoko. But before getting to business, he had the World Cup to take care of. “The Kotoko guys teased that I would be eliminated early so I come to the job early,” he laughs. “But I was like ‘No way’. I’ll do well.”
After the World Cup, Didi returned to lead Kotoko to defend their league title, after taking charge of 28 games. He won the Ghana Premier League on his first attempt as a coach in his rookie season in the top flight. Despite this, Didi wasn’t overwhelmed by the significance of the achievement. “I don’t think the Premier League is something so special. Because most of the players there are players that I have handled at youth level at different levels,” he shrugs.
It wasn’t as easy, though. Haven’t failed to undergo preseason with the squad, the title winning mentality took a long time to kick in. And new players had come in to, about 17 or them, he says. Kotoko finished the season with 14 draws, 12 of them Didi oversaw. But luckily for the team, their time used in warming up for the title wasn’t capitalized on by their inconsistent competitors.
During the season, there were numerous calls for his head, with fans booing him and condescendingly referring to him as a “coach for women” after a home game with King Faisal last season. “I was never worried, and everyone was surprised, because most people at the club were worried,” he says. “I’ve never allowed myself to be under pressure. It’s football. And I made people understand that our underwhelming performance was due to so many factors.”
From the brink of the sack, Didi masterminded a comeback. Kotoko ended up sealing their 22nd league crown losing only two games, as well as going all the way to the FA Cup final, where they lost 1-0 to Medeama after scoring 17 goals in five games in some devastating form. There was also a brief run in the CAF Champions League that saw them eliminated after four games; two wins two draws and nine goals scored.
After surviving another much publicized attempt to sack him in preseason, amidst administrative chaos at the club, Didi is now in his second season with Kotoko, and after 15 matches, is seven points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand. He won six straight games at the beginning of the season, which was part of a much bigger streak that began from the tail end of last season and spanned 20 games without defeat, 21 if their 3-0 revenge thrashing of Medeama in the Super Cup is considered.
Asked what has changed, Didi says the reasons he gave for the poor form early last season have been corrected, and everyone is seeing the results.
At his point, Didi, who is currently a senior CAF coaching instructor, signals that it’s time to go. The interview has run for close to an hour and he has to go for a meeting with his video analyst ahead of Kotoko’s Champions League opener against Liberian champions Barack Young Controllers (BYC).
“I’m always working,” he says. “I don’t recall a time in my coaching life that I’m idle.”
Just twelve since his journey began, he has emerged as one of Africa’s brightest coaching talents. And many – his peers and mentors alike - have tipped him for greatness. “It’s because I always want to be better. I want to be a better coach tomorrow. I always want to surpass what I did yesterday. I want to be a better Didi everyday.”
The next day, Kotoko triumph by two goals to one against BYC. The journey for Didi continues.
A shorter version of this article appeared on allsports.com.gh on February 14, 2014.