Transformed from chemistry student to English football’s top flight via Dulwich Hamlet in just one month! Blink and you missed it.
Celebrating Black History Month with another former Hamlet man.
The 24 year old Emeka Nwajiobi played only four times for Dulwich Hamlet and became an instant sensation. Three goals in his first two games – Barking (1) and Bishop’s Stortford (2) – brought the scouts to Champion Hill in November 1983. And then in came David Pleat’s Luton Town with a £10,000 offer the club could not refuse, and he was gone.
Hamlet manager Eddie Presland, who signed Nwajiobi for Dulwich, described the striker as, “Certainly the best I have ever seen at our level. A brilliant future is in store for this so talented forward.” John Lawrence, our revered press secretary, said, “Meka displayed an outstanding ability rarely seen in Isthmian League football.” Just before his brief stint with the club he was working part-time in a high street chemist and completing a degree in Pharmacy, but his ambition was to become a professional footballer.
Born in Anambra, Nigeria in 1959, he had a quite a distressful childhood. As an eleven year old his family escaped civil war for Britain during the Biafran conflict. Here he cultivated his game and as a sixteen year old earned the first of five caps for England Under 18s.
Nwajiobi made the first of his 87 Luton appearances on a cold January evening against Nottingham Forest. Brian Clough’s side won the match 3-2, but the Nigerian chemist crowned another debut with a goal.
His time at Luton Town coincided with the club’s best period in their history. David Pleat masterminded promotion to Division One in 1981 and before the decade was out Luton had finished in the top ten on three occasions and featured in a Wembley final. Pleat should be applauded for giving so many black players an opportunity in the game when racism was still rife and a huge blot on the football landscape. However, when questioned how racist taunts affected him, Nwajiobi replied: "They don't bother me as I realise that most of them are done just to get you riled. White players have things said about them too, and although the comments are different, they are really the same sort of insults. It's no big deal anymore."
Talking of blots, at the same time hooliganism was also prevalent, and Nwajiobi was a member of the Luton side which took part in the tarnished FA Cup tie against Millwall. It was dubbed the Battle of Kenilworth Road, when disgraceful crowd scenes took place before, during and after the match with several pitch invasions.
Nwajiobi’s career was cut short through injury in 1988, but not before he received a Nigeria call-up for a World Cup qualifier against Tunisia in 1985.
Not long after Emeka Nwajiobi left Dulwich his brother Ileanyi joined the club. He also scored on his debut, but Ileanyi was to play just one more game that season. He did however, return three years later for a further 11 appearances in 1986/87. This time both forename and surname were too much for Eddie Presland, who decided that “His name is practically unpronounceable and we have decided to call him Nigel.” A name he appears to be stuck with for life!
Jack McInroy, October 2015