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Rediscovering the basics: Liberty Professionals face long journey back to their roots

Remember when Liberty Professionals used to be the Ghanaian reference point for how best a football club should be run?

Rediscovering the basics: Liberty Professionals face long journey back to their roots

They ticked every single box: commitment to youth development, focus on the community, rolling out a clear professional career path for players, etc — Liberty were the model club in every way imaginable.

Consistently challenging for a top-six spot in the Ghana Premier League (GPL) — never a serious candidate for relegation after their initial promotion to the elite division in 1998 — didn't get in the way of Liberty's mission to develop and churn out footballers of high-grade quality for the domestic and international markets.

How they balanced those two aspects of the club's operations, mastering both, was a marvel to be applauded and imitated.

That expertise, though, has been lost.

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From being a sterling example to follow, Liberty is now a case study of how to run a great institution into the ground, and most observers would trace the beginning of that steady regression and subsequent downfall to one incident.

The Dansoman-based club just hasn't been the same since the unfortunate demise of its co-founder, Alhaji Sly Tetteh, in 2011. Years of systematic decline, administrative failings, and a dilution of the principles on which the club was built have followed. Having lost the unfailing compass Tetteh provided, Liberty have now also thrown away their identity and their very soul.

A man of great intellect, both on and off the pitch, having played the game and established solid connections at the highest level, Tetteh’s death left a void that the club has struggled to fill.

For a side that consistently challenged for a top-six spot in the Ghana Premier League (GPL) during the first decade of its promotion, what Liberty have become in the last few years is nothing short of disappointing. If you saw and admired them in their pomp, as this writer did, you're sure to find their relatively recent slump scarcely believable.

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It’s almost pitiful to watch the club that produced such a steady stream of quality players slowly gravitate towards a fate that has, ultimately, proven inevitable.

These days, when fecund academies in Ghana are being mentioned, Right to Dream and WAFA are the names that come to mind. Even latter-day entrants into the space, like Attram DeVisser, have overtaken Liberty in nearly every sense.

The Liberty academy used to be so vibrant that it became the fulcrum of Ghana’s junior national team.

It was, famously, the farmhouse that supplied key members of the Black Starlets side that won bronze at the 1999 Fifa U17 World Cup in New Zealand. Liberty would again be heavily represented when Ghana reached the final of the Fifa U20 World Cup two years later in Argentina, with six of the club’s graduates — in the persons of Michael Essien, John Paintsil, Sulley Muntari, Addoquaye Pappoe, Derek Boateng, and Anthony Obodai — having a part in that memorable run at the tournament.

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Nearly all those players, along with Asamoah Gyan, another Liberty product who emerged slightly later, would go on to contribute significantly to Ghana qualifying for a first senior World Cup, Germany 2006.

It is on record, in fact, that there was no national roster — from U17s to Black Stars, the seniors — that didn’t feature players from the Liberty academy throughout the late nineties and into the noughties.

The pool of talent from Liberty's stables didn't run out, even as that decade ended.

In 2009 when Ghana's U20s went one step better than the Essien generation by actually winning the World Cup — still Africa's only title at that level — the team had four Liberty alumni: Mohammed Rabiu, Ghandi Kassenu, Latif Salifu and goalkeeper Daniel Adjei, all of whom played huge roles in Ghana’s historic triumph. Their coach, Sellas Tetteh, is also a Liberty man through-and-through.

It is, therefore, both sad and disappointing to see no Liberty player, past or present, represent Ghana at the ongoing U20 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Morocco, or even in the last Black Stars squad that played against Madagascar a few weeks ago.

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Maybe juggling competitive football with unearthing talents took its toll, but, if that was so hard to do, just how did Sly Tetteh pull it off so smoothly for years? Gone is the allure and the formula, but why?

Liberty’s rise was planned and methodical — it wasn't for nothing they were nicknamed the Scientific Soccer Lads — but their drastic collapse, which culminated in the club’s maiden relegation from the top-flight in 2021, has undone all the work of previous years.

Today, precious little of it remains; all that stands are ruins of a proud, glorious past — one that Liberty appears ready to make considerable sacrifices to reclaim.

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It took two seasons back in the Division One League (DOL) — the first of which saw them get agonisingly close to a swift comeback, before falling woefully short in the next — for Liberty to come to the conclusion at which they've now arrived: competitive football is no longer for them.

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They wouldn't be back for a third, the club has announced, instead choosing to commit themselves to rediscovering the one thing Liberty have always been known for: finding and grooming talents.

The switch was communicated by the club, seemingly earlier than planned, to quash rumours about a reported takeover by new owners.

"We write to inform the general public and our fans that the club has not been sold as has been reported in sections of the media," the press release said last week.

"It is still in existence under the ownership of its remaining founder Mr. Felix Ansong. The club has rather divested its slot to compete in the Division One league.

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"Started originally as an academy, the club will seek to re-establish its reputation as a world class developer of Ghanaian football talent."

That this landmark move in the club's history was officially made known on the very day arguably the most famous name to emerge from the Liberty academy system, Gyan (mentioned earlier), confirmed his retirement from football may have been purely coincidental, but one can't help but note the aptness of it all.

Given how far off-track Liberty have veered, it's not unreasonable to wonder whether they've got it in them to produce another Gyan or Essien, but the aforementioned release — signed by Linda Ansong, the club's current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) — promises that plans are already underway to steer Liberty back to what first earned them renown.

"This direction," she wrote, "will be under the guidance of noted talent trainer John Oppong Welbeck who has been at post for the past two months."

Not so fast, though.

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Issah Inusah — who, together with Tetteh, is credited with founding the club — believes the turn being taken by Liberty is, not necessarily a change of heart, but an admission of failed administration by the current owner, Felix (Linda's father).

"I don't think that's right," Inusah, in an interview monitored by Pulse Ghana, said of Liberty's decision to forfeit its place on the Ghanaian football pyramid.

"You look at the situation and you say [Felix] Ansong is a failure. He can't run the club. This is Liberty Professionals and we were built properly. The reality is that Felix Ansong cannot take this path. Liberty Professionals will not be changed. It will stay and remain Liberty Professionals," he added, before threatening legal action against the Ansongs.

He plans to carry out that threat in collaboration with the family of the late Tetteh, his old friend.

You see, Ansong — a pure businessman — only came in a little later after Liberty had been established, with Inusah then taking a backseat. Tetteh became the face of the club, largely because he had a technical eye, being — like Inusah — an ex-footballer, and was the more hands-on figure.

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After his passing, though, Ansong's influence has grown rapidly, with Inusah claiming Tetteh's family has been increasingly marginalised, reduced to spectators. It is Ansong's claim to sole ownership, thus emboldening him to make decisions arbitrarily, that Inusah and Co. intend to contest in the courts.

The result of such a course could have an effect on how quickly Liberty embarks on this 'new' journey — or, indeed, if they are allowed to do so at all.

For now, their place in the DOL has been officially taken up by 'Hohoe United Football Club Limited', as confirmed by the Ghana Football Association (GFA) in a statement whose very wording does little to clarify exactly what Liberty are at this juncture.

What they seek to be — a better organisation as an academy than they were in their final years as a football club — would take a little longer to figure out. And considering just how distant they are from those roots, getting back there won't be as straightforward a task as it seems.

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This article was jointly written by Emmanuel Ayamga and Sammie Frimpong

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