The success of Accra Hearts of Oak; one of the continent’s biggest clubs can be due to several varying factors, but the truth is that instrumental in cementing themselves as a titan of the game has been the goalkeepers in their ranks. Some rather good ones, it must be said.
The likes of Addoquaye Laryea, Dodoo Ankrah, Abdulai Chesco, Lante France, Sam Suppey and Robert Ali Jahraa all get rightly mentioned, but huddled in between some of those legends was a young goalkeeper whose genius was just as integral to the club’s success during the late 1990s and the early 2000s.
Sammy Adjei grew up kicking a ball about his poor suburb of Teshie-Nungua and became an international star and a Ghanaian hero through a distinguished football career at Accra Hearts of Oak, Club Africain and Ashdod, but it was with the Phobians that he won a lot of silverware.
Adjei and his friends used to hone their skills on the streets, and even in those surroundings, he quickly gained a reputation as a genuine talent. The locals would often look out of their windows and balconies to watch him dominating the street kickabouts below.
A goalkeeper of a renowned model, his burgeoning talent was at the defunct Power FC; then a third division club. He was very instrumental as Power FC earned a promotion to the second division in 1995. His exploits didn’t stay hidden for long and within just a year, the youngster was snapped up by Accra Hearts of Oak through Auroras, the club’s feeder club but sojourned in Europe where he had trials with some French clubs.
The young netminder returned to Hearts but was with met with an arduous task of competing established James Nanor and Eben Armah Dida. Adjei stuck it out, however, and finally got his chance in 1997. The youngster’s performances didn’t go unnoticed and within a few months, he had his chance to play for the national team, the Black Starlets. He was in post for the Black Starlets team that qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1997 but was shockingly dropped from the team that played in the competition.
After some startling performances with the Phobians, the young goal custodian found his way back into the national team as he became an integral member of the Black Starlets team that won the African Youth Championship in 1999 and excelled in the World Championship in Nigeria later that year.
His time at Accra Hearts of Oak is widely regarded as the peak of his career, lifting countless trophies while earning a reputation as one of the continent’s finest strikers, or indeed, players. With the capital club, he won seven league titles, the CAF Champions League in 2000, the CAF Confederation Cup and two FA Cup laurels.
His success with the Accra club earned him the moniker ‘Barthez,’ he name he took after the charismatic French goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, who had risen to prominence by helping the French national team win the FIFA World Cup in 1998, FIFA Confederation Cup, 1999 and the European Championship in 2000.
However, his performances for the Black Stars against Nigeria in a quarter-finals clash of the AFCON 2002 are one that will forever stay with the agile goalkeeper. The global football audience first got a glimpse of him when he helped Accra Hearts of Oak triumph in the 2000 continental competitions.
But it was against the West African side that he became a phenomenon in his position. It was there that everyone was able to witness the attributes that were to become the hallmark of Adjei.
The Black Stars lost the match 1-0 courtesy a Gariba Lawal goal at the Stade du 26 Mars, Bamako, but Adjei prevented a rout with a stellar performance. Though Ghana was eliminated by Nigeria, Adjei left the tournament as one of the best goalkeepers of the tournament earning the nickname ‘Bamako’ in the process.
No other goalkeeper in the country — during his era or beyond — was as complete a package as Adjei. In addition to his natural athleticism and superb reflexes, he was known for his positioning, stature, and bravery. He was also known for being a vocal presence in the team, constantly shouting orders at defenders and otherwise imposing his authority.
Sammy Adjei was so good because he made the great saves look routine. Effortless. An unbelievable reader of the game, his positioning was supremely accurate, which allowed him to be a step ahead of oncoming shots a lot of the time. But even when that wasn’t enough, his reactions were razor-sharp, right up until his retirement. He was capable of outstanding diving efforts, sweeping up danger one on one, and producing decisive penalty saves on the big stage.
Adjei played for the national teams of Ghana and was with the Black Stars from 2000 to 2008. He was the first choice goalkeeper for the 2002 and 2006 AFCONS. Unfortunately for him (and his fans) we were never able to watch the maverick in action on the biggest international stage; the FIFA World Cup. However, he did help Ghana qualify for their first World Cup before losing his position to Richard Kingson.
While his talent on the field was clear for all to see, it was his demeanour off the field that also enhanced his legend. He was a friendly, open, jovial character, and all-around gentleman, who was at ease in the company of journalists and fans alike.
For some fans, Sammy Adjei represented the very pinnacle of club football. He blended the idea of fantasy and just enough aloofness to keep them glued to their TV sets and also to visit the stadiums on match days. His ability to influence proceeding when it was needed most was both unique and frustrating to opposition forwards.
For most, the task of attempting to forge a career amongst a panoply of talent during the heydays of the Ghanaian Premier League would be a task insurmountable, but for Adjei, it would be a long and arduous road, he would fashion a niche for himself in the crowded rostrum of Ghanaian football as a dynamic and exciting goalkeeper- despite his protestations to the contrary.
Even if he never reached the height expected of him, he at least made sure those who filled the terraces within each stadium knew his name.