May 9 2001 – Kumasi Asante Kotoko had taken the lead well in that game.
The Porcupines had it under control. They knew they needed just a few more minutes to hold on, keep their lines tight but their arch-rivals Hearts of Oak had other ideas.
For them, the “Never say die” mantra had been ingrained in their DNA. Every player knew it wasn’t over until it was finally over. On 75 minutes, the Reds were still quite comfortable.
Let’s paint a picture: A long searching ball that was meant to find Nana Frimpong had been hoofed up-field to Jacob Nettey.
The captain kept the ball in his stride, beat his marker and hit it to the man who had endeared himself to the Hearts faithful, Emmanuel Osei Kuffour.
Kuffour picked out Don Bortey, who in turn picked out Ishmael Addo with a dink of a pass from the outside of his foot but it is the next few seconds that would turn the game on its head and probably change Ghana football in many ways.
Addo, at his prolific best, allowed the ball to roll instead of hitting it the first time and dummied the keeper, Osei Boateng, with his first touch before he slotted in with brazen precision.
As he wheeled away in celebration, the Kotoko goalkeeper was hitting hard on the turf in disappointment. He looked up and then to his bench.
He had let them down, but it was simply a look that many goalkeepers had on after facing Ishmael Addo: downcast, crestfallen and unable to make a proper reaction.
Addo went on to score again in the 81st minute turning a near defeat into a Pyrrhic victory for Hearts – a victory that has been placed way down in the memory of Ghanaian football fans due to the unfortunate events after. But that was just who he was. Ishmael Addo – the goal machine.
Addo made the dream move from the now defunct Tema Hearts Babies, a thriving colts team then, to Accra Hearts of Oak in one of the most interesting deals in Ghana football.
A total of seven players including Joojo Bossman, who later went on to win the Confederation Cup in 2004, were transferred to the club for ¢300,000 then (Now, GH¢30). That was a harbinger for things to come for Hearts.
A Tema boy through and through, Addo had gone through a colts system that meticulously made sure that players were at their utmost best before the step up. At Tema Hearts Babies, Addo was just a few years ahead of his future teammate, Benard Don Bortey.
Tema had already produced a flurry of players who had gone on to give fans of Hearts of Oak joy in the late ’80s. Ablade Kumah, Shamo Quaye, Nanabenyin Crentsil and Paul Adjoda became the backbone of the famous ‘musical’ youth team of the early ’90s. Addo recounts the impact that team had on him in his decision to choose Hearts.
“I will put the Musical Youth from back in the day as one of the best squads because when I was a kid, I heard a lot about that group of players – how they were playing good, winning and all that,” Addo recounted.
The move from Addo was made in 1997 while he was still in his teen years but it wasn’t until two years later, in 1999, that the stars will align for him to get his chance.
Addo made his Hearts debut on January 31, 1999 in a game against Liberty Professionals – an off-season game in a gala that served as a curtain raiser for the league season.
Then 16, all he needed was 26 minutes to announce himself to Ghanaians. Hearts won that game 1-0. The pacey young striker would go on to score in 3 out of the 4 games in the competition Hearts won comfortably after beating Goldfields in the final.
A week later it was the proper league season and many who had seen him in the previous tournament were hoping they could catch another glimpse of the boy wonder in the league.
Hearts’ first league game that year was against Afienya United – a game Hearts won 4-1 and Addo had scored after coming off the bench to replace diminutive midfielder Charles Allotey.
Three games into the season, the boy wonder had scored in all and has already begun grabbing headlines.
The passage of time can blur one’s memory but it is important to note that it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Addo at Hearts.
He had come into a fold that had the previous season’s goal king in Joe Fameyeh, Ousmanu Amadu – who many Hearts fans loved – the target man Ibrahim Mugu and Ian Acquah, who played a fringe but important role upfront for the Phobians.
Addo particularly had to rely solely on his ability, his pace, his instincts and the trust from coaches Ofei Ansah and Archibald Lamptey who helped him hone his skills to develop into the well-rounded player we saw years past.
In his debut season, he went on to score 16 goals. Hearts were league champions that year but the dose of success they were having wasn’t good enough for them. They wanted more and in the next, which is the club’s most successful year ever, they built a commandeering attack that had Charles Taylor and Bernard Don Bortey alongside Ishamel Addo.
That team, which went on typically to win the Champions League, the Super Cup, the league title and the FA Cup, was the famous ’64 Battalion’ team led by the late Cecil Jones Attuquayefio.
Addo says it was more about him then, the fighting spirit he instilled in them, than what their abilities could actually handle.
“Jones always said you had to be selfish. He always told us to be selfish in the sense that we should not allow our opponents to play. That’s all we were doing. We never wanted the opponent to play but we wanted them to allow us to play,” he cited that as the hold Jones had on them.
The years have gone by quite fast but Addo still holds those moments in high esteem. When I asked how all that meant to him, he just let out that very coy smile and said: “I will probably use one word. That is to say I was fulfilled. I gave my best and my all to them when I was with them so I think my job was done and I did a good job with them.”
The year that followed Hearts of Oak’s treble year was to be Addo’s most prolific year as a striker. It was harvest season for him. He played with the disregard for convolution.
He had one job; a job that required him to put the ball at the back of the net and he understood his duties more than anyone in the Ghana Premier League.
Nicknamed Enfant Terrible, Addo went on to score 22 goals in the league – a record that still holds today, 19 years after. No one has come close. It is lonely out there but Addo says that record gives him so much joy.
“It makes me feel special because the league was there before I was born and then there has been some records that were set before I came along. So having the opportunity to have a record of my own in the Ghana League, that’s something I will always be proud of.”
In his first three season at Hearts, he had scored a staggering 57 goals.
How does one win so much at club level and not replicate the same form for the national team? How does it work? What happened to him? In detail, Addo played 9 times for Ghana – a national blunder that can never be corrected. A travesty of justice. But was Addo up to the task? Did he believe in himself to do it for his nation? Addo believes he should’ve scored more for the flag. Maybe if he had involved himself a lot more it could’ve been a different but could he have scored more for Ghana?
“Yes. I think I should’ve but then you know we had these big stars. We are talking about big strikers who were playing in the Black Stars back then were exceptional because we had Augustine Arhinful, all the big names. Actually I had my chances and I took them so I wouldn’t regret anything that went on,” he said with a voice that made you realize a bit of disappointment in there.
“It was a different playing style because it is a different coach coming in and we had a different coach back at Hearts of Oak so it was something different,” he continued.
Addo played briefly in France with Bastia alongside Michael Essien after leaving Hearts on loan before moving to Maccabi Netanya in Israel. The years that followed were just drowned in peripatetic moves to different clubs where he didn’t have any titular role. He recounts his time out there.
“I will probably say I did quite well when I left Hearts of Oak because I went to Bastia for a year. It was a loan deal so after that, the coach has to leave and all that. Because you know in Europe, it is all about coaches that sign players.
“It was a good experience playing in Europe and all that but you know the thing is, the level of quality of football in Europe cannot be compared to none because the development of football in Europe is far far advanced than what we had in Ghana and what we still have in Ghana. It is all about discipline, dedication and hard work. It is not easy to play in Europe.
“I had all these three qualities and that was the reason why I had the chance to play in the UEFA Champions League.”
He returned to Hearts in 2006 to try to re-launch what then was a frustrating career. Back at his old stomping ground, he returned to good form.
Not quite the form he showed in his early, formative years but there was a lethal striker in there. One thing never changed though. His love for playing against arch-rivals Asante Kotoko.
Addo and Bortey have scored the most goals (6) than any other Hearts player in the premier league era against Kotoko. Addo believes games against Kotoko were some of the toughest for him.
“With those two teams, it is like the history has always been there. The competition has always been there so when those two teams are coming together, it is like,’ If you’re not going in to win, then do not even go’,” he said.
Kotoko vrs Hearts games then were always so heated it ended in fierce battles on and off the field.
“It is a shame to let Kotoko win and it is shame for us to let Hearts win so that’s where this mentality of wanting to win comes in,” he continued.
In 2008 when the second stint at Hearts came to an end, he moved to India to play for East Bengal FC and then returned after two years to Wassaman United. The steam locomotive was grinding to a halt at this stage.
Addo scored 103 goals in 124 appearances for his beloved Hearts of Oak. As freakish as this stat may seem, he added 4 league titles, 2 FA Cups, the CAF Champions League and the CAF Super Cup to his laurels. As a striker he won 3 Golden Shoe awards for being the top scorer in the Ghana Premier League. It is a shame the world did not see much of him. It is unfortunate he could not represent Ghana more.
However great Ishmael Addo was in the Ghana Premier League, he is still Ghana’s biggest football ‘could have been’.
By Yaw Ofosu Larbi
The writer is with the Sports Desk of Media General