MONROVIA, Montserrado – In 2016, first division club LISCR Football Club moved from a striking distance of the championship title to struggling to survive relegation. At the same time, it lost two coaches in one season.
Coach Robert Lartey had just left Barrack Young Controller Football Club and signed on with LISCR FC. But his move to the club did not produce any tangible results. The team continued to struggle to escape the relegation zone. Lartey was quickly axed and replaced by Lassana Sessay, who helped the club survive relegation.
With little else to turn to locally, the team’s management began to set its eyes abroad, within the West African sub-region. To rebuild the team ahead of the 2016-17 club season, the team’s management opted to bring in a Gambian coach, Tapha Manneh. At the time of his recruitment, Manneh held only a B-level coaching license from the Confederation of African Football. The Shipping Boys offered the Gambian tactician a three-year deal, running from 2016 to 2019, not knowing exactly how things would turn out.
Manneh’s appointment as head coach of LISCR FC was not welcomed in all quarters of football fandom, and it certainly raised some controversies. Some Liberian fans felt disrespected by the team’s selection of a foreign coach over qualified Liberian coaches with A-level licenses. Others saw the coming of a foreign coach as the right move but were hoping for a coach with higher coaching credentials and experience than what Liberian coaches had.
Manneh may have been new to Liberian football, but he was not a novice to the game, nor to coaching specifically. Prior to his appointment as LISCR’s head coach, he coached Gambia’s Under 20 male national team and other top-tier Gambian clubs, including the Gamtel team, where he reached four consecutive FA cup finals, winning three of them.
Manneh knew from the onset that the task of rebuilding a Liberian club for competitive sports and to win titles would be a huge one, especially in his first season with the team. When questioned by journalists what was his target in year one, he responded, “To rebuild the team to compete and win championships and titles; not simply to play in a league.”
He said his fans could be assured that if there was ever the slightest chance to win the league title in the first year, he would press for that goal.
Manneh’s early decisions as head coach were no less controversial than his initial appointment itself.
Before the start of the season, he made radical changes to the squad and its starting lineup, even dropping some of the team’s big names. He almost remade the entire team after keenly observing them play during several training sessions.
He axed top players like Julius Nah, Dominic Jarteh, and Sam Jadoe. And instead of replacing them with equally big names, he made the surprising decision to bring in younger players from the lower third and second-tier ranks of Liberian football. Among his new recruits were Edward Ledlum from third division side Brewerville United; Asiamuh Dann from the third division club, Swankamore Football Club; and goalkeeper Ashley Williams and Morris Vambo, both from the Gardnersville Football Club.
These moves by Manneh were fraught with risks, but ones, it seemed, he was willing to pay full price for.
Many fans and team administrators questioned his strategy and the likelihood he would succeed with players who they described as largely “inexperienced.” Unmoved by the criticisms, however, Manneh pressed forward with his plans, seeking to make his case on the football pitch in the first season, instead of in the media or other football talking shops. The coach whose qualifications to coach LISCR FC many doubted was about to make history for himself and Liberian football.
In his first season as head coach, LISCR FC sailed unstoppably onto winning the Liberian first division league in which it was unbeaten. The team suffered not a single defeat in the entire league, becoming the first-ever Liberian club to win a league with an unbeaten record. And alongside the team, Tapha Manneh also became the first coach in the history of Liberian football to win the league unscathed by defeat. Not only did Manneh win the league unbeaten, but he also captured the Liberian FA Cup, setting the record as the only coach in LISCR Football Club history to win the double.
With two major trophies in only his first season, Manneh had unquestionably established himself as a capable and formidable coach, sending out a warning shot to his opponents, at the same time pleasantly disappointing his fans who doubted his capacity.
With LISCR winning both the 2016-17 league and FA Cup, the team soon now turned its attention to continental football, where it had only a limited experience playing. Prior to Manneh’s appointment as coach, LISCR FC played twice in the CAF Champions League but failed to secure a win in four games. Fresh from winning the double, this was, therefore, the new task Tapha Manneh set himself.
At the end of the season, coach Manneh returned from vacation with additional four Gambian players such as Bully Drammeh, Mustapha Njie, Harouna Jabang, and Adama Sabally to beef up his squad for the continental football show. In this respect, Manneh and LISCR FC were quickly paired against Al Hilal of Sudan.
After months of preparation, the day finally came for the coach’s debut with LISCR FC in continental football. The pressure he felt was great, but more so because the match was the first-ever international football encounter to be played in Liberia under the presidency of George Manneh Weah, himself a global football icon.
The match with Al Hilal coincided with Armed Forces Day in Liberia, which fell on Sunday, February 11, but was celebrated on Monday, Feb. 12th. As commander-in-chief of the army, President Weah was therefore in attendance on Feb. 11 to watch Tapha Manneh play his magic against Al Hilal.
Once again, the Gambian coach did not disappoint. LISCR FC overcame Al Hilal in a 1-0 win at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium. Sheku Sheriff scored the only goal in the 20th minute of the match to give the team a much deserving win.
Despite its 3-0 loss in the return leg, bowing on 3-1 aggregate, Manneh had set the unprecedented record of becoming the first LISCR Football Club coach to win in continental football.
Manneh’s title-winning streak also continued for a second straight season with the Super Cup title. He led LISCR Football Club to lift the 2018 Liberia Super Cup title with a 3-0 win over Srimex Football Club. In hindsight, after two years, two seasons, and three major trophies, it is clear Manneh was underrated when he first arrived in Liberia.
Coach Manneh lost a little luster in the 2018 season, compared to his first season with the club. That year, he finished third and lost his league and FA Cup titles to Barrack Young Controller Football Club. He led the club to its second consecutive FA Cup finals before losing to Barrack Young Controller. Unlike his first season when he captured the double, Manneh won only the Super Cup in 2018.
But by winning the Super Cup, he set the record of having won all major trophies in Liberia in his first two years.
With Barrack Young Controller winning the 2018 League over LISCR FC in the FA Cup, the Shipping Boys represented Liberia in the 2019 CAF Confederation Cup, Africa’s second-tier club competition. Having won all the major trophies in his first two years, Manneh was again intent upon getting past the first round in continental football which he failed to achieve. In 2019, the club was drawn against Algeria’s USM Bel Abbes in the preliminary round, with the first leg being played in Algiers, the Algerian capital.
LISCR FC lost the first leg 4-0, but won 1-0 in the return leg, bowing out in a 4-1 loss on aggregate.
Although Tapha didn’t cross the first round in continental football as he had hoped, he remained undeterred and quickly shifted his attention to making head waves in the final year of his three-year contract with LISCR FC. In that year, he led the club to a second-place finish in the league and reached his third consecutive FA Cup finals. The 2019 FA Cup was the repeat of the 2018 edition with Tapha Manneh basking in the revenge of a lifetime – a crushing defeat of Barrack Young Controller. LISCR FC defeated Barrack Young Controller 2-0, and Tapha Manneh went on to win his second FA Cup in three years.
His record winning streak continued unabated, making him the first coach in the history of Liberian football to reach three consecutive FA Cup finals. Manneh returned to the CAF Confederation Cup where LISCR FC was paired against Maranatha Fiokpo of Togo. But for the third consecutive time, Manneh failed to cross the first round in continental football.
Manneh’s setbacks in continental football in no way affected his team’s performance at home, and he continued to dominate domestic football. His thirst for silverware led him continuously to victories – winning the 2019 Liberia Super Cup in a 1-0 victory against LPRC Oilers. In three years, Tapha Manneh has won two FA Cup titles, two Super Cup titles, and one league title.
In three years, he won a total of five major trophies, becoming the first coach to do so in an unbeaten league record. Despite his failures to replicate his domestic performances in continental and international competitions, Manneh remained undoubtedly the most decorated coach in the club’s history, and by far the best among all his predecessors.
In his short three-year stint with LISCR FC, the Gambian transformed doubters into believers, expanded the fandom of LISCR FC, and set himself up as one of the best coaches in Liberian club history, and perhaps the best thing to happen to LISCR FC in recent times. Only time will tell what he will do next.
Featured photo courtesy of T. Kla Wesley Jr.