Final day drama on week 38 fixtures in NPFL

One of the very many reasons we love the round leather game of football locally or internationally is its tendency to spring up surprises when they are least expected or least imagined.

Despite the huge financial backings flowing around for clubs in modern football world – a phenomenon many think is eroding the genuine love and passion for the game – some fairytale examples such as Atletico Madrid’s La Liga winning exploits in 2014 and Leicester City’s shocking run to the Premier League title earlier this year still continue to remind us of certain dynamics of the beautiful game.

Here are some clubs that made the local scene tick this season

RIVERS UNITED

When the 2015/16 season of the Nigeria Professional Football League got underway in February this year, only a few followers (if there were any) of the game gave newly formed Rivers United a genuine chance of finishing among the front runners by the end of the season.

Curtains fall on what has been quite an eventful football season in Nigeria this weekend and one of the stories of the season will have to be the Port Harcourt based Pride of Rivers.

Coached by the league’s longest serving manager Stanley Eguma and playing its home games at the antediluvian Yakubu Gowon Stadium in the busy Elekhaia planes of the Garden City, United – indeed an amalgamation of Port Harcourt’s two hitherto struggling clubs, Dolphins and Sharks – quickly banished the ghosts of its ancestors by opening the season with a lone goal victory over Champions Enyimba, Eguma’s first victory over the former African Champions in 4 years.

“That win gave us the kind of confidence we needed for a start,” acknowledged Eguma in a chat to www.npfl.ng

“Before the league started, there were some internal issues as regards raising a formidable team and because of the short time at our disposal, we could not really get the sort of group we wanted but that win against Enyimba brought a lot of confidence to the players and that fired them to believe they can do well.” he reflected

The euphoria that greeted the team’s mental victory had hardly died down when they were reminded of the swinging nature of the NPFL table. A run of three games winless streak (including two consecutive losses away from home) which culminated in United dropping points at home for the first time against Sunshine Stars in Week 8 saw the team drop slightly to the second half of the table, a development that saw the management of the team hand out a 3-game ultimatum to head coach Stanley Eguma. He also concedes that was a turning point for his team as his wards responded by winning six out of the following eight games.

“Although it (the ultimatum) didn’t bother me much but it was important for us to help us focus properly. The ultimatum was not any form of pressure but it was a wake up call which we reacted to positively and we never dropped from the top spots from then.” added Eguma who has previously coached Oriental clubs like Gabros and Iwuanwayu Nationale.

The highlights of United’s season came within that eight-game period. Their two away wins all season (to date) were part of those six wins as well as arguably their best performance of the season, a comprehensive victory over Rangers in Port Harcourt on Match Day 14.

The victory over high-flying Rangers who were blown away by a rapid young United side within the opening 45 minutes instantly installed the Rivers state government sponsored side as one of the title contenders. Rangers had only lost twice in 13 league games at that point and that victory was a well crafted prognosis into what will become of Rivers United at the end of the season.

United’s first choice goalkeeper and a veteran of the league, Rotimi Sunday highlighted the victories over Oriental sides Enyimba and Rangers in Port Harcourt as key to their successful season.

“Those two wins were sweet,” relished Rotimi with great pleasure.

“Nobody gave us the chance against Rangers because they were doing so well but we told ourselves we can do it and we really outclassed them.” said Rotimi a former captain of defunct Dolphins of Port Harcourt.

United built on that result and pushed for an unlikely title in a three-horse race involving them, Wikki Tourists and Rangers.

Despite starting the second stanza of the league with a 3-game unbeaten sequence including two home victories sandwiched by another away draw against Enyimba in Umuahia, United’s undoing had to be their dismal away form from that point – failing to score nor secure a point in seven successive away games. Some of their stars in the first stanza of the league had either suffered a dip in form or succumbed to serious injuries. Fredrick Obomate could not replicate the performances that earned him the League Bloggers’ Player of the Month award in February while all-rounder Chigozie Ihunda popularly called Turkey by United fans never recuperated from a serious injury.

Eguma attributed some of the challenges faced in the second half of the season to injuries to some key components of his side although he insisted this is part of the round leather game.

“The injuries were one of the areas we had issue. Though it is part of the game, we never expected it to have a prolonged effect on the team. Someone like Ihunda (Chigozie) who had stabilized with the team had an injury in Warri and it ruled him out of the season.

“The injuries continued up till this moment affecting my captain Festus Austine, Ayo Asekunowo, Gabriel Olalekan and the accident we had which ruled out someone like Yusuf Jayeola.

“It is really difficult to get players in during the mid-season break because the good players are always tied to their clubs but so far, I think we were able to manage thus far.” Eguma added, looking sombre at this point.

As the team continued in their title challenge with Rangers as the league reach a climax, what seemed to be the final straw that broke the camel’s back was United’s goalless draw with Abia Warriors in their final home game of the season. On a day Rangers won away at Ikorodu United, United’s hopes were deflated and left hanging by a thread going into the final day of the season.

“I think I can attribute our failure to beat Abia Warriors to anxiety and also maybe overconfidence,” said United’s goalkeeper on the day, Sunday Rotimi.

“But it is not yet over for us. I believe a win in Uyo on the final day can still change things for us and we are working towards that.” Sunday, whose brother David plays for Owerri-based side Heartland reminded.

His coach, Eguma however would not blame his players for Sunday’s result while expressing his utmost belief that his team will take this season’s experience in their stride ahead of the next season.

“It’s football. The most important thing was that we created the chances. That has been part of our programmes in training. But unfortunately, that day it was bad we didn’t convert any. Days like that happen in football. It was only our second draw at home but I believe it is just how football is.

“This season’s experience will help us next season. We were down at a time, we brought ourselves up and fought all the way. Even if we don’t win the title eventually, we know we have met the good and the bad part of the season and by next season, we will be able to do better and have a better team next season.” Eguma said after supervising his team’s morning training on Tuesday.

WIKKI TOURISTS

Wikki Tourists fans would still be trying to figure out what went wrong with their championship run even as the club by Sundaywill play to win but knowing their fate lie in other results in Uyo and Agege. The Tourists has watched with despair as their stiff chase for the title has been reduced to a prayer for divine intervention to a possible finish in second place.
The season ends this Sunday and the battle for the title is in Enugu and Uyo with most eyes affixed on the proceedings between Rangers of Enugu and El-Kanemi Warriors at the Cathedral. Fourth placed Wikki Tourist need a win over Sunshine Stars and would all through be praying that both FC IfeanyiUbah and Rivers United(the two teams are away) slip in their fixtures in Lagos and Uyo. Such a result will pave their way to second place and access to the second CAF Championship slot. Simply put; their destiny is not in their own hands.

Tipped as one of the favorites to win the title, Wikki started perfectly with an away win against El-Kanemi Warriors at the Karkanda Stadium in Katsina on match day one, then a home draw against Heartland and they maintained a good run which saw them top the table at some point before the mid season break. At match day 20, the Bauchi Elephants stayed at the top for seven match days and this must have given their fans and followers of the league a whiff of the title coming to the North East club for the first time in their history.

Toppled by Rangers on Match Day 27, they seized top spot again on Match Day 28 and were again nudged off by Rangers until Match Day 32 when they stormed back to the top but could not stay after the next match, It was their last time to enjoy the pole position and their followers will still be pondering,’what went wrong”. Where did it go wrong for a team that has conceded 28, the lowest number of goals and scored 43 (only Rangers, Sunshine Stars, Akwa United and Kano Pillar) have scored more?

But many had applauded Coach Abdu Maikaba’s decision and ability to retain almost all the players that campaigned for Wikki in their return to the NPFL last season. From goalkeeper Emeka Nwabulu to Centre back Abubakar Musa and Peter Ambrose, full backs Mustapha Ibrahim, Festus Umanah and Christopher Waziri and off course top scorer Godwin Obaje among others, Maikaba was able to build an enterprising team that has fought all the way this term.

With few new arrivals like striker Abubakar Lawan, Wikki were able to find the right balance playing free flowing football especially in midfielder were Uche Martins and Idris Sabo anchored their sleek passing movement which wrecked opponents deploying largely counter offensive play.

“Is not this year’s job, began Maikaba in a chat with npfl.ng. “We started the job last year and what we did this year is mere continuation from where we stopped last year and that gave us the edge over other clubs. We will continue next season with majority of the players that worked with us because it has worked so well for us”, Maikaba continued.

The decision may have yielded positively at least for most period of the season and in some of the players, the outcome was awesome as some of them such as forwards Godwin Obaje and Abubakar Lawan scored 24 goals between them. Obaje has turned out the favorite to end the season as top scorer with18 goals.

The slide sent in after Match Day 27 and it was in a match against then rivals, Rangers in a rescheduled fixture that ended 0-0 in Bauchi. In another rescheduled game against Lobi Stars, they played 1-1, a result many believe put to end their title ambitions. Further defeats to Nassarawa United at the Aper Aku Stadium Makurdi where they surrendered a lead on 89 minutes to concede two dealt them a big blow.

But Maikaba seem to have a handle on what went amiss. As he explains “the problem we had towards the end is that some players we built the team around, particularly the key midfield players were lost to injury and it affected our running. We lost Uche Martins at the early stage of the season then Idris Sabo, Idris Sabo is unique, those are players we built the team around.

“We brought new players in mid season to replace them but you know we have to give them time before they catch up with the team and to play like the injured players, but all the same they gave their best”

Obaje the league’s leading scorer admits things hasn’t been right with the club and stated that, “my target was to win the league and be the leading scorer but I am disappointed and down with the turn of events now.
“All the same,I thank God, we will work and see we pick a continental ticket, This is the best set of players I have worked it, they made me have those goals, without them I wouldn’t have achieved” he added.

While waiting for the final match day and as disappointing as most of the fans are, some are satisfied with their performance as expressed by one of the strong club supporter Rotimi Samson who said “I am satisfied because if you look at the top four teams Wikki is no where near them in terms of financial muscle. They have tried their best”

So will Wikki end in the continent? That of course will be a consolation to the fans who all through believed that the title will be theirs but Maikaba is offering a weighted assurance, “we still have a chance of breaking last year’s record”.

It will be a huge disappointment for a team that stayed top for most of the time than any other club and have so far amassed 15 wins, 9 draws garnering 54 points, to end like they did last season. But one thing is clear – their destiny is not in their hands.

MFM

Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries Football Club (MFM FC) forward, Austine Ogunye, has insisted that his side will triumph over FC Ifeanyiubah in their last game of the 2015/16 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season.

The Lagos-based team will engage their opponents from Nnewi in Sunday’s matchday 38 encounter coming up by 4pm at the Agege Stadium. The match is crucial for both sides. For MFM, a win can help them beat relegation depending on results in three other venues while FC Ifeanyiubah also need a win to stand a chance of picking one of the two CAF Champions League slots, or finish in third place and qualify for the Confederation Cup.

Ogunye said in an interview with the club’s media team that the Olukoya Boys are fired up to end the season with victory knowing that gathering the three points at stake will improve their chances of staying in the NPFL.

“I don’t think we need anybody to tell us how important our game against Ifeanyiubah is. It’s a game of our lives and we are ready to fight because anything less than a victory means we are relegated.

“We have been training very hard since we returned from Lokoja and the coaching staff are not leaving anything to chance, their programmes this week have been great, our response in training have been very impressive and the spirit in camp is really high as well. So I believe we will emerge victorious on Sunday,” he said.

The former Bendel Insurance man wrapped up the interview session urging the fans to get behind the team on Sunday.

“I will like to tell our wonderful fans to come all out in their numbers and cheer us to victory and to be patient with the team in case we didn’t score early goals because sometimes when the goals delay their kind words and support can really help us,” he concluded.

MFM FC currently occupy the 17th position with 42 points same number of points as Warri Wolves and know that their job is not made easier with FC IfeanyiUbah needing the result in Lagos to guarantee a place in the lucrative CAF Champions League if results elsewhere go against their continental ticket seeking rivals, Rivers United.

Onuwa says he is not perturbed by the pedigree of their more illustrious opponents. “It is true that IfeanyiUbah will be looking to get the result in Lagos but I believe that we have all it takes to beat them .We are more psychologically prepared for this challenge. We have increased our training routine knowing that this is the game of our lives.We are not interested in FC IfeanyiUbah as we just want focus on ourselves”

The former Heartland midfielder has kind words for the coach and Management of the team “The management has been wonderful that is why we want to get the result for them. The General Overseer prayed for us and management led by Godwin Enakhena have provided all the support needed.We are not being owed and as players we owe this football club the result on sunday

MFM bgean the season like a house on fire blitzing high profile teams and getting the attention of watchers that they may pull a Leicester City..but alas as the season wore on the fire Fizzled out. And now its a fight to finish against relegation. The chancesof survival depend on grabbing 3 points..can they get it against an Ifeanyi Ubah who will as they say in the streets “will not be smiling”.

RANGERS

Enugu Rangers will hold a victory parade if the Coal City Flying Antelopes win this year’s Nigeria Professional Football League title on Sunday October 2,
Rangers are in a pole position to scoop the trophy, their first in 32 years if they win or draw against El-Kanemi Warriors of Maiduguri at the Cathedral – Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium on Sunday.

No club in the country have held a victory parade before as is done abroad as far as we know but the Flying Antelopes are yet to fix a particular date for the event should they win the trophy on Sunday at Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium.

“We have such in mind, but it is not going to be same night after the match on Sunday,” offers Charles Ndukwe, Enugu State Commissioner for Sports who spoke to complete sports.
“Monday (October 3) is not also in the picture because of events slated for that date.

“We will have to sit down and look for an ideal date for it.

“It is worth doing and as such there is need for it to be done well. But first, let’s win the trophy and all other issues will be carried along,” the sports commissioner stressed.

Rangers are in a good position as they have their fate firmly in their hands. With 3 points ahead of Nearest team Rivers united, they just need a point to be champions and set the city of Enugu alight

Ikorodu United

Now relegated Ikorodu united will always be one of those sides that made the NPFL 2015/2016 season interesting.

They came,they saw,they got conquered, Played 37, won 7, draw 11 lost 19 is relegation stuff but they can only look at the first half of the season as the period they lost it.

They mustered to take just 5 points from their first 10 games (that is 5 from a possible 30points) and with that effectively dug their hole.They are bound to compete in the second tier, the Nigeria National League, next season, but Ikorodu United have proved they can rub shoulders with the best sides in the top flight.
The Oga Boys were capable of some intricate stuff occasionally, but other times they just looked like a side assembled a night before.

The Theo de Jong-led side mustered an impressive away victory against Heartland and also confirmed their Jekyll and hide nature with a superb win against Kano Pillars in week 35.

The dutch handler who took over from Sam Okpodu in June when the lagos club side seemed doomed had this to say when cornered by reporters:

You have spent close to six months managing Ikorodu United. ‎What has the experience been like for you?

De Jong: It has been a nice experience for me. It is the first time I will be working with a club in Nigeria. Previously, I worked as assistant coach with the Cameroon national team and I have travelled to many other African countries, scouting for clubs in the Dutch league.

‎Ikorodu United is a good team, though we still have to improve in a lot of areas like the organization and getting the players tactically attuned to modern way of playing football.

‎Though they have adapted so well since I came around, but they can still do better than what we have seen so far.

How did you first come in contact with the club?

De jong :Actually, it was a Finnish friend of mine who has known me for 20 years that connected me with the club. He has the contact information of the Chairman of Ikorodu United and they talked to each other often.

‎Eventually, the idea to hire a coach from Holland was discussed and that was how my name was mentioned.

‎He then contacted me and asked if I would be interested in working with the club and I accepted the offer.

‎I said no problem as I usually come to Nigeria two or three times in a year previously for scouting, so I agreed to do it for half a year.

The banishment to Abeokuta thought to be the death kneel actually became a launch pad for self discovery for the Oga boys as they turned it to a fortress. No gainsaying they have made friends with a lot of watchers of the league, Many will not mind seeing them stage a quick return back to the elite division.

Where ever you find your self be sure to cheer at a stadium near you as the curtains draw on the season.

 

 

excerpts from www.npfl.ng and www.completesportsnigria.com

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