COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
Winless in the last four games and only three points off the relegation places after 11 games; the wave of optimism that greeted the appointment of Gbenga Ogunbote at Enyimba has quickly ebbed away, giving way to an increasingly familiar ennui. MFM FC come visiting on Sunday, and anything less than a win is bound to see the pressure on the former Shooting Stars boss ratchet up.
Progression to the Group Stage of the Caf Champions League proved inadequate to save Paul Aigbogun last year, especially with the club recording its worst league finish since the turn of the century.
There were mitigating circumstances, most notably the seemingly interminable renovation work ongoing at the Enyimba Stadium in Aba robbing them of vital home support, but in the end going from champions to 10th in a year was too much of a drop.
Having cut his teeth with the Oluyole Warriors, now defunct Sharks and Giwa FC, it was expected Ogunbote would make a seamless transition to a bigger job. However, he has failed to hit the ground running.
The club is still yet to return to its spiritual home, with home fixtures this term played in Calabar. The UJ Esuene Stadium was home to the Super Eagles during qualification for the 2014 World Cup, but the playing surface is now a shambles, dry and almost entirely brown.
A number of niggling injuries, as well as disciplinary issues (Enyimba have had two players sent off so far this season; no other team has a worse record), have also prevented Ogunbote from fielding the same 11 in consecutive games. The result is that the team has often looked disjointed, especially in the final third.
And yet, in spite of the caveats, there are worries as to how little of an identity Ogunbote has been able to impart to the side. The first hour of the loss at the weekend to Kano Pillars was perhaps the best performance the People’s Elephant have produced this season, and yet the same lapses in concentration that have bedevilled the side were clear for all to see, most notably for the second Pillars’ goal.
The last two games have also seen Enyimba play for an extended period against 10 men, and on both occasions they have failed to take advantage.
This, as well as the uninspiring play and results, have fed fan discontent over what is considered an unnecessarily disruptive rotation policy. This culminated in a vocal demonstration of displeasure following the goalless draw at home to Ogunbote’s former side, Shooting Stars, with security officials having to shield the manager from irate, but largely peaceful, supporters. Even among the backroom staff, there is some consternation, with a number of them of the opinion selection is not necessarily based on continuity and merit.
There is an acknowledgement within the club management that things are not going well. Goal can exclusively reveal that, following that result and the ensuing fracas, chairman Felix Anyansi-Agwu called a crisis meeting with the players and coaching staff, and read them the riot act, questioning the attitude and professionalism of certain members of the squad.
Much of the criticism was directed primarily at the players; publicly, the club are standing behind their man. This is no surprise: the club first intended to recruit Ogunbote in 2013, and have been made to wait to land him. Clearly, he is highly thought of within the club hierarchy, and so even though the expectation at Enyimba is high, he is currently exempt from outright censure.
If results do not improve though, and soon, it is hard to see how he will continue to avoid criticism.
Already, he is beginning to feel the pressure. Ordinarily, losses on the road to Lobi Stars and Kano Pillars can be somewhat accounted for, but Enyimba are now winless since the 9th of February, and are only three points off the relegation places.
Visitors MFM have the second-best record on the road so far in the league this season, and are the second-highest scorers. Any less than a home win in Calabar, and there may well be fire on the mountain for Ogunbote.