COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
The meeting between the two most successful Nigerian clubs had late drama, but lacked the feistiness and fireworks one might have expected.
Perhaps this is to do with the state of both teams. Enyimba have struggled for relevance in the last 18 months, and even before winning their last (and record seventh) title, had to endure a three-year wait. There is still some residual trepidation where other teams are considered, but by and large it is generally accepted: this is a team that has grown complacent from a period of sustained, fulsome success.
Enugu Rangers, for their part, have a more recent claim to primacy on Nigeria’s shores, but their start to this season has inevitably led to revisionism. Were they really as good as they seemed last season, sweeping aside all comers with a brand of quick, direct football that was at once aesthetically pleasing and efficient?
This then seems like a reversion to some sort of embarrassing mean, and not just by virtue of propping up the table. Even the basics of play seem to have deserted this side.
The Flying Antelopes went ahead as early as the seventh minute, and then proceeded to attempt a rearguard action. It was an approach so out of keeping with their swashbuckling ethos last season, a passivity that coach Imama Amapakabo, a self-proclaimed possession fetishist, would surely have been uncomfortable with.
And yet, bar a headed chance from a set piece 15 minutes later, Rangers mounted no offence whatsoever for the remainder of the duration.
While it is no surprise to see NPFL teams manifest surprising frailties away from home, it is hard to shake the conviction this is a broken team, one which is somehow not playing for the manager.
Amapakabo himself has affected a calm mien, but the loss to Enyimba was the final of a three-game deadline given to him to turn around results. Whether the management will feel confident enough to pull the trigger remains to be seen, but in truth the malaise within this team goes beyond the coaching and playing staff.
The buck stops with the administration, which has contrived to handle an unprecedented title success with typical clumsiness.
The ham-handed way in which they handled Amapakabo’s contract renewal, to the mess surrounding Chisom Egbuchulam, last season’s league MVP, to the sudden change of administration a couple of games into the new season, to thoroughly underwhelming recruitment. All have combined to bring to the boil a stew of odious mediocrity.
There were also assurances made to the players following last season’s unprecedented run to the title which have gone unfulfilled, as revealed by an inside source. There is an ambience of grievance around the club, and while it may consume Amapakabo in the end, that will only be the beginning of its damaging rampage.
For their part, Enyimba can take encouragement from a rousing second-half comeback, with Stephen Chukwude heading home the equaliser just four minutes after his introduction, before captain Mfon Udoh materialised in the box to finish in nerveless fashion for the win.
The manner of it was dramatic, but once the exhilaration wears off, the uncomfortable question surfaces as to whether the People’s Elephant have left it rather too late.
Some experimentation early in the season is somewhat unavoidable under a new coaching crew, but coach Gbenga Ogunbote let it run too long before settling on a core of players. With some of the ballast shed, the team is leaner and more cohesive than at any point this term.
It is also doubtful just how competitive the side can be while continuing to play away from home.
Only a handful of supporters make each home game, a far cry from the usually massed support at the Enyimba Stadium in Aba. The UJ Esuene, apart from holding no home comforts, is in a terrible state. Rousing late wins are all well and good, but it is hard to see a team ride on the back of those to a title, especially playing on such an awful surface.
Different strokes then: a derby victory to savour, and a continued slide into obscurity at the foot of the table. For Rangers, it is hard to envision a way out of the present muck: the players have effectively downed tools, and Amapakabo is looking increasingly like a sitting duck.