By Chris Myson
Last week the 2013 Nigeria Premier League reached its conclusion with Kano Pillars ultimately retaining their title by just one point over Enyimba.
It was a dramatic ending to a dramatic domestic season.
Enyimba were four points adrift of the champions going into the last game so were out of the running and only chasing a CAF Champions League spot, but the title was a long way from being wrapped up.
This was because two others sides, Bayelsa United (who finished third) and El Kanemi Warriors (fourth), also went into the final weekend with an opportunity to win the league.
Thus when Kano Pillars suffered a 1-0 away defeat to Lobi Stars, the door was open to those two sides to seal the title. However, the two rival teams both lost away games too and it was only Enyimba (playing at home) who picked up a victory and surged into second spot.
At first glance, all three title-challengers losing on the final matchday is, on the face of it, a huge shock.
But on closer inspection there was nothing remarkable about it at all. The Nigerian Premier League is a competition where winning regularly away from home is almost impossible.
The statistics make for absolutely astonishing reading. In 380 matches last season, only 18 (less than 5 per cent) ended with a win for the visiting side.
Only one of the Premier League’s 20 teams reached the milestone of just three (yes, three) away wins from 19 matches on the road – but that was still not enough to save Kwara United from relegation.
|2013 SEASON: FINAL AWAY RECORDS
|1. Kano Pillars (C)||19||8||-24|
|3. Bayelsa United||19||6||-24|
|4. El-K'mi Warriors||19||7||-23|
|5. Enugu Rangers||19||5||-21|
|6. Warri Wolves||19||11||-13|
|7. Gombe United||19||0||-35|
|10. Kaduna United||19||0||-32|
|12. Sunshine Stars||19||3||-25|
|13. Nasarawa Utd||19||5||-27|
|14. Lobi Stars||19||5||-23|
|15. Nembe City||19||4||-34|
|16. Akwa United||19||6||-25|
|17. Kwara United||19||13||-14|
|19. Wikki Tourist||19||3||-24|
|20. Shooting Stars||19||2||-27|
Bizarrely, that poor record actually proved to be the difference in the title race as they picked up more points away than most of their other title rivals.
Only second-placed Enyimba picked up more points, despite scoring only four goals and obtaining one win in their 19 away games.
None of the league’s top five teams lost a match at home all season. Their combined records at home reads: Played 95, Won 87, Drawn 8, Lost 0.
Runners-up Enyimba did not even concede a goal at home all season. Such is the dominance of home teams, even second-from-bottom side Wikki Tourist picked up 46 points from a possible 57 in front of their own fans and still went down.
Goal Nigeria Chief Editor Lolade Adewuyi says the dominance of home sides is damaging the popularity of the league locally.
“Home teams are always expected to win their matches,” he explains.
“This trend has been going on for a long time and has caused a lack of interest in the Nigerian league as a result.
“It drains the energy of away teams and takes the shine off the league. Many neutrals would rather tune into European football on TV than go to the stadiums to watch the local leagues.
“This doesn't mean that there's no good football being played because there is an abundance of talent, but many people no longer care as they used to. Up until the turn of the century, many of the clubs still had a huge following - that is no longer the case.
“Many say there is no joy knowing that your club will almost always win their home clashes.”
Failure to win a home match is so rare that such an occurrence can cause panic amongst a club’s fans. With the margins in the league so tight, even dropping points once at home can have disastrous consequences for a club’s ambitions that season.
Incredibly, this year’s champions Kano Pillars finished up just 17 points better off than last-placed Shooting Stars.
The middle of the table was very closely-matched – only five points separated sixth-placed Warri Wolves and relegated ABS in 18th position.
As a result, there is huge pressure on teams to win their home matches and many games in the league have a trend of being settled by late penalties in favour of the home side.
Lolade continues: “Personally, I remember attending a Sunshine Stars game in 2009 where they drew at home in Akure.
“Afterwards, fans got angry at the team. They called for a change in personnel at the club and protested – which was bizarre considering it was just the first game of the season.
“But this kind of pressure from the fans to win home matches makes administrators fight to ensure their teams win at home at all costs.
“I'm not aware of another country in Africa where this type of situation occurs. I know the leagues in Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt are very competitive and sides do regularly pick up points in away games.”
It is not only this past season that has produced remarkable statistics in the home and away records of Nigeria's top teams.
Over the last six seasons, a top-five team suffering defeat at home has only happened on four occasions - so rare that it occurs less than once per campaign on average.
In each of those seasons, even the team finishing bottom has lost a very small number of games at their own stadium (one, two, six, five, four and one respectively).
In those six league campaigns, the champions have won a total of 18 away matches – an average of three per season, remarkably little for the best team in the competition each year. Even though those statistics are already incredibly low, the 2013 season came in further below that mark.
The phrase 'home, sweet home' has never been more appropriate in world football.