These are really interesting times in Nigerian Professional Football League. The forecasting trend these days revolves more around where the away victory will be recorded every match day. It has been taken for granted that a team must win on away soil but nobody knows where.
It is easy for people to point in the direction of Kwara United that has lost five times at home this season but it must be noted that grounds like Kano and Akure that are seldom good hunting grounds for away teams have seen the hosts lose this term. The next round of matches will be played in Oba, Port Harcourt, Jalingo, Aba, Oghara, Makurdi, Uyo, Enugu, Akure and Kano. It is hard to predict correctly now which home team will lose on these grounds. No team has immunity against home loss. You must bring your A-game on match day, else you bite the dust. Ask Pillars and Sunshine.
This development has boosted the psyche of the teams. Gone are the days coaches relied more on management doing ‘tactical’ off the pitch. I remember an incident some years ago. A home team had found it so difficult scoring as the referee remained firm. At half time the coach had asked a club official; “Why dis referee dey do like dis? Una no see am?” The enraged official had screamed at the coach; “If we no see am, una no go score?”
Unfortunately for the home team, while they offered the traditional brown envelope to the referee, the away team offered more. So the man at the centre allowed the game to ‘flow’. By half time, the away team was a goal up. It took a barrage of threats from the fans as the referee made his way back to the pitch for him to ‘mellow’ down and aid the home team’s equalizer. But the away team had squeezed out a point from that unlikely ground.
With that home-team-must-win trend, the away teams rarely put up a fight. They had an impression that whatever happened, they must lose, so why should they dissipate more energy? Those away trips were mere formalities. The three points were lost even before they hit the roads. But they made up with the home fixture thereafter.
All that has changed, I was in Bauchi for the Week 26 game between Wikki Tourists and Sunshine Stars. After Wikki battled to a 2-1 victory, their Technical Adviser Abdul Maikaba was upbeat about his team’s chances of winning the championship hinging it on the level playing ground provided by the LMC. He said; “You can see the type of officiating we had here today. This is the type of officiating we get in most league venues these days. With this type of officiating, my boys can get points away and we can contest for the league”.
In week 29, I was also in Makurdi as Lobi Stars forced Wikki to a 1-1 draw. Wikki is currently in third position trailing pace setters Enyimba by just four points. Interestingly, Wikki’s next fixture is against Enyimba in Aba. Maikaba will fancy his team’s chances of getting a good result on the road and cut down on the deficit. Such aspirations are only possible with the new trend where any team can win anywhere.
There is no better way of bouncing back on away soil than what Sunshine did last weekend. After losing its first home game in seven years in week 29 against Nasarawa United, Sunshine’s title ambitions appeared over but Kennedy Boboye’s wards came from a goal down at half time to beat Kwara United 2-1 in Ilorin in week 30. If the half time scores had stood, Sunshine would have been in fifth place trailing Enyimba by eight points. But five points separate both teams at the moment with second placed Warri Wolves just a point ahead of fourth-placed Sunshine. Sunshine will be Wolves’ guests on week 32 before hosting Enyimba on the last match day. So there is all to play for.
Another team that has profited from an excellent away form is Nasarawa United. After picking maximum points in Kano and Akure, Kabiru Dogo’s team should aspire to pick one of the continental tickets. So from a mid-table struggling team, the Solid Miners are now 6th on the log trailing third-placed Wikki by five points.
With eight matches to go, we are heading towards a nail-biting end to the NPFL. Nothing is certain yet as teams have shifted the battle grounds to the away fixtures. It is not a coincidence that Enyimba, the team that has won the most away matches is on top while the team that has lost most home matches (Kwara) is battling relegation. The team’s abilities to pick points away from home will be key to their ambitions. The interesting thing is that they all believe they can win anywhere.
But the puzzle: Where do you think the away victory will be recorded in week 31? Check out the fixtures: Ifeanyi Uba V Giwa (Oba); Sharks V Dolphins (PH); Taraba V El Kanemi (Jalingo); Enyimba V Wikki (Aba); Bayelsa V Heartland (Oghara); Lobi V Shooting (Makurdi); Akwa V Nasarawa (Uyo); Rangers V Kwara (Enugu); Sunshine V Abia (Akure); Pillars V Wolves (Kano).
*Nwankpa is an Abuja-based journalist and author