Enyimba out to recreate past magic in Nigerian Premier League run-in
Enyimba have had to look to their past as they attempt to fashion a way back to the summit of Nigerian football.
A 2-0 defeat of Wikki Tourists last weekend preserved their five-point lead at the top of the Nigerian league, as they continue what is now appearing to be an inexorable march to the league title they last won in 2010. It has taken five years for Enyimba to find their way.
Coach Kadiri Ikhana, now in his second spell with the club, was the central figure during the early years of the club’s ascent to the pinnacle of Nigerian and African football in the early 2000s, helping them retain a first ever league trophy won under Godwin Uwua, before masterminding that most famous triumph of all, the CAF Champions League in 2003.
In the boardroom, club chairman Felix Anyansi-Agwu is the singular, high-profile thread that spans these 15 years of success. Anyansi-Agwu decided to bring back Ikhana, the coach who was responsible for some of the club’s most triumphant moments, and glory now seems barely a pinch away.
A major driver of their initial success at the beginning of the millennium was Orji Uzor Kalu, a football-loving politician who was elected governor of Abia State in 1999, and made it his mission to dream big for his local club. The fact that most clubs in Nigeria are owned and funded by the state governments plays a role in a club’s success. If the governor (as state chief executive) loves football, the football clubs are well funded. If they don’t, there’s a bit of a struggle.
In this respect, Kalu made sure Enyimba were reasonably well-funded during his tenure. Enyimba, before Kalu, were nothing more than cannon fodder for the big clubs, and regularly plowed a yo-yo existence between the Premier League and the second division. But Kalu was not to be deterred and upon hiring Anyansi-Agwu as chairman, he made the startling declaration in 2000 that he would make Enyimba champions of Africa.
Given that all of Nigeria’s traditional big clubs, Shooting Stars, Rangers, Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Julius Berger, Abiola Babes, Eagle Cement and others had all tried and failed to reach the CAF Champions League mountaintop made the scale of Kalu’s ambition with the upstart club the subject of snickering derision.
That derision soon turned to respect, if not awe, when Enyimba not only achieved the impossible, but went on to retain their continental title a year late in 2004, and then dominate the domestic scene.
If Kalu’s entrance was the spark Enyimba needed to ignite their fires, his exit in 2007 began the process that led to a gradual extinguishing of the fire.
Enyimba have won a total of six Nigerian league titles. All but the last, in 2010, were won during Kalu’s tenure. Dogged by financial troubles, Enyimba, famed for acquiring the best players in the league, struggled for years with refreshing their squad.
“We found that the squad had a lot of aging players, so a long-term decision was taken to get some younger players,” said Farriel Allaputa, the club’s press officer, to ESPN FC.
That decision has seen the club win two Nigerian Federation Cup trophies in 2013 and 2014, but the league title remains the ultimate objective. Now, the People’s Elephants are within sneezing distance of their prize. And now, eight years after Kalu, there is a new sheriff in town, Okezie Ikpeazu. While the new governor has yet to make any pronouncements to match the scale of Kalu’s, he has made it clear that Enyimba will occupy a place of priority.
Behind Enyimba, Warri Wolves and Sunshine Stars lead the chasing pack, and with 21 points still to play for, those two teams will know that they can still pip Enyimba to the post. Sunshine provide particularly testing opposition. Enyimba travel to Sunshine’s Akure home for the final game of the season, and if the Akure Gunners can cut the lead to three points in the lead-up to that final matchday, they can reasonably hope to not only claw make up the deficit, but claim the title on goal difference.
While it is not a scenario that Enyimba are willing to contemplate, it is one they will have to confront. It begins with this weekend’s Oriental Derby away to Heartland, a rivalry spiced by the reversal of roles occasioned by Enyimba’s nouveau riche status.
Heartland, during their different incarnations as Spartans and Iwuanyanwu Nationale, were used to preying and poaching on Enyimba and their earlier iteration as Aba Falcons.
When the People’s Elephants became a force, they looked a few kilometers down the road to Owerri to ensnare top players. It did not go down well, and a resurgent Heartland will be nothing if not please to poke their upstart rivals in the eye.
There will be six more tests to negotiate after that, but Enyimba are well aware of the manner of challenges it takes to become champions.
On their current form, they have the hunting tenacity of a bloodhound.
Colin Udoh is the editor of KickOffNigeria.com and African football correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.