Who would have thought that a season that was essentially a write-off from the very start and which kicked-off in January, under a cloud of virulent criticism and ample skepticism about the abridged league format and the blinkered decision-making that led to it, would turn out to be one of the most gripping domestic football seasons witnessed in recent times?
It was supposed to be anything but fun and we certainly weren’t meant to enjoy it this much going by the confusion and clouded thinking that preceded the start of the league – and in truth, it was exasperatingly chaotic at times.
The uncertainty surrounding the format and kickoff date of the 2018/2019 Nigeria Professional Football (NPFL) season, occasioned by asinine bickering between the League Management Company (LMC) and the second tier Nigeria National League (NNL) which was made worse by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), led to questions about the brain power of the decision makers.
The LMC was rightly lampooned for seemingly making it all up on the fly as evidenced by the sheer arbitrariness which marked the compromise idea of an abridged league featuring two groups of 12 teams with four teams to be relegated and a playoff to decide the champions and continental places.
The entire situation, unbecoming and tiresome, led many to predict that the 2018/2019 NPFL season would be a disastrous mediocrity.
But alas, it has proven to be anything but disastrous and although major improvements are required in every single aspect – not least around officiating and curbing fan induced violence, many followers agree that the just concluded season was an improvement on many past seasons. The 28 away wins (7 in Group A and 21 in Group B) for instance, are the most recorded at this same stage (after 22 games) in the NPFL for at least 10 years.
And so it is that after 4 months and 264 games, the race is run for Bendel Insurance, Kwara United, Niger Tornadoes and Remo Stars, in Group A and Gombe United, El Kanemi Warriors, Go Round FC and Yobe Desert Stars from Group B and they must now come to terms with life in the second tier after they were all relegated on a dramatic last day of action on Matchday 22 of the 2018/2019 NPFL season.
For Insurance, Remo Stars and Gombe United, it is a swift return to the Nigeria National League (NNL) after just one year in the topflight. Insurance, in particular, must be desperately disappointed with how a season in which they had hoped to reassert themselves as a topflight mainstay following a decade in the lower tier has ended. Remo Stars, who appear to have perfected the art of going straight down following promotion will question the wisdom of dispensing with the services of Fatai Osho for Kennedy Boboye and must surely feel a sense of déjà vu at the familiarity of it all. And the less said about the cataclysmic collapse of El Kanemi Warriors, the better.
Enugu Rangers, Lobi Stars and Enyimba from Group A will slug it out with Akwa United, Kano Pillars and FC Ifeanyiubah from Group B for the league title and three continental places in the postseason Super Six playoffs which reportedly will be staged in Lagos.
The thing is, with the exception of the first four teams and already relegated Remo Stars and Niger Tornadoes in Group A and the top three teams and already condemned Yobe Desert Stars in Group B, no other teams were sure of their topflight status heading into the final round of league fixtures and so it proved as the fifth-placed teams in both groups – Bendel Insurance and El Kanemi Warriors – ended up being relegated.
In a similar vein only leaders Enugu Rangers in Group A and the top two of Akwa United and Kano Pillars in Group B had secured playoff spots where third to sixth were still in with a shot at the playoffs and just three points separated 3rd from 11th.
And so, a season that portended disaster ended up serving gripping drama, and, from being criticized, there now appears to be a groundswell of support for this season’s two group format to be retained for next season not just for the entertainment witnessed this season but also because it seemingly addresses the unique challenges Nigerian club sides face.
Could it be that the LMC has unwittingly stumbled on a winning formula which could be repeated with 20 teams next season?
In any event and whatever form the 2019/2020 NPFL season takes, El Kanemi Warriors won’t be around to participate after suffering a mindboggling collapse that saw them go from joint top in Group B with six games to go, to making preparations for life in the NNL next season.
It all started after the 2-2 draw against visiting Go Round FC in Maiduguri where the home fans had to be dispersed by gun-wielding security personnel after they exhibited a shocking level of depravity at full time. Warriors would take just one point from a possible twelve after that incident although heading into their final match against Heartland, they still had an outside chance of making the playoffs as well as a big chance of suffering relegation depending on the outcome of results elsewhere.
Ninth-placed Heartland desperately needed a victory of their own to ensure survival and their 2-0 win over Warriors courtesy of goals by Chukwudi Nwaodu and Uche Oguchi from the spot simultaneously secured their topflight status and condemned Mohammed BabaGanaru’s El Kanemi Warriors to the second tier.
Go Round FC started the day in 11th and seemingly never quite recovered from that ordeal in Maiduguri and ultimately paid the price for their patchy home form. They were relegated after losing 1-0 at home against Gombe United who were also relegated despite picking up a first away of the season.
An impressive campaign by minnows Go Round – the first team to record more than one victory away from home – ends in heartbreak although, a victory was unlikely to have saved them given their negative goals difference. It could have been very different had they managed a win rather than the 1-1 draw at home to Plateau United on Matchday 20 and the late goal which denied them victory at Nasarawa United on the penultimate matchday also proved costly.
Emmanuel Deutsch’s Abia Warriors, dead and buried as at Matchday 17, are surely one of the stories of season after they performed an act of supreme escapology by winning four and drawing one of their last five matches to finish in fifth place. Considering that they lost five of six games, scoring just once before Matchday 18, their achievement to score 14 goals in their subsequent games which included 4 in a win at Heartland, two in a draw at Akwa United and 3-0 wins against FC Ifeanyiubah and Kano Pillars on the last day is nothing short of heroic.
FC Ifeanyiubah needed a point to ensure their playoff spot but took all three at home in a 2-1 defeat of Akwa United in Nnewi which put paid to Nasarawa United’s bid for a playoff spot despite their 2-1 victory at already relegated Yobe Desert Stars. Sunusi Ibrahim’s brace for Nasarawa brings him level on 10 goals with Mfon Udoh on top the goals scorer chart.
The point from their goalless draw in Asaba proved enough for Delta Force and Plateau United to avoid the drop. Plateau stave off relegation courtesy of a superior goals difference over Gombe United who also finished with 30 points. Abdu Maikaba gets another chance to make his expensive experiment work in Jos.
Sunshine Stars escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth with Dayo Ojo netting a hattrick which included a brace of penalty goals in the 4-2 goals fest against visiting MFM FC to help the home side finish just one point above the relegation places in Group A.
MFM’s defeat ended their playoff hopes as they could not take advantage of rivals Enyimba’s 2-1 defeat at Katsina United to leapfrog them into third. The other playoff spot was claimed by Lobi Stars who confirmed second place with a goalless draw at already relegated Remo Stars.
A 1-0 win at already relegated Niger Tornadoes wasn’t enough to save Kwara United from the drop after an erratic season which witnessed staff demonstrations against unpaid salaries and an unsuccessful attempt by manager Abubakar Bala to jump ship. Despite winning their last two games against already relegated teams, their run of just three points out of a possible 21 prior to the last two games sealed their fate.
Wikki needed a win against Rangers to save themselves from the drop and they got it courtesy of Manu Garba’s 61st minute effort although Bendel Insurance weren’t as lucky as they fell 1-0 to Rivers United in Port Harcourt to earn a swift return from whence they came after a solitary season in the NPFL.
Insurance pay the price for their reticence in front of goal that saw them fail to score on 12 occasions as well as too many drawn games including four at home and ten in total – although ironically, the masters of the stalemate couldn’t get one when it mattered the most.
2018/2019 NPFL MATCH DAY 19 RESULTS
RIVERS UNITED 1-0 BENDEL INSURANCE SUNSHINE STARS
(Konan Ruffin 71’ (pen))
SUNSHINE STARS 4-2 MFM FC
(Dayo Ojo 18’ (pen) 25’ (pen) 90’, Anthony Omaka 45’ – Alade Balogun 30’, Chijioke Akuneto 57’)
KATSINA UNITED 2-1 ENYIMBA
(Martins Usule 35’, Tasiu Lawal 65’ (pen) – Chinedu Udechukwu 90’)
NIGER TORNADOES 0-1 KWARA UNITED
(Afeez Nosir 40’’)
WIKKI TOURISTS 1-0 ENUGU RANGERS
(Manu Garba 61’)
REMO STARS 0-0 LOBI STARS
ABIA WARRIOS 3-0 KANO PILLARS
(Tunde Atilola Abdulsalami 9’, Samson Obi 52’, Emeka Isaac 60’)
GO ROUND FC 0-1 GOMBE UNITED
(Adamu Mohammed 9’)
FC IFEANYIUBAH 2-1 AKWA UNITED
(Chijioke Alaekwe 31’, Christian Nnaji 79’ – Ocheme Edoh 87’)
HEARTLAND FC 2-0 EL KANEMI WARRIORS
(Chukwudi Nwaodu 23’, Uche Oguchi 82’ (pen))
YOBE DESERT STARS 1-2 NASARAWA UNITED
(Adamu Ali 45+2’ – Sunusi Ibrahim 12’ (pen), 40’)
DELTA FORCE 0-0 PLATEAU UNITED