When the 2019/20 season of the Nigerian Professional Football League was halted abruptly on matchday 25 by the coronavirus-forced nationwide lockdown, not many could have predicted it would take another nine months to see league football return.
With the previous season abandoned, the decision for a kickoff date for the new season was made to seem perhaps more complicated than it needed to be. Tentative dates flew around, amidst rumours that the league would not even be a possibility in 2020.
The wait finally ended on 27 December, exactly 285 days since the last game, NPFL football made a return, and on the evidence of the first round of matches, it looks better than ever.
Although the games were closed off to the general public because of the pandemic, there was still a decent amount of fanfare and buzz around the league’s return. The hashtags #NPFL21 and #NPFLISBACK circulated through Twitter.
To give credit where its due, the League Management Company are finally doing what is required to help the NPFL earn the ‘professional’ title in its name with three games of the opening matchday available on free-to-air TV and on the league’s streaming platform NPFL.TV at impeccable quality.
The social media activity surrounding the new season made it even more attractive with Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr and international Moses Simon joining in the frenzy by posting pictures of themselves streaming an NPFL match.
Even the clubs appear to be ready to step into the new age, as the social media handles for a good number of clubs were noticeably more interactive, with teams like Abia Warriors even releasing graphics of their squad list and numbers for the season, as a means to familiarise fans with the players.
All of that aside, the football didn’t disappoint, ten interesting games spread across four days took place all over the country, records were broken, history was made and 19 goals were scored in total.
The Nasarawa Township Stadium witnessed the first goal of NPFL21, as Promise Damala gave Wikki Tourists the lead just 5 minutes into the encounter, in one of the many 4pm kickoffs on Sunday.
The joy was short lived though as Reuben Nicodemus (the most biblical name of all time) drew Nasarawa United level just two minutes later, before grabbing his and the team’s second in the 2nd half to secure all three points.
In keeping with the trend of early goals, it took MFM striker, Ebenezer Odeyemi just eight minutes to score on his debut to put the Church boys in the lead at home to Warri Wolves, with loyal fans standing outside the locked gates at the Agege stadium to get as close to the action as possible.
The lead was doubled via an own goal as Muyiwa’s cross was deflected in by an opposition player, and even though John Chinedu capped off an exhilarating first half by pulling one back for the Seasiders, MFM held on for a 2-1 win at home.
From two outcomes anyone could have predicted to the one no one saw coming, by far the standout result of the matchday, Plateau United lost 2-0 at the New Jos Stadium to Kwara United.
Jide Fatokun and Michael Ohanu scored the goals in quickfire fashion, in the 64th and 67th minutes respectively to help Abdu Maikaba’s men open the season with a loss, Plateau United’s first home defeat in 19 games, a run comprising 16 wins and 3 draws.
Speaking of winning streaks at home, Jigawa Golden Stars ensured Gbenga Ogunbote’s second coming at Sunshine Stars didn’t start positively as they secured a 1-0 win, their sixth consecutive home win, all of which have been by a one-goal margin.
FC Ifeanyi Ubah also took full advantage of the home fixture, beating Lobi Stars in a straightforward home win devoid of any drama, Nonso Nzediegwu with the only goal of the game early in the second half.
The only draw of the Sunday fixtures and the first of two draws in the entire matchday came between Adamawa United and Kano Pillars, an exciting clash between two Northern teams ending 1-1.
Rabiu Ali gave Kano Pillars the lead 14 minutes into the game, with an historic goal, making him the first player to score in nine consecutive NPFL seasons and the oldest player (40 years and 3 months old) to score in the league since such records started being kept.
Midfielder, Garba Isa came off the bench to snatch a point for Adamawa United, grabbing a 76th minute equaliser, forcing both sides to share the spoils.
The only other draw happened at the magnificent Bird’s Nest stadium in Uyo on Monday, as the “Qua Iboe” derby between Akwa United and Dakkada FC ended in a stalemate with neither side able to find the back of the net in the first televised game of the season.
The only other game on Monday was in stark contrast to the derby, a scintillating five-goal thriller between Katsina United and Heartland edged by the home side who emerged 3-2 winners thanks to some late drama.
Onyedikachi Bright stunned the hosts by giving Heartland the lead just 2 minutes into the game, but Boubacar Massally levelled proceedings just before halftime to ensure it was level at the break.
The boys from Owerri continued to look like the better side and their efforts were rewarded deep into the second half, Heartland retook the lead thanks to an 81st minute strike from Samuel Nnochiri.
Just 7 minutes later, Boubacar Massally worked his magic once more and scored another equaliser, his and Katsina United’s second of the game, but what happened next would surely have sent the fans into delirium if they were allowed in the stadium.
Katsina United followed their 88th minute equaliser with a 92nd minute winning goal scored by Samuel Lucio Kalu as the home side snatched victory at the death, a crushing loss for Fidelis Ilechukwu and his team.
The final two games of the matchday were both televised, the Abia derby between Enyimba and Abia Warriors on Tuesday and Rivers United vs Enugu Rangers on Wednesday in what was a good advertisement for the league.
Enyimba won the much publicised Abia derby by a lone goal, 25-year-old striker Samad Kadiri keeping a cool head to convert a penalty in the 52nd minute, which proved to be the difference between both sides.
The 10th and final game of the NPFL21 Matchday one took place at the Adokiye Amiesimaka stadium, Port Harcourt as Stanley Eguma outwitted his opponent, Salisu Yusuf tactically to lead Rivers United to a 1-0 win against Rangers.
The game had a subplot with some players having recently joined Rivers United from Rangers, most notably Godwin Aguda and Bobby Clement who had a lot to prove to their former club.
It was another former Rangers player that had the decisive impact in the game, Fortune Omoniwari who had a short stint with the Flying Antelopes in 2017 scored the only goal of the game in the 28th minute to help Rivers United secure all three points.
Rangers pressed intensely in search of an equaliser, and even though Rivers United were reduced to 10-men when Emotan Cletus picked up his second yellow card in the 73rd minute, they still held on for an important win.
That sums up the action from the first round of NPFL matches, the #NPFLISBACK and it came back more organised, more professional and certainly more attractive, hopefully this is not a one-off and it only gets better from here on.