The 2015/16 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) has finally come to an end with all its thrills and frills.Rangers International of Enugu were duly crowned champions after a scintillating 4-0 bashing of El-Kanemi Warriors on the final day while Rivers United and Wikki Tourists secured tickets for the CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup respectively. Here are five things we learnt from the last day of NPFL.
Right Mentality Attitude Win Matches and Titles
A lot has been said about Rangers’ beautiful football played this season and rightly so. A lot has also been said about coach Imama Amapakabo’s tactical savvy and I am pretty certain, very few people can deny that too. But, the mentality of the manager, I think, was the difference between Rangers International and the chasing pack. From the get go in February, Imama was ready to defy the odds and go against the convention as NPFL players and teams usually have this defeatist mentality about playing away from home. But, from the very first game of the season between his side and Kano Pillars at the Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano, Rangers set the tone. Rangers totally outplayed the home side before a late goal from Prince Aggreh turned the table around for Pillars. That game could have knocked the mental fragility of the Enugu-based side as it has done for the better part of the last few years when they start well and cannot sustain it but it did not.
On the eve of the final game, I had a chat with Imama about his preparations for the game and that conversation was quite revealing. The Rangers manager told me point-blank he was not interested in all the celebratory plans being put together by the club’s management. According to him, he was more concerned with the “90 minutes still left of the season” as he knew the “title was not yet won.” He also noted that he had stopped going to pubs and joints because almost everyone in Enugu felt his team had already won the crown weeks ago. “Everywhere I go, people were always shaking my hands congratulating me on a job well done,” he said. “I don’t want my players to get complacent until we finish the job against El-Kanemi,” he had remarked. And Rangers did finish the job in style ending 32 years of hurt majorly because they had a manager who never took his eyes off the ball for a second. Hats off to him.
Rivers United Finished Well but...
Second-placed Rivers United finished on a high, winning their first game on the road for about four months which ultimately gave the club a berth into the lucrative CAF Champions League. I have to admit I did think Rivers United were going be in and around the middle table position. So, to be in a position to be within touching distance of winning the title on the final day of the season, was in itself very remarkable. For a manager who was under fire very early in the season, Stanley Eguma and his team capped off a remarkable season in style and deserve all the encomium he has been getting.
However, you do sometimes get the feeling that having gotten close, Rivers United could have actually done better. That line about being a new club usually trotted does not hold much waters as far as I am concerned. Yes, in terms of names, Rivers United is new, but it was basically a combination of two former clubs, Sharks and Dolphins. Plus, with the addition of a few important players, the quality of the players combined, the team boast one of the best in the land. Maybe, like someone suggested to me recently, the team did not see the big picture early enough as they seemed quite content
The Fans are Back For Good...
Watching the final game between Rangers International and El-Kanemi Warriors on TV, it felt really cool to see the mammoth crowd at 'The Cathedral.' Now, that has been the hallmark of many centres all across Nigeria. From the Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano, Agege Stadium in Lagos to Aper Aku Stadium in Markudi, the influx of fans at match venues is indeed commendable. More still needs to be done in some centres concerning pockets of unruly fans but overall, it is pleasing to see the league attract this much attention. On the flip side, clubs need to find a way to maximise these influx.
Social Media as an Effective Engagement Tool...
The use of social media has greatly impacted the growth of the NPFL followership and this was rightly seen on the final day with the hashtag #NPFLFinalDay. It went as high as number two on the top trends in Nigeria which was really impressive. Also, a recent survey showed that matches every weekend had an average of 500 posts and as much as 4 million impressions. With this kind of showing, it is no wonder brands like STAR are willing to partner with the league. At this rate, it can only get better.
Referees as Spoilers...
On the final day of the league, the issue of refereeing in some centres still left a lot to be desired. The game between Plateau United and Heartland which was abandoned in Jos was the highlight of some of the ills of refereeing that we saw this season. I must however add that the unprofessional conduct of some clubs in abandoning games need to change. Whatever decision taken by a Referee remains final whether it was right or wrong. As a club, it is the height of unprofessionalism to walk away from a game because of refereeing decision.
Referees world over have issues. It is not a Nigerian problem alone. However, one can’t help but think that some of the refereeing decisions just have a feel like they were a bit premeditated. Or how can you explain the referee’s decision to rule out Heartland’s second goal? Or the penalty decision against MFM a few weeks ago in their game against Niger Tornadoes? While I can understand the offside call against Godwin Obaje in Wikki Tourists’ game versus Enyimba weeks ago as just a refereeing error, the Heartland and Tornadoes decisions can’t be excused as errors.
It is worthy to note that the Nigeria Football Federation has noted these shortcomings. According to President Amaju Pinnick, “Now, the NFF leadership has identified the shortcomings and will initiate positive reforms of the refereeing management process to ensure more effectiveness and improved professional delivery.”