NPFL 2019/20: The top dogs, the strugglers and the damned

By Fisayo Dairo

One hundred and forty-four (144) is a number largely synonymous to the study of Eschatology – a religious teaching on the events of the last days of humanity. But for this purpose, that is the exact number of days that separates the last Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season from the next one.

After over four months of rest, regrouping and a record number of pre-season competitions; the real Football is back. Nigeria’s top flight hardly ever gets any credit for its own contribution to the economy but it all begins again this weekend, with the league chipping in its own stimulant to local economies in cities where it is played..

Transportation companies will catch the buzz and hoteliers in at least sixteen cities evenly spread geographically across the nation will receive guests in the form of teams, scouts, fans, journalists and observers while there will be at least some positive distractions from the ever tiresome hustle and bustle of socio-economic lives.

From the footballing aspect, the tension and indeed pressure starts from Match Day One. The league will return to its marathon league format (38 match weeks) after last season’s abridged arrangement, a development that should give each of the twenty teams ample time to write their destinies by their own selves.

The contenders remain in good frame for contending yet again while the pretenders continue to work their way away from delusion as they aspire for continental football when they should be dreading a return to the rather incalculable Nigeria National League (NNL).

The contenders

Apart from being the defending champions, Enyimba International are naturally one of the consistent contenders for the league crown in Nigeria. Considering their continental engagement which has put them in top competitive shape for the past six weeks, Usman Abd’Allah’s side remain one of the favourites to retain their title.

They have once again reinforced with some of the best legs in the division in each position. Former Lobi goalkeeper Olufemi Kayode, former Abia Warriors defender Abiodun Adebayo, former Sunshine Stars midfielder Dayo Ojo and strikers Victor Mbaoma and Martins Usule are some of the over a dozen players they have brought on. They seem ready for it.

Kano Pillars finished second to Enyimba last term and have kept the core of that squad. Although they have lost a cult hero in Gambo Muhammad, a recent dire performance at both the CAF Champions League and the Ahlan Cup have also given cause for pessimism among fans but they have managed to bring in players like Joshua Enaholo (from Abia Warriors), defender Abdullahi Musa from Wikki Tourists, towering midfielder Kelly Kester from Lobi Stars and forward Chijioke Alaekwe from FC Ifeanyiubah. Coach Ibrahim Musa’s men cannot be waved away.

The league title has eluded Akwa United since creation and the club is getting more and more roused for this. New coach John Obuh has brought in as many as fifteen new players with incredible league experience to the squad. League’s topscorer in 2009 Akarandut Orok heads this list while the array of midfielders in the side should strengthen them for a title race. The title-winning experience of newly signed goalkeeper Itodo Akor (at Rangers in 2016) should also come in handy.

Gbenga Ogunbote, nicknamed the Oracle has moved to the North Central part of the country – for the first time in his coaching career. He has joined Lobi Stars after two fine seasons at Rangers. For a manager that has earned continental spot in his last three seasons, he seems to possess the magic wand to make things happen again in Makurdi. Ogunbote’s trusted soldier, Danladi Isa is back at his home town club while winger Joseph Osadiaye, defender Olamilekan Aniyikaye, midfielder Chinedu Udeagha and forward Abdulkareem Mumuni are some of other new players at the club.

Plateau United coach Abdu Maikaba is still being respected for his stint at Akwa United but things have not quite come together for him in Jos. This might just be his year. He has no national team distractions that almost led to an unexpected relegation of his team last term and has the likes of goalkeeper Chinedu Anozie, goalscoring midfielder Michael Ibe, winger Sunday Anthony and Tosin Omoyele, back from a short stint in Egypt to add to his side. The Tin City side want a taste of the champagne once again.

Those that may struggle

Rivers United have done a lot of business once again in the window, thanks to the bottomless purse of their financiers, the Rivers state government. Head coach Stanley Eguma brought in no fewer than 13 new players, including enterprising winger Michael Enaruna, former Sharks star Fortune Omoniwari and 2013 Africa Cup of Nations winner Azubuike Egwuekwe. They are decked with lofty expectations back home but will they shake off the pretenders’ tag?

Rangers International have had a steady run in the past couple of seasons but the jury is out on the ability of incumbent coach Benedict Ugwu, fondly called Surugede during his days as a cult hero among Rangers faithful. The club have done some shrewd business by bringing in players from their Oriental rivals. Uche John and Ikechukwu Ibenegbu from Enyimba, Ibrahim Olawoyin from Abia Warriors and Nnamdi Egbujuo from Heartland will don the Rangers colour this season but how far they go might likely depend on what is coming from the bench.

There is a new government in Imo state and it seem to have prioritised bringing back the lost glory (if there was any) of Heartland FC. The club have brought in former MFM FC handler Fidelis Ilechukwu as their head coach and have also turned to some experienced league campaigners to see that this dream can be actualised. Super Eagles goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa is back to his home town club and add to that Abdulrazak Aliyu, Edward Okhoya and Christian Pyagbara. For Fidelis Ilechukwu, the true test of man’s ability comes outside his comfort zone. There you are!

Relegation battle

At least one newly promoted side has been relegated at the end of each of the past six seasons (apart from the 2018 inconclusive season of course). The number has even grown to like two or three newly promoted sides in the past three seasons. Such is the demanding nature of playing in the elite division for the newly promoted sides.

This season, teams such as Adamawa United, Warri Wolves and Jigawa Golden Stars have the unwanted favouritism tag for demotion while existing NPFL sides like Wikki Tourists, MFM FC, Delta Force and FC Ifeanyiubah are primed to be entangled with relegation hullabaloo in the upcoming season.

Adamawa United look the least ready for the season on paper. They are currently coached by Jacob Vandi, with a yet-to-be-named Technical Adviser expected to come in ahead of him. They will play their games in Gombe (not Yola) and have not really done some astute business of bringing in experienced league stars.

Jigawa Golden Stars impressed at the Ahlan Cup in Kano but they still lack the conviction of staying up in the end. They will also play their home games away from home in Kaduna and these things do matter. Wikki Tourists have Ibrahim Garba at the helms and quite a number of players that were with them last term but the loss of captain Abdullahi Musa and coach Aliyu Zubairu could have some effect on them. Another club that can be affected by the exit of their former coach is MFM FC who have looked largely out of sorts during pre-season. Their prayers look more like their greatest asset going into the new season.

Warri Wolves have already changed coaches even during pre-season and although they have turned to their former stars during the 2014-15 golden era – Goodluck Onamado, Abu Azeez, Michael Egbeta, Efe Yarhere and the likes – staying afloat at the end of the season will still remain a big task for head coach Evan’s Ogenyi and his wards.

The wait is over, the drums are out and the balls are ready. Let the show begin!