By Sam Nnaji
It is hard to imagine what winning a league title was like three decades ago. Were medals doled out to the winners? Was there a guard of honour? A parade down the streets throughout the city? Perhaps they partied all night and maybe they got a grand reception from the state’s chief executive? Maybe. But evidently those glory days were characterized by battle chants and victory choruses, new fans were converted on a daily basis and the match venues of the league winners were packed full long before kickoff.
Between 1974 and 1984, Rangers International had won six league titles, five FA Cups, an African Cup Winners Cup (now CAF Confederation Cup) title in 1977 amidst regular appearances on the continent. Undoubtedly one of the two biggest teams in the country, they regularly supplied playing personnel for the national teams. The Enugu club had built for themselves a very strong side with a fine rich tradition. That was in the days when some of today’s league heavyweights were still teething, trying to feed on the whatever crumbs the then big boys had leftover, some others had not even been formed.
Strangely, Rangers shockingly went limp in the years that followed and a steady decline set in. The giant was unable to reproduce the performances that characterized the fruitful years. The momentum moved to the likes of Iwuanyanwu Nationale (now Heartland), Julius Berger and more recently Enyimba and Kano Pillars and the only positive was that somehow they ensured that year after year, a Premier League status was ensured. The younger generation most of whom either never witnessed those conquests or were too young to understand were left to make do with tales and pictures whenever memories were brought to the fore.
But the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu refreshed memories of what those glory days were like when it hosted over 20,000 fans in Rangers 2-1 win over Nasarawa United in the ground’s first Friday night game. Friday night games have become very popular in the league in recent times but this most recent edition was unprecedented, a perfect setting in all ramifications. The blazing floodlights announced to fans within its reach that indeed Ogui Road was the ‘happening place’ that moment. The fans heeded the invitation and into the grounds they throng to thousands of others watching, eagerly awaiting kickoff. It seemed everyone in the city was there; fathers, mothers, children, old faces and young ones. The bright neon lights from the new electronic scoreboard adding to the lovely spectacle.
Beyond just a nice Friday evening gathering, this team had wooed Enugu fans with their breathtaking displays since the start of the season. Imama Amapakabo’s boys play what probably is the most scintillating football in the championship. The deadly quartet of Bobby Clement, Godwin Aguda, Obinna Nwobodo and Chisom Egbuchulam (acronym CANE from their last names) have terrorized defences to calamitous effect so far this season; their movement off and on the ball, the flash of their attacks and their potency in front of goal when it required.
It was not surprising hence when that crowd held its breath in hope and anticipation when Chisom Egbuchulam set out with a trademark run in the third minute toward the Nasarawa goal. Expectedly so from a player who has six goals so far this term. They collectively heaved disappointingly when his strike flew over the target. Unlucky not to be on the scoresheet but his assist handed Rangers the opener. A blur of explosive bursts, he was at the heart of almost everything Rangers created on the night. Beyond a doubt, he looks to have come of age this season, symbolic of his team that had disappointed in the recent past but looks like it means business this time round.
Beyond just watching the action unfold on the pitch, the fans were having themselves a great time. One group situated around the halfway line and facing the VIP gallery were partying all through. Clad in various attires and with diverse musical instruments, they were playing their drums, lighting up flames, waving the club’s flags while a few others jangled bells. The rest who ‘unprepared’ for the ensuing carnival quickly joined the party when the opportunity called for it. First was in the 23rd minute when Clement’s firm header from Egbuchulam’s corner-kick broke Nasarawa United’s resistance. ‘Holy, holy holy, holy Enugu Rangers is another champion!’ echoed round the stadium, some were standing, others clinched fists in solidarity.
It was not a select few singing, both old and young were as one, loud in their voices. Next was the circle after circle of Mexican waves that swept through and through the galleries in the second half. The joyous expression as each section roared and lifted their arms in unison as it went by meant they were having a time of their life. This was different, this was unique, this was fever pitch excitement, beyond what is common in these regions.
Friday night’s experience epitomizes more than just the goings on at Rangers right now it symbolizes a rejuvenated league itself to a greater extent. Beautiful eye-catching football is back, more and more fans are joining the party, surely the glory days look on its way back.
For Rangers, what had been a whisper is getting louder by the day and although only the bravest of their fans can afford making the assertions at the moment with confidence, the rest of the Premier League pack are taking notice; Rangers look the real deal this season, a 32-year title wait could be over by October.