Rivers United: Emerging from Shadows to Championship Contender

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Countdown to Final Day

By Fisayo Dairo

One of the very many reasons we love the round leather game of football is its tendency to spring up surprises when they are least expected or least imagined.

Despite the huge financial backings flowing around for clubs in modern football world – a phenomenon many think is eroding the genuine love and passion for the game – some fairytale examples such as Atletico Madrid’s La Liga winning exploits in 2014 and Leicester City’s shocking run to the Premier League title earlier this year still continue to remind us of certain dynamics of the beautiful game.

When the 2015/16 season of the Nigeria Professional Football League got underway in February this year, only a few followers (if there were any) of the game gave newly formed Rivers United a genuine chance of finishing among the front runners by the end of the season.

Curtains fall on what has been quite an eventful football season in Nigeria this weekend and one of the stories of the season will have to be the Port Harcourt based Pride of Rivers.
Coached by the league’s longest serving manager Stanley Eguma and playing its home games at the antediluvian Yakubu Gowon Stadium in the busy Elekhaia planes of the Garden City, United – indeed an amalgamation of Port Harcourt’s two hitherto struggling clubs, Dolphins and Sharks – quickly banished the ghosts of its ancestors by opening the season with a lone goal victory over Champions Enyimba, Eguma’s first victory over the former African Champions in 4 years.

“That win gave us the kind of confidence we needed for a start,” acknowledged Eguma in a chat to www.npfl.ng
“Before the league started, there were some internal issues as regards raising a formidable team and because of the short time at our disposal, we could not really get the sort of group we wanted but that win against Enyimba brought a lot of confidence to the players and that fired them to believe they can do well.” he reflected
The euphoria that greeted the team’s mental victory had hardly died down when they were reminded of the swinging nature of the NPFL table. A run of three games winless streak (including two consecutive losses away from home) which culminated in United dropping points at home for the first time against Sunshine Stars in Week 8 saw the team drop slightly to the second half of the table, a development that saw the management of the team hand out a 3-game ultimatum to head coach Stanley Eguma. He also concedes that was a turning point for his team as his wards responded by winning six out of the following eight games.

“Although it (the ultimatum) didn’t bother me much but it was important for us to help us focus properly. The ultimatum was not any form of pressure but it was a wake up call which we reacted to positively and we never dropped from the top spots from then.” added Eguma who has previously coached Oriental clubs like Gabros and Iwuanwayu Nationale.

The highlights of United’s season came within that eight-game period. Their two away wins all season (to date) were part of those six wins as well as arguably their best performance of the season, a comprehensive victory over Rangers in Port Harcourt on Match Day 14.

The victory over high-flying Rangers who were blown away by a rapid young United side within the opening 45 minutes instantly installed the Rivers state government sponsored side as one of the title contenders. Rangers had only lost twice in 13 league games at that point and that victory was a well crafted prognosis into what will become of Rivers United at the end of the season.

United’s first choice goalkeeper and a veteran of the league, Rotimi Sunday highlighted the victories over Oriental sides Enyimba and Rangers in Port Harcourt as key to their successful season.
“Those two wins were sweet,” relished Rotimi with great pleasure.

“Nobody gave us the chance against Rangers because they were doing so well but we told ourselves we can do it and we really outclassed them.” said Rotimi a former captain of defunct Dolphins of Port Harcourt.
United built on that result and pushed for an unlikely title in a three-horse race involving them, Wikki Tourists and Rangers.

Despite starting the second stanza of the league with a 3-game unbeaten sequence including two home victories sandwiched by another away draw against Enyimba in Umuahia, United’s undoing had to be their dismal away form from that point – failing to score nor secure a point in seven successive away games. Some of their stars in the first stanza of the league had either suffered a dip in form or succumbed to serious injuries. Fredrick Obomate could not replicate the performances that earned him the League Bloggers’ Player of the Month award in February while all-rounder Chigozie Ihunda popularly called Turkey by United fans never recuperated from a serious injury.

Eguma attributed some of the challenges faced in the second half of the season to injuries to some key components of his side although he insisted this is part of the round leather game.

“The injuries were one of the areas we had issue. Though it is part of the game, we never expected it to have a prolonged effect on the team. Someone like Ihunda (Chigozie) who had stabilized with the team had an injury in Warri and it ruled him out of the season.
“The injuries continued up till this moment affecting my captain Festus Austine, Ayo Asekunowo, Gabriel Olalekan and the accident we had which ruled out someone like Yusuf Jayeola.

“It is really difficult to get players in during the mid-season break because the good players are always tied to their clubs but so far, I think we were able to manage thus far.” Eguma added, looking sombre at this point.
As the team continued in their title challenge with Rangers as the league reach a climax, what seemed to be the final straw that broke the camel’s back was United’s goalless draw with Abia Warriors in their final home game of the season. On a day Rangers won away at Ikorodu United, United’s hopes were deflated and left hanging by a thread going into the final day of the season.

“I think I can attribute our failure to beat Abia Warriors to anxiety and also maybe overconfidence,” said United’s goalkeeper on the day, Sunday Rotimi.

“But it is not yet over for us. I believe a win in Uyo on the final day can still change things for us and we are working towards that.” Sunday, whose brother David plays for Owerri-based side Heartland reminded.

His coach, Eguma however would not blame his players for Sunday’s result while expressing his utmost belief that his team will take this season’s experience in their stride ahead of the next season.

“It’s football. The most important thing was that we created the chances. That has been part of our programmes in training. But unfortunately, that day it was bad we didn’t convert any. Days like that happen in football. It was only our second draw at home but I believe it is just how football is.

“This season’s experience will help us next season. We were down at a time, we brought ourselves up and fought all the way. Even if we don’t win the title eventually, we know we have met the good and the bad part of the season and by next season, we will be able to do better and have a better team next season.” Eguma said after supervising his team’s morning training on Tuesday.