On Wednesday October 24, 2018, on the turf of the beautiful Stephen Keshi stadium in Asaba, the Asaba Miracle happened as the slogan of one of Nigeria’s super clubs, NEVER SAY DIE, was humanised.
The occasion was the grand finale of the Aiteo Cup final, and for those who do not understand what that means, I am talking about the Nigerian FA Cup. The duo of Enugu Rangers and their counterparts from Kano, Kano Pillars, competed for a cup that had eluded both for ages in what was a very big game in all its ramifications.
90+1' GOAL! Rangers 3-3 Kano Pillars
Super sub Ajani Ibrahim heads home the equaliser after Ifeanyi George knocks down a corner.
— ACLSports (@acl_sports) October 24, 2018
Before I delve into that game, when my boss asked who would love to travel to Asaba, the capital of Delta State, to cover the forthcoming Aiteo Cup and I indicated interest, and subsequently received approval, little did I know I was about to experience and witness something memorable.
I arrived Asaba exactly 2:10pm on Monday but it took a while for me to settle into a comfortable place. I finally did at around 4pm and an hour later, I headed for the stadium- just to ensure the next day I won’t have a problem locating the stadium in this foreign land.
The day went by so fast, as did the night thereafter, and in a flash, it was Tuesday- the day for possible interviews with the gladiators, who were due for training between 3 and 4pm. In my usual way, I was at the stadium at 2pm and watched both sides train.
Both teams refused their players talking to me after the sessions, but ensured their officials were as accessible as possible, which I guess was comforting. My efforts to still engage the players failed, especially with Rabiu Ali of Pillars and Rangers skipper, Okey Odita.
Like the previous two days before it, Wednesday was here- the D-day had arrived- cometh the day, cometh the hour. It was time to watch these players make history for their sides.
The Flying Antelopes last won the cup in 1983, 35 years ago, but had played in at least five finals since then. For their opponents, Sai Masu Gida, they last lifted the cup in 1953, 65 years ago, when it was still known as the Governor’s Cup and have failed to reach the final since doing so in 1991, when they narrowly lost to El-Kanemi Warriors.
So, for one of these two giants, the long wait for a first cup victory was about to end- it was just 90minutes at least away. Both sides were super motivated and optimistic of heading back home with the diadem, this much they exclusively told ACLSports.com, and like I earlier said, the players were not allowed to say anything; they needed “no distractions” and would prefer the talking done on the pitch.
Then came the moment, the boys were ready to be separated from the men and the men from the boys. Nonetheless, who were the men and who were the boys?
— Duwem (@D_WarEagle) October 24, 2018
For the first 48 minutes of the match, the Antelopes did anything and everything but FLY(ing). A catastrophic start saw them look down and out as Pillars played like the men. It was a tie that reminded me of the 2005 UEFA Champions League final between English team, Liverpool and Italian giants, AC Milan.
Like the Italians that day, Pillars went in front in the opening five minutes through a veteran and legend, Rabiu Ali, who was left unmarked and he aptly hammered home a brilliant effort from six yards out to put Ibrahim Musa’s men in front.
Another poor defending would gift Pillars a second as Alhassan Ibrahim doubled their advantage, leaving Rangers in a state of shock. While Milan scored three first half goals that fateful day, Pillars were handed a golden opportunity to do same but Junior Lokosa failed to direct his header on goal, missing the sitter from six yards.
The half ended with Pillars deservedly and comfortably (so we all thought) ahead, leaving the team from the coal city with more questions than they had answers for at the start of the game.
After the restart, things went from bad to worse for Rangers when Nyima Nwangua’s shot from inside the box went past a helpless and shaky Olufemi Thomas in goal for the Enugu side to make it 3-0, effectively putting the game to bed. Once again, that was what everyone thought.
Now, at this point, the third goal was particularly disheartening for all associated with the Antelopes, the supporters have now stopped to sing and cheer , the stadium went cold and some left for their homes with Pillars and their fans the only ones who had anything left to celebrate. Even the Rangers bench had had enough, replacing the wobbly goalkeeper Thomas, who was at fault for the third goal, with Nana Bonsu, whose confidence in between the sticks gave his side renewed strength.
Meanwhile, the chips may be down but it was not the first time Rangers had found themselves behind in this competition, having come from a goal down in their quarterfinal clash to win via penalties and then, two goals behind against Nasarawa United in the semis before winning 4-2. But surely, three goals were two many, you will agree with me because I had already prepared my match report with the title “Dominant Pillars thrash Rangers to lift Aiteo Cup”.
It was indeed @RangersIntFC' destiny!
Quarter-final: Came from ONE goal down to win on PKs.
Semi-final: Came from TWO goals down to win 4-2.
Final: Come from THREE goals down to win on penalties.
HOLY! HOLY! HOLY! HOLY!
ENUGU RANGERS IS ANOTHER CHAMPION! #AiteoCupFinal18
— Fisayo Dairo (@FisayoDairo) October 24, 2018
However, apart from the goalkeeper, Rangers manager, Gbenga Ogunbote, made two other tactical substitutions- Kevin Itoya and Ajani Ibrahim, and alongside Bonsu, who became the heroes for the Antelopes.
The match came to life thereafter, and in the space of 11 late minutes, Rangers went on rampage, starting with Itoya, who perhaps heard when I told those around me that it was game over for them. He rifled home a 30 yard screamer to kick start the stunning comeback which brought the score line to 3-1.
My initial lede, which had ‘3-0’ changed to ‘3-1’, then, Chidera Ezeh pulled a second goal back, my head line changed to “Dominant Pillars survive late scare from Rangers to lift Aiteo Cup”, with my lead also changing to include the score line ‘3-2’.
Therefore, you can envisage the state I found myself when the inconceivable happened, the other substitute, Ibrahim headed Rangers level with two minutes left to play. My headline, lead and story became nothing but a useless draft.
My headline in the draft was "Dominant Pillars thrash Rangers to lift Aiteo Cup"
— Duwem (@D_WarEagle) October 24, 2018
I could hardly believe my eyes, Liverpool scored their goals in the space of seven second half minutes and in 11 second half minutes, Rangers pulled off their own “NEVER SAY DIE” moment with yours truly watching live. I was in awe, the desolate Rangers supporters club found their voice again as the stadium erupted into a frenzy.
Rangers had done the improbable, Liverpool went on to beat Milan 3-2 on penalties after extra time, but at the Stephen Keshi stadium, there won’t be any extra time. It was straight to a penalty shootout. Pillars missed two of their kicks, with Bonsu saving one, while Rangers netted all theirs for an unlikely 4-2 victory.
A night to remember for everyone who watched the game, especially those of us in the stadium- the greatest comeback in Nigerian cup competition history just happened before our very eyes, a year into my job as a reporter.
The stadium is rocking!!! Abeg who construct am o? I never marry abeg!!! #YourSportsMemo
— Duwem (@D_WarEagle) October 24, 2018
The emotions were high and I forgot that I was not even a fan of Rangers, but do not blame me, I was caught in the moment and could only think about two individuals- my boss, Calvin Onwuka, and my father, Obum Akawor, two avid supporters of the FLYING Antelopes.
They will always drum into the ears of anyone who cared to listen that the Enugu side was the greatest club in Nigeria’s history. On this night, to me, they finally deserve (d) that title- at least for now.
It was a night that will remain in my mind for a very long time, a night that was made possible by ACLSports. A night that for the first time in my life, I saw Rangers feel what Liverpool did in 2005, and it is this image and experience that will last a lifetime.