NPFL 2016/17: The best of the best

NPFL 2016/17: The best of the best

The 2016/17 Nigeria Professional Football League season came to a thrilling climax on Saturday with rather fewer surprises than expected. Plateau United comfortably secured their first ever league triumph with a straightforward victory over 2016 Champions Rangers in Jos, while other positions of note were claimed by teams in pole position to do so before the final day round of matches.

A league season with 380 matches always come with lots of exciting and intriguing moments with some negatives also coming in its own proportion as well. Our Chief Football Writer, Fisayo Dairo who watched over 40 of the games live at different stadiums across the country gives us a compilation of the best of what he saw.

Team of the season – MFM FC

On a day the village chiefs refuse to come for the festival, rug rats will run the rule over affairs. That was the story of the just ended season. No one could comfortably predict before the start of the season that any of the top two teams would even be in the top 5 at the end.

Any of champions Plateau United and first runner up MFM have the qualities to be my Team of the Season but I choose the modest church team from Lagos. They are of the youngest teams in the division based on year of formation and have no sort of financial backing like the Champions got from their State government.

The size of their portable abode in Agege, Lagos epitomizes everything about the team which escaped relegation on the final day in 2016 – lean budget, small squad and petite coach. Alas! They will play in the almighty CAF Champions League next year.

Small but mighty – MFM of Lagos’ coach and players

Performance of the Season – Plateau United

No team aptly portrayed “making hay while the sun shines” like Champions Plateau United. The Peace Boys followed up their opening day victory at Remo Stars with a 6-game unbeaten run at a time supposed title rivals were still struggling at their starting blocks.

Kennedy Boboye’s men never lost focus, even when they were knocked off the table for a few weeks, they kept at what they were doing, stayed on top for at least 33 Match Days and left no one in doubt that they are deserving of their maiden league title in 2017. Unplayable at home and dogged away. They scored 39 goals at home, more than any other team (except Akwa United who scored same number in Uyo) and had the best away record in the league, accruing 13 points on the road.

Clearly, that was Champions stuff and they can now surely enjoy their title.

Player of the season – Daniel Itodo (Plateau United)

Daniel Itodo (Plateau United)

For an underdog to emerge winners of a league season, there has to be someone in the team that played a catalyst role to the success of the team. This is football but ironically, Plateau United’s hero Daniel Itodo wreaked havoc with his hands.

Nigerian league had seen lots of long-throw specialists in years before but the likes of Godwin Obinyan, Mike Onyemachara and Stephen Keshi (of blessed memory) would be proud of what Itodo did with United last term. His weaponry long throws served as the outlet the team needed to destroy opponents at their patchy homeground in Jos so much that you wonder where United would be without him.

Itodo contributed 8 direct assists from his long throws without considering those that were flicked on by a teammate before another scores. The likes of Alhassan Ibrahim (Akwa United), league’s topscorer Anthony Okpotu (Lobi Stars) and Chukwuka Onuwa (MFM) were also very consistent and deserve worthy mentions.

Goal of the season – Sikiru Olatunbosun (MFM vs Rangers) 

There were 763 goals across the 378 games concluded last term. There is definitely going to be an avalanche of jaw-breaking and mouth-gaping goals that makes one appreciate the beauty of the round leather game. Out of them all and for this purpose, one has to be singled out.

Nigerian league football dominated global headlines for the right reasons in early March via Sikiru Olatunbosun’s outrageous effort against Rangers, live on TV on Friday, February 24. He received a flick from striker Stephen Odey, took a brilliant first touch to chip the ball over Rangers defender Mathew Etim and immediately followed it with a ferocious volley from 25 yards, over Itodo Akor and into the net. That was the goal that broke the internet.

The League Management Company (LMC)’s laudable initiative to collaborate with the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS) in rewarding super goals under the Wonder Goal Scheme in the second half of the season also helped to reward great goals and some of them are also worthy of my mentioning.

Shedrack Asiegbu‘s chest and volleyed effort against Plateau United on Match Day 25, Aghahowa Otakho‘s 35-yard sizzler that rescued El-Kanemi from what would have been their only home loss of the season, against Rangers on Match Day 23, Victor Chidume‘s visionary effort for Remo Stars from the centre circle at Lobi Stars on Match Day 29 as well as Chukuwebuka Anaekwe‘s solo effort for ABS against El-Kanemi on Match Day 20 were four goals that came close to Olatunbosun’s effort for me.

Coach of the season – Kennedy Boboye (Plateau United)

Boboye – Champion at last

Boboye had shown glimpses of what he is capable of at his former employers Sunshine Stars and Abia Warriors. It was the, not a surprise to many that he started brilliantly at Plateau United. The question had always been: Can he finish it?

Oh yeah, he did this time. His team out-fought, out-foxed and outscored all other 19 teams in the NPFL this season. They were the highest scorers, they conceded the fewest number of goals and also had the joint-highest number of cleansheets.

In a league where sound technical minds are evolving year after year, Boboye out-thought the rest and receives the accolade for what has been a great year for him. MFM’s Fidelis Ilechukwu, Enyimba’s Gbenga Ogunbote, Akwa United’s Abdu Maikaba and Sunshine Stars’ Duke Udi were at their very best and the aforementioned trio helped to put Boboye on his toes till the end of the season.

Game of the Season – Lobi Stars vs Abia Warriors (2-4)

In a league where most away teams have a palpable mental block, it is always amazing to see a team score more than two goals on the road. Abia Warriors actually doubled that in their Match Day 33 game at Lobi Stars.

Lobi are very solid at home and in fact, the loss to Warriors was their only reversal at home in the just concluded season. For a team that scores with reckless abandon in home games, Solomon Ogbeide’s boys were outscored by Warriors who came from behind before racing to a 4-1 lead. Sunday Adetunji scored a brace before succumbing to the injury that ended his season while Kingsley Eduwo also replied with his own brace for Lobi.

Sunshine Stars also secured an identical 4-2 win at ABS on Match Day 28 while Champions Plateau United hammered Gombe United 5-1 in other six-goal thrillers but none can be compared to Lobi’s hammering at the Aper Aku Stadium.

Recovery of the season – Sunshine Stars

When Duke Udi took the reins at Sunshine Stars after their Match Day 25 game against Gombe United, relegation seemed inevitable. After their loss to MFM in his first game in charge, they were 3 points adrift of safety but as they say in local parlance “Warri nor dey carry last”, the Warri-born Udi masterminded a remarkable turnaround.

His team won their next two away games at ABS and Rivers United and although a home loss to Nasarawa United came in between those impressive results, his team ultimately avoided the drop in spectacular fashion, ending the season with another away win at relegated Remo Stars.

Disappointment of the season – Kano Pillars, Rivers United & Rangers

These teams went into the season with high hopes. Rangers and Rivers were the best two teams in 2016 and with the technical astuteness and huge financial backing of each teams respectively, a lot was expected of them both locally and internationally. Hard for anyone to predict they would fight to escape relegation at the end of the season. Utterly disappointing.

For Kano Pillars, they knew the taste of victory having won the league as recent as 2014. They needed their crown back, brought back the experienced Kadiri Ikhana who like Rivers United’s Stanley Eguma signed all the players in this world but they failed woefully.

Revelation of the season – Ikouwem Udoh (Enyimba)

It is never an easy task for a youngster to break into the Enyimba team. The clichéd “harder for a camel to go through a needle’s eye” is apt in this scenario. Enyimba, one of the most comfortable teams in the land in terms of getting and paying top stars hardly have time for the youth, akin to a club in South West London.

This young boy from neighbouring Akwa-Ibom state surprisingly rose through the Enyimba ranks, was patient enough and made 16 appearances in a position that has Chima Akas, home based Super Eagles’ first choice left back. That was a real revelation.

The likes of Destiny Ashadi (Katsina United), Salefu Ochewechi (Remo Stars) and Shooting Stars’ Ayobami Junior were also consistently exceptional even if Ochewechi and Ayobami could not save their teams from relegation in the end.

Villains of the Season – FC Ifeanyiubah

The Anambra Warriors as they are called used their fighting tendencies the very wrong way in the just ended season. Abandoning the very first league game of the season, live on TV due to a controversial refereeing decision was the most ridiculous act I’ve ever seen in professional football, probably since our elders started the India vs Nigeria 99-1 tales.

Ifeanyiubah stepped it a notch higher on Match Day 36 when their players descended on the match officials in a barbaric manner and eventually abandoned the game in stoppage time. LMC, the league organizers have since meted out punishments on the team and its players but we will never forget how a privately owned football club in Nigeria put the game into disrepute without recourse to the ardent followers of the team and the league.

The rest…

Controversy of the season: Enyimba using Ikechukwu Ibenegbu on Match Day 28 against Niger Tornadoes despite his intelligibility. Well, they claimed ignorance and went away with it. Imagine what those 3 points did in the end?

Quote of the season: Still on Enyimba. Coach Gbenga Ogunbote‘s legendary words to his players on Match Day 36. “I told my players to go in there, commit suicide and come out alive.” Indeed, they did and thrashed Wikki Tourists 4-0 on the day.

Fans of the season: ABS FC. They support their team, embrace their opponents and go home peacefully regardless of the result. Worthy of emulation for all teams remaining in the top flight. We hope Kwara United’s fans will do same in Ilorin next season.

Drama of the season: Wikki Tourists vs Rangers in Bauchi. Perhaps the longest league game in Nigeria. The Match Day 33 game started at 4pm and ended at about 6:48pm. What happened, you ask? Referees were harassed, bruised at half time with game at 1-1, so we ended up having over an hour of break before the second half started.

Special mention: Akwa United. Abdu Maikaba’s team were a joy to watch. Free flowing, easy-on-the-eye and breath taking football. So sad they fell short of a continental spot but the Promise Keepers gave league watchers a menu on how football in the NPFL should be played.

ALOHA!

Sincere apologies for taking your time but you may agree with me that it was worth it. Are there any other moments or goals, or personalities or teams that were not acknowledged that you think deserve to be? Let’s have your take in the comments section below.

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