FEATURE: How Kotoko turned an easy ride into a roller coaster

The clock barely read 30 minutes, but Heart of Lions were already two goals up away in Tema against Amidaus Professionals. They were on fire. They were buzzing.

Yusif Abubakar’s charges knew they had an outisde chancing of creeping into the the title race. It was not theirs to call, though. Seven points adrift of the top and with three games to go, the the ball was certainly not in their court. All they were sure of was that not winning would not help their cause. All they could do – and had to do – was to win, and hope. And here they were, coming out of the blocks ferociously, leaving no stone unturned. They were feeling the thrill of closing their end of the deal, blindsided by the other end, but hopeful…because all they could do was hope at that point.

The other end? League leaders Asante Kotoko, Lions’ rivals for the title, were away at New Edubiase United, and were struggling to score. They were nervous. They needed a win to seal their 23rd Ghana Premier League title, just three points to land their third league win on the trot. Edubiase were proving stubborn, too. They had their own issues, their own motivations: trying to avoid getting embroiled in the massive relegation battle, and they were not in any mood to allow the Porcupine Warriors to pop the champagne on their turf.

Kotoko’s next two games would be against archrivals Hearts of Oak and resurgent, relegation-threatend Aduana: two very, very difficult fixtures. Lions, on the other hand, had a remaining two fixture line-up that read: Ashanti Gold away and King Faisal at home; two very winnable games per their current form and current strength of the opposition.

And so there was a strong sense that if Kotoko blew this chance to wrap up the title, it could prove costly. It would be unthinkable, one of the biggest cock-ups in the history of football.

At a point, in mid season, Kotoko were firmly in control at the top, breaking away from the lot with a commanding lead that reached 13 points at a point in time. They had started the season with so much fire, racking up 11 wins out of 15 in the first round.

But after a brief flash of seriousness early in the second round, they underwent a bizarre decline. It was as if they had grown increasingly bored at the top, becoming vulnerable to lethargy and complacency. The desire to sustain their form and charge towards a Bayern Munich-style midseason title wrap-up was sucked out of them by the inability of their competitors to give them a decent run for their money.

Seemingly stripped bare of their desire to compete, they paid the price, squandering a huge chunk of the lead with soulless performances and bad results. Prior to the Edubiase game, they had won just once in seven league games, and though coach Mas-Ud Didi Dramani kept playing down murmurs of a slow capitulation, there was a sense of uneasiness setting in. A sense of fear, perhaps. Was it slipping away? Dramani said the players had experienced “a dip in motivation that is natural due to the absence of competition,” and that they would eventually snap out of it. Interim General Manager Samuel “Lord Zico” Opoku Nti said they were “tired” : “I’ve seen it from my days as a footballer too, when a team knows they have already wrapped up the title some of these things set in.”

There were issues, some claimed. There were whispers that coach Dramani – who was heading towards a second title for the club – wanted closure on his future, a new contract, an assurance that Kotoko appreciated him. And there was the ever-lingering feeling of uncertainty and lack of confidence surrounding the tenure of Lord Zico too. The wave of instability was palpable, and in it’s damaging ferrocity, it threatened to derail their ambitions.

But on 41 minutes in Bekwai, Kotoko rose from their slumber. The reds found the back of the net, an accompanying reverberting roar sweeping across Kumasi, laced with the deep, symbolic sigh of relief. Lanky marksman Seidu Bansey was the scorer, calming millions of Kotoko nerves with his 12th goal of the season whilst deflating the resistance of the home team.

That goal was essentially the title winner. Once the ball went in, Kotoko believed, and they knew they had finally closed the deal after the much publicized delays. Prince Baffoe added a second on the stroke of half time, and though Edubiase missed a penalty and later got a consolation, it was Kotoko’s game in the end. Kotoko’s day.

News of the happenings in Bekwai must have found it’s way to Tema. Lions returned from the break and they were not themselves anymore, failing to muster the same enthusiasm from the first half. They ended up not scoring, rather conceding a goal to end the game as 2-1 winners. It was curtains, and they knew it.

What Kotoko had done in Bekwai was that they had responded and raised their game when the danger was most imminent; bolted towards the finish line when the enemy was closest. Largely expected to to falter owing to their own poor form and their poor record in Bekwai (never won there), Kotoko’s win was a significant indication that they still had genes of champions: the ability to strike when least expected, to triumph when stuck against the odds.

These are good times at Kotoko. They now have four league titles more than Hearts of Oak – who have been trophyless for the last five years – and are dreaming of being on the receiving end of a guard of honour at home when both sides clash for the 100th time on June 1. After three years of ruling the roost, Kotoko are now safely the cocks of the walk in Ghana. Hearts of Oak were once there too, most recently from the late 90s to the early 2000s, winning the league six times on the trot amid other domestic and continental trophies.

But the tables have turned. Kotoko, on the 15th anniversary of their founder, owner and life patron, Otumfour Osei Tutu II – the Ashanti Monarch – have wrestled the much coveted title of ‘champion club’ from crisis-strewn Hearts, who don’t look anything like a club that will bounce back soon. Kumasi is now the center of Ghanaian football power.

It is their era, their time, their turn in the ever changing seasons of dominance. But for how long?

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