NPFL: Akwa United’s coaching conundrum

Before 2015, Akwa United barely participated in Nigeria's inter-club competitions, and surviving the relegation waters at the end of every season was considered an achievement.

Events took a dramatic turn for the better when the Promise Keepers clinched their first national title. They beat Lobi Stars at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos to lift the Federation Cup. Two years later, they repeated the feat. The Nigeria Professional Football League crown followed in 2021. 

Aside from the 2015 Federation Cup (now Aiteo Cup), club chairman Paul Bassey, a sports journalist turned football administrator, has overseen this triumph.

With two campaigns in the CAF Confederation Cup and a CAF Champions League stint, Akwa United has grown to become one of Nigeria's top five clubs. All of these, thanks to a vast social media following, a loyal fanbase, a home fortress in the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, and the welfare-based management style of its chairman, Bassey.

All of these feel like distant pasts.

Current Form and League Position

The Promise Keepers have been poor this season. Out of 15 games, they have managed to collect maximum points on just three occasions. They lost six matches and shared the spoils five times. Sat 18th on the log, this is, notably, the worst start to a league season in the Bassey dispensation.

This situation has caused serious concern for fans who hope for an immediate change of fortune.

Recent Struggles and Reasons

Last season, after narrowly missing out on qualification for the NPFL Super 6 to Enyimba on goal difference, Deji Ayeni was relieved of his duties. In came Fatai Osho, the one credited with laying the foundation for the new bride of Nigerian club football, Remo Stars, also a CAF Confederation Cup quarter finalist with Enyimba FC and an NPFL winner with Rivers United as assistant to the omnipresent Stanley Eguma in 2022.

Key players such as Cyril Olisema and James Ajako left for Ethiopian Insurance and FUS Rabat, respectively. Liman Ahmadu, Sadeeq Yusuf, and Duke Osimaga were also snapped up by league rivals. These outgoings were not adequately replaced.

Critics have also faulted the recruitment process, which brought in 23 players, but only Seyi Oguntayo, Osoba Kabir, Akintunde Bala, and returning midfield enforcer Dare Ojo appear to have made any meaningful impact.

Upfront, the strikers have underperformed, while others have been played out of position, and it is pertinent to note that Kufre Ebong, Uche Collins, Hadi Mohammed, and Edidiong Ezekiel have all missed chances for fun.

Before he threw in the towel, Osho was vocal about the poor quality of the front line, and all attempts to get them firing proved abortive.

Who will sit in the dugout?

Abdullahi Umar Tyabo began his interim stint against Sunshine Stars in Eket on Thursday, December 21, with a goalless draw. An improved performance was not enough to guarantee a win over Sunshine Stars. However, Umar will remain in charge for the next few games, but the search for a more permanent solution intensifies with the season approaching the halfway line.

The question is: Who will Akwa United’s next head coach be?

Potential Candidates

A reliable source at the club hinted that applications have been pouring in since Fatai Osho bade farewell over a week ago.

Deji Ayeni

After taking over from Kennedy Boboye in February 2022, Ayeni was in charge until the end of the abridged season last term. He guided the Promise Keepers to a fourth-place finish in Group A, narrowly missing out on goal difference to Enyimba in the race for a spot in the NPFL Super 6.

Ayeni is a free agent, and it is understood that he is willing to return to the club. Will Akwa United take the former Sunshine Stars gaffer back? Fingers crossed.

Imama Amapakabo

Amapakabo led Rangers to the NPFL title in 2016, an achievement that remains dear to fans of the Flying Antelopes.

He had a tough time at Abia Warriors, a side plagued by its financial struggles. However, Imama’s imprint was evident on the team, with their catchy display on the ball and impressive goalscoring feat.

He is one of the names being mooted around.

Aliyu Zubairu

El Kanemi Warriors head coach Aliyu Zubairu is not new to Uyo, the base of Akwa United. He is highly revered for his contribution alongside Abdul Maikaba in the formation of the modern-day Akwa United.

Zubairu was in the technical team that won the Aiteo Cup in 2017 and has impressed with his attractive brand of football with Gombe United, whom he helped win promotion back to the NPFL in 2020.

A return to familiar terrain is possible for Zubairu.

Caleb Esu

Former Dakkada FC boss Caleb Esu has been without a job since leaving his assistant coaching role at Enyimba early last year.

In search of a quick fix, Esu can be drafted in without much complication. He is also an apostle of beautiful football and made Dakkada a tough nut to crack when he got them to the elite league in 2019.

Festus Allen

Currently unattached, Festus Allen has shown interest in the vacant position at Akwa United.

The former MFM FC tactician is experienced and renowned for developing young players. He might get Akwa United looking his way should other options fail.

In the meantime, Abdullahi Umar Tyabo, the interim head coach, has a few games to execute, and should the Promise Keepers bounce back, his appointment could be made permanent.

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NPFL: Akwa United’s coaching conundrum
Andrew Randa

Andrew Randa is a seasoned Africa sports journalist, and a former Media Officer for Nigeria's U-20 national team. He is widely acknowledged as an authority on the NPFL and African football, Randa is esteemed for his expertise in football content creation. Furthermore, he holds the distinction of being Nigeria's foremost sports kit designer and a trailblazer in the realm of sports graphics in Nigeria.