Seydou Zerbo had a tough few weeks to navigate after being announced as new head coach of Asante Kotoko towards the end of August 2022.
The first hurdle in a fresh Caf Champions League campaign – a tricky tie with RC Kadiogo, a side he had previous experience of coaching – was just around the corner, and Zerbo had a team to prepare in three weeks for the upcoming assignment.
For a couple of reasons, at least, this was to be no straightforward task.
First, Kotoko had just lost a trainer the players were generally fond of. That man, Dr. Prosper Narteh Ogum, had the lads buy deeply into his philosophy, with a first Ghana Premier League title in eight years as just reward – and more seemingly promised had he stuck around.
This, even weeks after his departure, was still very much a team in his image; he built it almost from scratch after all, didn’t he?
Some of the players who had served Ogum so well had also left, however, including two defensive starters, a first-choice midfielder, and the free-scoring striker. Their replacements, and other new faces, needed to be integrated by a coach who needed a bit of, well… integration.
Then there was, of course, the language barrier.
Kotoko had acquired the services of French-speaking players from the continent over the last year or so of transfer business, but that sizable Francophone contingent constituted only a small part of the whole. Zerbo’s ability to get through to the majority of the squad – being, primarily, a French speaker himself – was going to be tested.
He juggled all of those challenges well enough to win the first leg against Kadiogo, on the road, but persistent poor finishing stopped Kotoko from killing the tie off in that fixture and, a week later, from building on that slender advantage in the reverse.
What happened, instead, was that Kadiogo grabbed an away win of their own, dragged their hosts to the brink, and emerged victorious on penalties.
That outcome — and the very manner of defeat — certainly didn’t make Zerbo’s start to life as Kotoko boss any easier, but he had another chance to win the hearts of the club’s supporters within days, when the Porcupine Warriors took on archrivals Accra Hearts of Oak at home in a belated commencement of their league title defence.
That opportunity wasn’t maximised, although Zerbo probably merited a thumbs-up for getting a creditable performance out of his sullen players.
Kotoko led till the final minutes, when Hearts’ Caleb Amankwah grabbed a late equaliser. A 2-1 win three days later against newly-promoted Nsoatreman afforded Kotoko some breathing space, but what they really needed – more than anything – was a proper break, a much-deserved respite from those exertions.
And, thankfully, that’s just what Kotoko – and, in fact, the rest of the division – got when the league was then forced to a halt by legal issues.
Zerbo and his boys could, now, properly bond. He could help them adapt better and commit to his ways. Injured members of the playing body could recuperate at a healthy pace, while the collective reset mentally. And the forwards could work on their finishing, too, maybe?
Well, it appears they’ve done all that quite successfully.
The likes of Georges Mfegue, Justice Blay and Yusif Mubarik are back to full fitness, seen in training by observers at Kotoko’s Adako-Jachie grounds.
Coach and players appear to have gelled; while at it, they’ve scored tons of goals in friendly matches, with recent Ugandan import Steven Mukwala – criticised for firing blanks since his heralded arrival – in particular finding his scoring boots.
It feels, really, like compensation for the days of pre-season Zerbo never had, and he has expressed immense satisfaction about what has been accomplished during this period.
“We’ve worked hard and used this break period to raise the levels of all the players,” the Burkinabe has said.
“The technical team, medical staff and every other staff has helped to create a united team spirit and a positive environment to help us challenge strongly for all possible titles. I am very impressed with the team.”
Those claims would be examined soon, with the season set to resume, beginning with a Kumasi Derby date against King Faisal, a team always up for a chance to snap at the heels of their more illustrious neighbours, next Monday.
It’s a potential banana peel – that certainly was the case for Ogum’s Kotoko in their first two meetings with Faisal last season – that Zerbo would be keen to avoid.
Do just that, and a head of steam could be built up for the rest of the season.
Enn Y. Frimpong – Ink & Kicks