‘Apem Aba’: The Story of How Kotoko Reclaimed Their Long-Lost League Title
The price Asante Kotoko had to pay for winning the 2021/22 Ghana Premier League was as much evident as the club’s pride on reclaiming a prize they’ve won more than any other but last had their hands on eight years ago.
Not all their players could jump for joy with the many fans who poured onto the Baba Yara Stadium pitch last Sunday night; a couple of them, the walking wounded, hobbled along on crutches. But, hey, they smiled, too; their legs couldn’t leap, but their hearts certainly did.
This triumph was theirs, as much as it was everyone else’s.
The work that went into winning a record-extending 25th championship, however, started long before some of these players even joined the Porcupine Warriors, with foundations laid off the pitch allowing the club to build up to that grand, colorful, unforgettable climax.
This is their story.
In the aftermath of the 2020/21 season, Kotoko knew they had plenty to do.
They had nothing to show for their exertions, despite pushing on all fronts till late in the season. And then, within the space of just a month, everything fell apart.
First to go were hopes of Premier League glory, after a title race for the ages against resurgent archrivals Accra Hearts of Oak, with Kotoko failing to recover from the setback of losing a tense clash with the Phobians towards the end of the season. That game wasn’t exactly a six-pointer, even if it had the feel of one, but Kotoko looked deflated when it was all over and performances subsequently declined.
It was tough enough that Hearts were relentless in their own pursuit of the title – even if they didn’t hit quite the same levels themselves after that admittedly draining duel – but the manner of Kotoko’s slump raised serious concerns about the playing body’s mental fortitude. Then came FA Cup elimination on penalties, in the quarter-final against Berekum Chelsea.
Pulling the trigger was Nana Yaw Amponsah, Kotoko’s young Chief Executive Officer (CEO), who had only taken charge the previous year and already dispensed with the services of one substantive manager.
Amponsah had done so much to improve the club’s lot off the pitch, but what the fans wanted to see as proof of progress – more than anything – was major silverware, the likes of which Kotoko hadn’t brought in since winning the FA Cup in 2017.
Time to end that barren run was overdue – as was Barreto’s time at the helm.
The management accepted the challenge and braced themselves for the task ahead. That, though, was the easy part; harder — much harder — was the job of finding a replacement capable enough to carry the team in the desired direction.
Barreto, the first head coach hired by Amponsah, was an expatriate, and there may have been the temptation to import a successor; but just one look at Hearts, where a local coach, Samuel Boadu, was working wonders and making history, must have been enough to banish such thoughts.
And so it was decided that the solution to Kotoko’s technical needs, the man to match – and, ideally, to even surpass — Treble-winning Boadu, would be Ghanaian.
To find him, Amponsah knew just where to look: Sogakope, Volta Region.
That was where Dr. Prosper Narteh Ogum, one of the division’s more cerebral coaches, was busily translating his intellectual ideals into eye-catching performances at the West African Football Academy (WAFA) in his only full season in charge of any club.
WAFA came third in the league – only their second top-four finish since first securing top-flight status in 2015 – just a point behind Kotoko, and ended that season by raining on Hearts parade with a 1-0 defeat of the champions-in-waiting.
Against Kotoko themselves, Ogum went undefeated. Yet, even more impressive was the philosophy of free-flowing attacking football his WAFA team espoused – “possession with purpose,” Ogum calls it – that mirrored just what Amponsah wanted to see implemented at Kotoko.
When Kotoko called, to offer him an office he had predicted almost a decade prior that he’d occupy someday, Ogum was ready.
“I once told my students that one day I will coach Kotoko,” he revealed on Oyerepa FM last week.
“I even went further to sit on the coach’s seat [at the Baba Yara Stadium] and asked my students to take a picture of me on the seat.”
That seat wasn’t for the faint of heart, he knew all too well, as it came with the crushing weight of the hopes and aspirations of some of the most numerous, most passionate fans anywhere in the country.
Somehow, though, Ogum relished all that.
“I love the club and how they do their stuff. When they’re happy it is to the extreme and when they’re angry it’s also to the extreme,” he observed.
His ability to deal with those extremities, at a club where the pendulum swings ever so wildly, would soon be put to the test.
Critics started to queue up even before Ogum had spent a full day in his new job.
Questions were raised over his suitability for a role where winning was all that mattered, given his résumé guaranteed no laurels.
And the fact that he had achieved considerable success at WAFA – a club not nearly as massive or complex as Kotoko, and where it wasn’t so hard to get mostly impressionable youngsters to soak his methods – was no guarantee that he’d survive and thrive in Kumasi’s furnace.
With that in mind, and a transfer war-chest which was far from bottomless in hand, Ogum set about re-creating just the sort of conditions that had facilitated his work at WAFA. That meant pruning the old guard of less desirable elements, and then reaching into lower-tier realms for most of the new recruits.
That, too, was criticised.
“What was Kotoko being reduced to?” some asked. “Some proving ground for wannabes?”
Granted, a few recognisable names – Richard Boadu, Richmond Lamptey, Stephen Amankonah and later Justice Blay – offered some colour, but the overall complexion of Kotoko’s transfer business looked quite dull and hardly transformational.
The greatest let-down of all, though, was Kotoko’s failure to bring in a big-name striker, considering the team’s main undoing in the previous campaign was the diminished supply of goals that followed the mid-season exit of the dependable Kwame Opoku.
What they got, instead, were two little-known Cameroonian forwards who, quite reasonably, were received with mixed feelings. Kotoko had had a hit-and-miss record with players – strikers, mostly – signed from other African countries; for every Ahmed Toure there has been a George Abege (or, whisper it, a Moussa Adingra).
Only time would tell, then, just what this pair, Georges Mfegue and Franck Etouga, would bring Kotoko – aside, of course, the exotic flavour.
Mfegue and Etouga missed the best part of Kotoko’s pre-season, a two-week trip to Dubai that made the headlines yet – again – didn’t impress everyone.
Some argued they went too far from home, incurring a cost too high, for a team that was only going to spend the next season playing domestic games. It didn’t help that Kotoko won none of three friendly matches at the end of that exercise, returning to Ghana with little more than a spring in their step.
Club officials, though, insisted the intended objectives had been met.
“We’ve achieved our aim for the Dubai pre-season tour to a large extent,” David Obeng Nyarko, the Communications and Brands manager, insisted, speaking to OTEC FM.
“We wanted to move the club out of the public [eye] for a while, so that they could focus on the pre-season since it’s a new team.”
A new team, yes, to a large extent, and creating a cohesive unit – never mind a winning team – out of those resources was going to be Ogum’s first major hurdle.
In doing so, especially with respect to bedding-in the rather unheralded arrivals, Ogum had to bring all his experience as a tutor and expertise in sports psychology to bear.
“The first was to have confidence in them, fairness, and also to have the right training program,” he explains.
“But it’s important that they have self-confidence and discipline to listen to what I want to teach them, and I think these things did the trick.”
It certainly did, didn’t it?
Kotoko steamrolled the rest of the league on the road to glory, defeating 14 of the other 17 teams at least once. Of the three that got away – Real Tamale United (RTU), Karela United, and Berekum Chelsea – none beat Kotoko more than once.
Ogum’s team is now sure to end the season with the second-highest percentage of points won of a Premier League champion in the last decade (the club, quite remarkably, owns four of the first five spots in that ranking), an impressive minimum of 64.7%.
So, yes, they’ve been utterly dominant, but there has been a lot of style to go along with the substance.
Kotoko remained faithful to Ogum’s principles – that “game model” he spoke of so passionately in post-match interviews, regardless of the result – unwavering in their commitment to play as the gaffer demanded. And even despite their best efforts, Ogum reserved his smile of satisfaction for when it had been truly earned.
Not that his players have cause for complaint, anyway.
“He keeps saying he’s a perfectionist and he doesn’t celebrate any small stuff, so his desire and zeal always pushes us,” related Christopher Nettey, the right-back, on Pure FM.
“Sometimes after games, you feel you’ve done well but he will tell you, you can do more.”
For those who don’t fall in line, who aren’t so keen on doubling up, or who just couldn’t be arsed to play according to specifications – Amankonah and Boadu being examples in the course of the season – Ogum hasn’t hesitated to crack the whip, leaving them out until he felt they were ready to go again and do as required.
But he’s not been some harsh taskmaster interested only in stretching his players beyond their limits, clothing himself with an impenetrable aura of rigidity.
Ogum has proven himself fair yet firm, and the warmth that flows between him and the players is spoken of highly by those close to the team. It’s the only reason Kotoko have been able to operate with a level of harmony so very unusual of a club that is often held back by internal wrangling and strife resulting from personality clashes.
All that empathy and positive energy is, in fact, evident even on matchdays: how often haven’t we seen a player run right into Ogum’s arms in celebration after scoring a goal?
Indeed, during a trip to Dormaa-Ahenkro – where he himself spent his formative years and saw his love for the sport sprout – Ogum’s personal promise of a handsome cash reward would inspire the players to an unprecedented conquest of the daunting Nana Agyemang Badu I Park.
A little later in the season, the WAFA Park – Ogum’s old stomping ground – would also fall to Kotoko for the very first time, with another away win, this time in Tarkwa (a first since 2014), also carving out a small slice of history.
That’s not to take anything away from the players themselves, however. They displayed remarkable resolve in attempting and pulling off the improbable, also tapping into that pool of collective strength to overcome the rough final weeks of the season.
But even that wasn’t left to chance.
Earlier in the season, a ‘Mindset Revolution‘ session was organised to help psyche them for inevitable circumstances like these, and the lessons picked up have certainly been useful as the campaign has gone along.
They’ve racked up two more wins, and a third would be within reach this evening in their last game of the season, against Accra Lions – in Accra, the capital, where the season started for Kotoko – whom Ogum describes as their most challenging opponents this season.
“Tactically, the most difficult side was Accra Lions, considering their numerous rotations in midfield,” he says about their first meeting some four months ago, adding that, in his informed opinion, the guests only failed to get the result on that occasion because “they weren’t purposeful upfront.”
Kotoko won 3-1, all their goals scored by Etouga – one of the two Cameroonians mentioned earlier, remember him?
That was his second hat-trick of the season, coming just about a month after the first.
He now has a chart-topping 21 goals and – with Ashantigold’s Yaw Annor breathing down his neck – Etouga would want to score a couple more against Lions just to stay clear, win the topscorer’s prize, and match/break Ishmael Addo’s long-standing Premier League record.
The other Cameroonian, Mfegue, has eight goals of his own. And some of the other unknown signings have made their mark, too: Isaac Oppong gave Kotoko the perfect lift-off, Augustine Agyapong established himself as first-choice right-back, while Sheriff Mohammed functioned diligently as Ogum’s handy Swiss army knife.
Going forward, there are mountains to climb (a CAF Champions League campaign awaits) and pitfalls to avoid (Hearts’ dwindling fortunes this season is a warning example), and attention will soon turn to navigating those stormy waters.
This, though, is time to drink it all in.
The scenes that celebrated Kotoko’s coronation at the Baba Yara, and what was witnessed on the streets of Kumasi during Tuesday’s trophy tour, said a lot about what this means to a city so long starved of a trophy that had almost come to be regarded as their birthright.
It’s been a long time coming — and it’s been worth the wait.