Part of the fallout that followed the resignation and departure of Kosta Papic as Accra Hearts of Oak head coach two weeks ago were rumours that the Serbian had refused to bow to pressure from ‘above’ to play young Isaac Mensah, a pre-season recruit from lower-tier Nkoranza Warriors, more regularly.
Behind that reported interference — which the club’s board has since denied, anyway — was the reasoning that another Warriors old boy, Kwame Opoku, was making waves for another club in the Ghana Premier League this season.
That other club happens to be Asante Kotoko, Hearts’ archrivals, whom they faced on Sunday at the Accra Sports Stadium. It was a rare occasion in this fixture — Ghana’s biggest — at this venue that had Hearts as guests, with Kotoko temporarily calling it home.
Also unusual, and conspicuously so, was the fact that the terraces were empty — although, listening to the very audible voices that cheered and jeered every highlight, one might be inclined to think otherwise — and many genuinely wondered how these two sworn enemies could cope in a ‘Super Clash’ that didn’t have the volume turned up at full blast.
Barely two minutes in, it was apparent they were going to do just fine.
Opoku, mentioned earlier, was brought down by Nuru Sulley, and a penalty awarded. Naby Keita — Opoku’s strike partner and hitherto the go-to man when Kotoko had one of such to bury — would have fancied himself to take it, having converted under more nerve-wracking circumstances 13 months ago when the teams last met.
The Guinean did fail to score in a similar situation on these grounds when Kotoko hosted ES Setif in the CAF Confederation Cup a fortnight back, and perhaps it was that blip which handed Opoku a shot at putting it away. The 21-year-old’s first penalty for Kotoko, however, wouldn’t be his fondest.
For all his prolificacy in front of goal this season, Opoku hadn’t been tested from 12 yards against a goalkeeper with all the time in the world to psych him out. Richard Attah did it well, diving convincingly to his right and getting a firm hand on the admittedly well-struck spot-kick.
It would prove a springboard for Hearts to grow in confidence and grow into the game. And grow they did, carving out chances for themselves. The Phobians took charge, with Patrick Razak — match-winner the last time Hearts beat Kotoko in the league — coming close. Put clean through, Razak struck the post, and, for the rest of the game, had his best Vinicius Jr impression on display: all industry, little end product.
His supplier on that early occasion, Kwadwo Obeng Jr, had his own moment not long afterwards, courtesy Kotoko centre-back Yussif Mubarik’s rare gaffe. The Dormaa native picked up a badly under-hit pass and bore down on goal, only to be thwarted by the advancing Razak Abalora’s outstretched leg à la Manuel Neuer.
Another attempt to snuff out danger with his long lower limbs (a familiar occurence by now, if you’ve been watching Abalora closely enough), this time from Obeng’s second-half replacement, didn’t come off as tidily as intended, and a penalty was given away.
Mensah (refer to the outset), the victim, promptly stepped up for it. The teenager, in truth, might not have had to assume that weighty responsibility if Hearts interim head coach Samuel Nii Noi hadn’t hauled off Victor Aidoo (who, in turn, had taken that task off the hands off teammate Umar Manaf Gumah Jr, and made quite a start of it a week ago) only minutes prior.
But, hey, whatever Opoku can do, Mensah can, too, right?
Well, that is probably why he also missed his kick, as Abalora worked out his own salvation with a solid block. Opoku would hit the post toward the end, sealing the narrative of this game as one that brought the best out of — among others — the woodwork.
The league’s most formidable defence took a battering here, and its best goalkeeper took MVP honours (it could easily have gone to his opposite number, though), but this contest was far from one-sided. Both teams deserved to win, and definitely had chances to, but neither seemed to want it enough.
A point apiece, though, won’t harm the immediate objectives of either side: Hearts would wave it as one more sign that they’re well and truly off the slippery slope where Papic’s stormy exit left them, and Kotoko would also feel confident about their push to return to the top of the table (with two more games in hand, mind).