So much had gone on at Asante Kotoko in the off-season — quite a few players leaving, even more arriving, technical staff reshuffled, and many days spent warming up for the 2021/22 campaign in the Gulf heat — that fans, neutrals and even opponents just couldn’t wait to see what was going to come out of all that activity.
Kotoko’s first game of the new Ghana Premier League season, on Saturday, gave all interested parties a chance to satisfy that craving — and, boy, was it satisfying!
Their opponents, Dreams FC, were hosts on paper, but the grass underneath their feet — at the Accra Sports Stadium — was as alien to them as it was to Kotoko. Dreams would hope to return to their Dawu ‘theatre’ before long, but until then they’d have to get used to this much less familiar stage.
Here, they also had to do it without the presence of their regular conductor, Serbian coach Vladislav Viric (banned but, somehow, working his way into the dressing room), on the touchline, but the man operating in his stead, Abdul Karim Zito, has been part of the Dreams fabric for many years now, having even been at the helm before.
Zito, the reigning U-20 AFCON-winning coach, is also quite familiar with Kotoko the institution; he has experienced both playing for and coaching the Porcupine Warriors. But this Kotoko team isn’t one Zito — or anyone else, for that matter — would have recognised.
Dr. Prosper Narteh Ogum‘s first competitive game as Kotoko trainer saw him hand starts to four players also making their competitive debuts: Joseph Amoako and Richmond Lamptey in midfield, Samuel Boateng and Stephen Amankona upfront.
And Kotoko quickly showed their attacking intent, stinging the palms of Dreams goalkeeper Solomon Agbesi too often for the Believers’ comfort. For a while, in fact, it felt as though the young man was running his own Save of the Season competition, just two games into the new term.
When Dreams threatened, though, Kotoko appeared vulnerable. And not at any point did they seem more so than in the 64th minute, when young Abdul Fatawu Issahaku — the kid Zito put to such devastating effect at the aforementioned continental U-20 championships, where he won the overall best player prize — tore at Kotoko, peeling off one man after collecting the ball and then taking on an entire backline.
The ease and mastery with which Issahaku slalomed past older men, emerging with the ball each time and signing off with a calm finish to give Dreams the lead, spoke of a kid set for big things in the not-too-distant future: like playing for a top European side (Sporting Lisbon, the Portuguese outfit that landed this talent who had also piqued the interest of the likes of Liverpool) and adding to the maiden Black Stars cap he earned earlier this month.
Enjoy him, Dreams; he won’t be here much longer.
This, it turned out, was an evening for teenage brilliance, and Issahaku was about to be outdone, his good work undone. Thirteen minutes after Issahaku scored, Ogum introduced another debutant, Isaac Oppong, who had joined Kotoko from a Sunyani-based Division Two side.
It was a genius throw of the dice, an instant ‘six miludo’.
Oppong’s presence on the pitch might not have been as heralded as Issahaku’s, nor is he by any means Kotoko’s most high-profile acquisition of a busy window, but nobody had left a bigger impression by the time he walked off the pitch about a quarter-of-an-hour later.
Oppong’s quick feet saw him skip past a few opponents in the Dreams half — ‘Neymar’, they call him? — before slipping midfielder Salifu Mudasiru clean through on goal. The finish, a nutmeg nothing in Agbesi’s drawer could have kept out, got Kotoko level.
That was in the 86th; three minutes later, Oppong himself got on the score-sheet and put Kotoko ahead in some style. A deliciously lofted Patrick Asmah cross from the left dropped right before the 18-year-old who allowed it to bounce, roll up his chest, before sweetly volleying past a hapless Agbesi.
He ran in celebration toward the closest corner, escorted by a frenzied group of teammates, only to meet an advance party from the bench led by Ogum himself. The good doctor is usually composed, but such was his ecstasy here that he — formally dressed, but what the heck? — leapt into Oppong’s embrace, with total, uncharacteristic abandon.
Kotoko were now in the lead, almost assured of their first three points of the season, and they’d go on to prune off any lingering doubts before referee Selorm Yao Bless called time on proceedings. Oppong had a hand in this closing act, too, recording a second assist, but Richmond Lamptey — who, 11 months to this day, pulled off something similar on this same turf — whipped in a wild wonder so well that it could go down as a solo effort.
Kotoko left it late, but this was as emphatic as late wins come. And after closing out last season without a win in five games in all competitions, many would take this as a sign of better times to come.
Then there is the fact that this statement of intent was delivered in Accra, of all places. The opponent might not have been archrivals Accra Hearts of Oak, the side that beat Kotoko to the league title last season and the one team they’re in hot pursuit of, but this remains very much their patch; Kotoko’s performance couldn’t have gone unnoticed.
A first appearance at the Baba Yara Stadium in 20 months, when Bechem United visit on the next matchday, awaits. The home fans, surely, would know what to expect. More of the same, right?