If Asante Kotoko fans had anything to be upset about at the start of this week — and I doubt if they did — it was the fact that interim ‘head coach’ Johnson Smith, for whatever reasons, lacked the academic credentials required to take up the job substantively.
When Smith took charge of the Porcupine Warriors in December 2020 (as assistant to colleague Abdulai Gazale, actually, but only in theory), following the sacking of Maxwell Konadu, Kotoko were out of sorts.
The season was still young, but the early signs were hardly encouraging. The defence was holding up okay but, more than anything, Kotoko were lacking match-winning currency: goals.
Game after game, however, things have turned around, and some steady momentum built. Especially on their travels have Kotoko impressed, garnering a league-high 13 points, the most recent — and most valuable — of which were the three picked up at Karela United’s Crosby Awuah Memorial (CAM) Park on Sunday.
On Karela’s return to their home this season, having packed out to permit a makeover only about a year prior, they found it nothing like what it was before. The pitch — all pristine and pretty — was, of course, the outstanding feature of the arena’s new look.
It couldn’t have been more different from the turf that once stretched out in its place, on which Karela had constructed one of the most impregnable fortresses on the local scene: a record of invincibility spanning some five years and two divisions.
But Karela took to it quickly, like a duck to water, and continued where they had left off, stringing six straight wins there in the Ghana Premier League (GPL) until Kotoko’s Week 13 visit. With that backdrop, there was a certain guarantee that this showdown — pitting the league’s most ruthless hosts against its most daring guests — would be a keenly contested battle.
The decisive factor?
He was in the dug-out for Karela the last time Kotoko visited the CAM Park, back in 2018, and was responsible for dishing out a sound 3-1 thrashing of the record champions. Armed with such experience, and a backline comprised almost entirely of former Karela players, Smith was in a position to get something from a venue where most visitors get nothing.
In the end, Kotoko drove away with everything.
Two well-taken goals, one from Karela old boy Imoro Ibrahim and another by in-form striker Kwame Opoku, were enough to shatter that enduring aura of formidableness. And with those blows, Aiyinase fell, lifting Kotoko to the top of the table — for the first time this season — in Karela’s place.
Credit for that goes to a team that has vastly improved, yet, considering that Kotoko haven’t had the chance to freshen up personnel with new signings — a recently imposed transfer ban means they wouldn’t be able to do so in the mid-term window, either — much of that improvement could only be attributed to solid coaching that has refined this squad in all departments: Kotoko are defending better, scoring more, and the midfield is also striking all the right notes.
Most important, though, is the team’s mentality: the belief that no opponent is too daunting to beat, no grounds too firm to trample. For all that has been said — even ridiculed — about Smith’s struggle to clearly express his post-match thoughts, he obviously has no difficulty transmitting his confidence and strategy to the players.
That strong connection, as Kotoko seek to make continental strides and consolidate domestic gains (a two-legged Caf Confederation Cup tie against Algeria’s ES Setif is next on the calendar, followed by the season’s first ‘Super Clash’ with archrivals Hearts of Oak in the league), would be crucial.
Surely, now, the fans have caught the bug of optimism, too, and any vestige of doubt from the season’s shaky start ought to be shrugged off.
Oh, and about the other thing? The one Kotoko fans might have had cause to feel upset over (see outset)?
Well, it doesn’t matter anymore, does it?
Smith, to all intents and purposes, will continue to lead Kotoko’s charge, even if Gazale — in theory again, I suspect — has been confirmed as head coach for the rest of the season.