For many, it was a return to form of a fixture that had, over the last few years, lost some of its spark.
The Accra Sports Stadium wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams, but the crowd present was bigger than any that had attended this game in recent memory; we didn’t know it then, but no game played on these shores in the next 13 months would be graced by fans that many — and that loud.
On the pitch, the intensity of action certainly matched the intensity of emotions cascading from the terraces. Both teams fed off all that energy, combining to produce the most goals in a Ghana Premier League ‘Super Clash’ edition since the 2014/15 season.
Kotoko set the tone, 11 minutes in, when Justice Blay — on loan from Medeama SC — soared to nod past Richard Attah from a sweetly whipped freekick. Hearts, after an hour had passed, found their feet — and their own goal-scoring header, too.
Benjamin Afutu was the first to rise in connecting with a well-worked short-corner routine that was helped on its goal-ward route by a slight deflection, but the midfielder crashed the ball against the upright from just inches out. The rebound found lively Joseph Esso, who powered in the leveler.
Minutes later, the man — nay, kid — who would help swing the game in Kotoko’s favor, Mathew Anim Cudjoe, was brought on by head coach Maxwell Konadu.
Slithering across the grass — past bigger and more experienced opponents — and brushing off a few challenges while at it, the 16-year-old made a grand show of his precocity.
Unsurprisingly, when the winner came, Cudjoe, another loanee the away fans held in high regard, had a hand in it — as did Hearts defender Mohammed Alhassan, in a rather literal sense.
The former’s strike on the edge of the box hit the latter’s arm, and Kotoko were awarded a late penalty, converted clinically and decisively by Guinean import Naby Keita; cue Memphis Depay-inspired celebrations.
But, of course, that was a whole year ago, with Ghanaian football frozen by the COVID-19 pandemic during much of the ensuing period, and the two clubs look quite different coming out of hibernation.
Kotoko failed to secure on a more permanent basis the services of the two players who, arguably, did the most damage to Hearts — Blay and Cudjoe — while Konadu, the trainer, has lost his job.
Hearts have also seen a couple of coaches depart, the latest doing so only last week. Oh, and the guy who scored their solitary goal against Kotoko last time out?
Well, Esso is gone, too, topping the league’s goal-scoring chart in the colors of Dreams FC this season. . . which brings us to the subject of this write-up.
Come Sunday, the two sides would take in their 106th league meeting — the first since the instalment I’ve spent the best part of this article recapping. Like the last, it would be in Accra, but Kotoko are hosts this time, having temporarily moved home games to the capital about a year ago.
For Kotoko, heading into its first league game in a fortnight, this is a chance to continue where they left off. When the Porcupine Warriors last kicked a ball in the top-flight, they ended the match-week (13) atop the table for the first time this term; while away, they’ve slid to seventh, overtaken at the summit by Karela United, the team Kotoko famously beat on that ‘Ascension Sunday’ in Aiyinase.
Still, they are only six points away from reclaiming their perch, and Kotoko have three outstanding games with which to do so, beginning with a date against the team immediately above them, arch-rivals Hearts.
Winning would be a fine way to banish the fresh memories of another failed continental campaign and to issue a statement of intent — but Hearts would like to send a statement, too, only with a different message: how much they have truly improved since coach Kosta Papic’s recent stormy exit.
Narrow wins — garnishing unconvincing performances — over Ebusua Dwarfs and Liberty Professionals halted a miserable winless run and suggested the Phobians have moved on. Against Kotoko, an opponent that tends to expose what Hearts are actually made of at any point in time, we’ll know for sure.
But this game would be about more than either club and their respective objectives. If it is going to prove as exciting as the last encounter, the two sides — playing behind closed doors — would have to pull it off without the assistance of their fans, and on a patchy pitch.
It would, ultimately, be a test of the fixture’s own relevance — when stripped of its characteristic frenzied atmosphere — regardless of the result.