A lot has changed between Asante Kotoko’s last two trips to Tamale.
Last time they went up north, they returned as FA Cup champions, the reward for beating archrivals Accra Hearts of Oak by a rather comfortable 3-1 score.
Last weekend, not quite five years later, Kotoko went back to the Aliu Mahama Sports Stadium with a very different travelling contingent – one which included no survivor of that triumphant matchday squad – and a very different mission.
Kotoko are within touching distance of a first major piece of silverware since that FA Cup crown, transformed under the spell of head coach Dr. Prosper Narteh Ogum. They’re eight points clear at the top of the table, and it only seems a matter of time before their coronation becomes official.
Things have been especially tough in recent weeks, however. As Kotoko have piled up points, the list of players sidelined for one reason or another – injury, mostly – has grown, too, presenting a real test of the depth of Ogum’s squad.
That depth has already carried Kotoko through some tough times, with the trainer having been able to call on some of his sparsely-used players to provide moments of inspiration or to fill in for absentees; Isaac Oppong – remember him? – has been the best example of the former, while Mohammed Sheriff has truly embodied the latter.
Neither player, though, is able to do much to help Ogum solve the problem he currently faces, one he certainly had to grapple with as he travelled with his team to face Real Tamale United (RTU) in Week 25 of the 2021/22 Ghana Premier League season.
Even the most superb super-subs and excellent utility players can’t deliver whenever or wherever they are needed, as Ogum has found out (and definitely already knew); Oppong is slowly working his way back after a lengthy injury layoff, while Sheriff… well, he couldn’t possibly split himself into three, could he?
Yes, because that’s just what Ogum would have required of this wonderfully protean footballer to fill the three slots in defence for which he was missing key men: right-back, left-back, and centre-back.
As it happened, his diligent self was needed in midfield, where Kotoko are also currently low on bodies. Ogum was forced, then, to present a side almost as patched-up as the one he named to face Hearts on the previous weekend.
That XI had enough in the tank to contend with and overpower the Phobians, all but dethroning the champions and installing themselves as champions-elect.
But that was in Kumasi, where the home fans constituted the all-important twelfth man; before a partisan Tamale crowd notorious for its ability to create an absolutely raucous and intensely hostile atmosphere for visitors, Kotoko’s task was always going to be much harder.
For aforementioned reasons, Ogum started players at the back who, ordinarily, might not have made the cut from the off; Samuel Appiah for Augustine Agyapong/Christopher Nettey (on international duty/suspended), Maxwell Agyemang for Ismail Abdul Ganiyu (injured), and Patrick Asmah for Ibrahim Imoro(?).
To be fair, none of those are exactly bad footballers. They’d likely walk into any team in the land, in fact, but such is the competition for places at Kotoko that they’ve been outshone by the brighter lights they replaced against RTU.
Kotoko lost 2-1, and while there is little shame in that, considering the circumstances, the nature of both goals conceded would have left Ogum fuming and wishing he had his strongest rearguard in place.
The first came after Asmah needlessly barged into an opponent in the box, the sort of rash challenge that the more ‘responsible’ Imoro would have had second thoughts – perhaps no thoughts at all – about making. From the resulting penalty, RTU’s Ronald Frimpong put his team ahead.
Deep into the second half, that lead was doubled after a momentary confusion that quite possibly wouldn’t have occurred in a more familiar defensive setup.
Agyemang, mentioned earlier, contested a header with Victor Aidoo a short distance from goal, yet goalkeeper Ibrahim Danlad still saw the need to charge off his line in an attempt to claim the ball. It was a decision – or, more aptly, indecision – he’d soon rue, as Aidoo saw his chance and nodded past him for RTU’s winner.
“Would Danlad, in that situation, have been more inclined to trust a centre-back called Ganiyu, not the less-experienced Agyemang?” Ogum might wonder.
If, indeed, he takes such a view of the situation that led to Kotoko’s defeat – only their third of the league season – then Ogum would desire a restoration to normalcy of his starting lineup faster than he probably did before the RTU game.
Whatever happens, the Porcupine Warriors should have enough men – whether first- or second- or third-choice – to see out the remainder of the season. But if, as I suspect, Ogum wants to cross the finish line quickly and on the best foot possible, his finest picks couldn’t return soon enough.