THROWBACK, ANYONE? Kotoko & Hearts Shaping Up for a Good Old Title Challenge
Well, haven’t you missed it?
The screeching of tires in that final lap, the pursuit of — in the late Ayrton Senna’s words — “a gap that exists”, the fraying of nerves, the straining of every sinew, fueled by the knowledge that — as the legendary racing driver again put it — “being second is to be the first of the ones who lose”.
It was — or, at least, used to be — one of the great treats of any Ghana Premier League season, and few wouldn’t want the once regular delicacy of a closely fought title challenge between the country’s biggest clubs, Asante Kotoko and Accra Hearts of Oak, back on the menu.
Ghanaian football fans have been starved of it for over a decade, since that remarkable, riveting race which went down to the last day of the 2008/09 season.
There was only one point between Hearts, leaders, and chasers Kotoko going into those 30th games, but the Phobians nicked the title by three.
Kotoko being held to a draw by neighbours Kumasi King Faisal, and Hearts beating St. Mirren (no, this definitely isn’t Scottish football), sealed triumph for the latter.
But that was the last — and that was long ago.
“How long,” you ask?
Well, for perspective, nine — more than half, that is — of the clubs that contested that Premier League campaign are either currently relegated or have since sunk but been restored to top-flight grace.
Yep, that long.
And that’s also how long it has been since Hearts were last crowned Ghana’s domestic kings. It is, more than anything else, their decline that has, largely, reduced the relevance of this old, storied rivalry to the two matchdays in the year when the pair meet.
Kotoko have, generally, had more of a say in deciding the destinations of the title in the years that have followed, winning thrice. Hearts, to be fair, have come close, too, within three points of conquest in 2016 — but that’s just been about it.
The introduction of new and not-so-new voices — those, especially, of Aduana Stars, Berekum Chelsea, Ashanti Gold, and the now defunct Wa All Stars — into the championship discourse has upset the Kotoko-Hearts duopoly, but this season promises a fascinating throwback.
The coordinates of both heavyweights appear to be aligning once more, and for the better. There is hope in Hearts’ camp of a renaissance under new head coach Samuel Boadu, and Mariano Barreto, Kotoko’s own freshly acquired trainer, is tasked with sharpening the Porcupine Warriors’ quills.
They’re separated, after 20 matches each, by just two points, and it’s hard to recall a stage in any recent season where the two sides had such a strong sniff at glory, with top-of-the-table Kotoko in a position to catch a stronger scent.
It is, though, quite feasible that Hearts could slide right past the one team lodged between them and Kotoko — Accra Great Olympics, their ambitious but unsteady city rivals — and shrug off the couple or so caught up in the traffic jam right behind.
If, in the end, it does comes down to those two — as was the case in the good old days — not many, I imagine, would complain about the screeching, the fraying, the straining for that winning gap.
They owe it to us — and, of course, to themselves.