NPFL

10 things learnt from the 2016/17 NPFL season

The 2016/17 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) came to an end on Saturday, September 9 with everything going as expected in the final weeks.

Plateau United lifted their first NPFL title, MFM FC qualified for the CAF Champions League, while Enyimba beat Katsina United to land the CAF Confederations Cup slot at the expense of Akwa United.

At the bottom, South West teams Remo Stars and Shooting Stars SC were relegated alongside Gombe United and ABS Ilorin FC, while Anthony Okpotu pipped MFM’s Stephen Odey to the Rashidi Yekini Golden Boot.

Enjoy as we look back at the just-concluded season and point out 10 things learnt.

1. PLATEAU UNITED ARE WORTHY CHAMPIONS

Plateau United won their first NPFL title following an impressive campaign that saw them finish the season with the best attack and best defence in the league. They scored 49 goals and conceded just 25.

Key to their success was discipline, teamwork, hard work and adequate government support – as they paid salaries and match bonuses promptly.

The fans were solidly behind the team and they turned out en-mass to support their darling team on match days at the Rwang Pam Stadium in Jos.

Plateau Utd skipper Elisha Golbe with the NPFL trophy

2. BOBOYE DOES IT HIS WAY

Plateau United manager Kennedy Boboye propelled the Peace Boys to their greatest ever achievement with his leadership qualities, winning mentality and his ability to simplify instructions down to the most basic and succinct form.

Plateau United’s reliance on set-pieces and Daniel Itodo’s throw-in were highlighted in most of their games, but they also played beautiful football, with the likes of Peter Eneji and Benjamin Turba impressing as Boboye knew when to go dirty and play attractive football.

Boboye was also able to get the best out of players like Elisha Golbe, Emeka Umeh, Peter Eneji, Daniel Itodo, goalkeeper Dele Ajiboye amongst others.

It could have been easy for Boboye’s squad to take their eye off the ball, with MFM, Enyimba and Akwa United breathing down their shoulder. Instead, they refused to give up top spot, ending with 66 points to claim the title – something that sounded laughable when they struggled to remain in the league the previous campaign.

3. OKPOTU CONTINUES TO RISE

For the second successive season, Anthony Okoptu hit double figures in the league.

19 league goals this season landed him the golden boot award after seeing off the threat of Stephen Odey, who scored 18 goals before moving to FC Zurich.

The former Al Ittihad of Libya striker also became the first player to net three hat-tricks in one season and formed a brilliant partnership with Kingsley Eduwo, who finished the campaign with 13 league goals.

His final league goal of the season also took his league tally at Lobi Stars to 70.

However, questions remain whether he will remain at Lobi Stars next season or make a move abroad.

4. MAIKABA STICKS TO HIS PHILOSOPHY

Talk of Coach Abdul Maikaba’s playing style is nothing new. He dedicates nearly every waking hour to planning his training sessions, coming up with tactical schemes and studying potential and upcoming opponents.

He has completely immersed himself in how his team plays, and it’s no surprise that his teams have finished in the top four for the last three seasons.

Maikaba led Akwa United to their best ever season in the league as they finished fourth, but missed out on a CAF Confederations Cup spot by just one point to Enyimba.

Despite facing a rough start to life at the Uyo-based outfit, the former Wikki Tourists tactician stuck to his coaching philosophy, which centers around building from the back, playing a magnetic brand of football that was nigh on impossible to take your eyes off.

5. MFM FC MUST IMPROVE SQUAD TO KEEP UP MOMENTUM

As July turned into September, it was Fidelis Ilechukwu’s MFM who looked like the main opposition to Plateau United.

But their record outside of the South West was awful. They picked just three points outside the region, which saw them fall short of the title eventually and settling for the CAF Champions League spot.

More will be expected from the Olukoya Boys next season as continental football returns to Lagos after a 13-year absence, and – whatever is said – a good challenge on all fronts will be in the mind of football-loving Lagosians.

With a thin squad and the departure of top scorer Stephen Odey to FC Zurich of Switzerland, adding another top striker, keeping hold of Sikiru Olatunbosun, Chukwuka Onuwa, Stanley Okorom and spending on quality acquisitions will be key to improving their squad.

But most crucial will also be taking the experiences of the past two seasons and learning from them.

6. SUNSHINE STARS FIND HOME AWAY FROM HOME AS DUKE UDI PERFORMS THE MAGIC

Sunshine Stars were banished to Ijebu Ode this season due to crowd trouble at the Akure Township Stadium.

They seemed more at home in Ijebu Ode as they began life in their new home with a 2-1 victory over Gombe United.

Apart from the 1-0 loss to Nasarawa United, they won their remaining home games to escape relegation.

The announcement of Duke Udi as Austine Eguavoen’s replacement also appeared the clincher. The former Osun United manager played a key part as his team won three away matches and are also through to the quarter-finals of this year’s Aiteo Cup.

It would be recalled that the Owena Waves got to the semi-final stage of the CAF Champions League in 2012 – playing their home games in Ijebu Ode while the Akure Stadium was being renovated.

7. NO SURVIVAL FOR 3SC THIS TIME

Shooting Stars were the last team to be relegated this season – as they will be joining Remo Stars, Gombe United and ABS FC in the Nigeria National League (NNL) next season.

While ABS’ dip in form in the second stanza cost them their position in the league, 3SC failed to take advantage of the lifeline they had.

They allowed relegated Remo Stars get an equaliser with the final kick of the game in Shagamu and lost scandalously (3-0) at home to FC Ifeanyi Ubah amongst other regrettable dropped points.

Their late push was brave but didn’t work out in the end. They are anything but guaranteed to make an immediate return from an increasingly crowded NNL next season.

8. ENYIMBA HAVE TO KEEP MFON UDOH

Enyimba FC captain Mfon Udoh may be high maintenance but his on-field performances have continually shown him to be worth the extra effort needed to fully keep him happy.

Coach Gbenga Ogunbote should know that Enyimba’s chances of reclaiming the league title and doing well on the continent will improve with the experienced attacker at the heart of the People’s Elephant attack.

The former Akwa United hitman finished the 2015/16 CAF Champions League as the highest goal scorer, netting nine goals for Enyimba despite crashing out of the group stage.

The 25-year-old poacher still holds the record for the highest number of goals scored in an NPFL season – after notching 23 goals in the 2013/14 season.

Udoh finished with 12 goals last season despite missing a good number of games due to injury.

9. FC IFEANYI UBAH TO SPEND MORE MONEY

FC Ifeanyi Ubah endured a very difficult campaign, in which the Anambra Warriors struggled to make a continental push despite signing 2015/16 top scorer Godwin Obaje and possessing one of the most talented squads in the league.

They would be missing nine of their key players for the first 10 games of next season after the League Management Company (LMC) suspended them for 12 games due to misconduct.

It would be a big transfer window for the Federations Cup/Aiteo Cup champions, as they must strengthen their defence – with first-choice defensive pairing Stephen Eze and Adeleye Olamilekan part of the players suspended.

Money will be available but their manager for next season needs to be backed to do it his way.

10. NPFL GOALKEEPERS COMING OF AGE

Nasarawa United goalkeeper Suraj Ayeleso finished the season with the most clean sheets (15) to beat rivals Mustapha Aliko of Niger Tornadoes and Akwa United’s Olorunleke Ojo to the Golden Glove award.

Plateau’s Dele Ajiboye also had a brilliant campaign, as he got a call-up to the Nigeria National team after impressing Super Eagles manager Gernot Rohr.

But the biggest story for NPFL goalkeepers was the eye-catching performance of FC Ifeanyi Ubah goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa for the Super Eagles against Cameroon, his saved penalty against Benin Republic in the CHAN qualifiers and his assured display at the WAFU Cup.

Save for the odd lunatic moment when some of them charge out of their area, the NPFL goalkeepers are showing they’ve come of age.

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