By Sam Nnaji
Derbies are often about bragging rights, getting one over your neighbors and silencing the crowd of the other camp but for the first time in a while, Saturday’s Oriental Derby will be much more than just who gets bragging rights of the two South East giants.
In the red corner is the host team, Heartland FC, League Champions between 1987 and 1990 but which has strangely found its feet caught up in the relegation web. With just six wins in 24 games, they are only better than Ikorodu United, the League’s newbies trying to get used to their surroundings in the top flight. And in the blue corner is Enyimba International, the League’s defending champions, who despite a better placement on the log, look set to relinquish their title as well as miss out in their annual CAF Champions League appearance in the coming year.
The alarm bells went off as early as the season’s start when both team sent packing the respective managers who secured a decent finish by their both standards. Enyimba’s Ikhana left first, in fact shortly after he brought home a record seventh League title. The Champions waited till two weeks into a new season to plunge a new man into the hot seat. Consequently, he has struggled, joggling an array of unknown faces between the three competitions. It has worked sometimes and failed woefully in others.
For Heartland, Bethel Orji masterminded a good finish following Erasmus Onuh’s sacking early last season. Orji did not do anything spectacular like winning away or treating fans to cricket scoreline wins at home but he kept up the tradition; won home games, lost gracefully away, eventually steadying the ship. But following a shaky start to the current season, he was quickly shown the door. His replacement, Chief Alphonsus Dike failing to improve the record and with ten defeats, Heartland, a side that has never been relegated from the top flight are staring at that possibility.
The consistency and momentum required to mount an upthrust has evaded the Naze millionaires so far this season. A grittily earned point against Enyimba in Umuahia in the reverse fixture looked like just what the doctor ordered but the mini revival was quickly quenched in Lagos as Ikorodu United picked her first home win in ages against the Owerri side, who quickly slipped back to business as usual and has at yet failed to win any of the six Oriental derbies they have been involved in so far this season. That of course includes home defeats to Abia Warriors and Enugu Rangers.
For Enyimba, a side used to big things in recent times, the recent defeat against Mamelodi Sundowns meant their current CAF Champions League Campaign is all but ended and a cruel season’s run-in meant that unless there is a change of fortunes in their away form, the League title and in fact a continental place will elude them by October. For a manager like Paul Aigbogun who would love to win over the Aba fans in the first of his three year contract, falling to such depths automatically has to be viewed as failure. Even though he has had to play his home games away from Enyimba’s reliquary in Aba.
Saturday’s game hence pits two under pressure teams with two managers who have way too much at stake. Should Heartland lose on Saturday, Ikorodu United could cut the gap to just eight points and with Shooting Stars, Plateau United and Warri Wolves all playing at home, Heartland could find themselves in bigger trouble by 6pm on Sunday. Similar for Enyimba at the other end of the table. Continental qualification hangs on the balance with a defeat in Owerri on Saturday.