Plateau United: The anatomy of a title triumph
This time last season, newly crowned NPFL champions Plateau United were celebrating, but it was celebration of an unwanted sort, borne of relief rather than accomplishment.
After 36 games, Plateau had survived relegation by the skin of their teeth. Such are the razor-thin margins in the NPFL that they actually ended up in 12th place. But that could so easily have been fourth from bottom, where Warri Wolves - with 45 points - finished.
Instead, they survived, re-strategised, and returned to lead the league for 34 weeks before claiming the league title in early September.
What changed between then and now? How did Plateau go from relegation candidates to league winners?
Most Nigerian sporting associations keep their umbilical cords firmly tied to government, whether state or federal. Expectedly, their fortunes are closely aligned to the vagaries of political fortunes.
Of the 20 clubs in this season's NPFL, 16 are owned by state governments. ABS FC, FC Ifeanyi Ubah, MFM FC, and Remo Stars were the only exceptions.
Last season, Plateau United's campaign suffered from an unsettled Plateau State government, which had little time for anything outside of its own issues.
New-found government stability meant that not only were players wages and allowances paid promptly, but funding for administrative support was never lacking.
"If there is one club that is not owing a single dime, I think that will be Plateau United," title-winning coach Kennedy Boboye tells KweséESPN. "Even our match bonuses travelled with us to games. So that immediately after the match, players got their money in the dressing room."
While that may seem an archaic way of remuneration, in Nigeria, it is one that is guaranteed to go a long long way for player morale and motivation.
The Boboye Factor
One key hire changed everything for Plateau, when Kennedy Boboye replaced Zachary Baraje, who left after their abysmal previous campaign.
If there is one thing Nigerian football clubs have in common, it is a near-universal aversion to youth in positions of authority. This is despite the records of the late Shuaibu Amodu, who became a serial winner with BCC Lions in his mid-30s.
Rangers handed Imama Amapakabo the reins last season almost by accident, and because they could not afford the more expensive, sage names. He delivered them the title.
At the conclusion of last season, after they had recovered from staring into the abyss, Plateau put their trust in Boboye. It was a big leap of faith. The then 42-year-old had no pedigree to speak of.
In fact, his two stints in the top flight had not ended well. First, Sunshine Stars sprinted off the blocks, then faded away. And then he parted ways with Abia Warriors before the season had even gone halfway. He was the perfect example of who not to hire as a head coach.
But Plateau United General Manager Pius Henwan was prepared to take the risk. He did not stop there, he also agreed to hand full control to the coach. "When I came in, I told them I wanted a free hand to work and they agreed, and that was important for me," Boboye explained.
That free hand meant the coach could hire players he wanted, cut those who did not make the grade, and discipline those who needed pulling in line, without being undermined from the front office.
Lesson: Young coaches can deliver just as well, if not better, than old ones.
Learning from past mistakes
He then told ESPNFC that one of the early issues he identified was that players had a contentious relationship with management. "The players were not disciplined. They had a lot of issues with the management, so I stepped in to resolve those issues," he said.
Having resolved the issues, Boboye then proceeded to stamp his own disciplinary imprint on the team.
First choice goalkeeper Dele Ajiboye reported late to the club after a national team assignment with the CHAN Super Eagles. He was promptly dropped. Rising star Mafeng Pam was left out of the team when agent issues had him disrupting the team.
Having disciplined experienced goalie Ajiboye and rising star Pam, it was clear that Boboye was setting out his stall early indeed. It worked. The players had no doubt who was boss, and fell into step early on, bar the odd infraction.
Selection tactics One reason why Boboye's disciplinary methods worked was his selection policy. According to him, there were no favourites. Players were picked on form and merit.
"One of the issues when I came in was that players were having frictions about who would play. The right people were not playing simply because those at the top were not the ones that brought them [into the team]," Boboye explained.
"But I let them know from the beginning that I field players based on performance. In mid-season, I even dropped some of the players that I brought in, and brought others who could do the job for me."
Team comes before stars
From the very beginning, Boboye made it clear that his target was to win the title, or finish in one of the top three spots to guarantee continental football.
One way to do that, the coach says, was to set five-match targets: "We have regular meetings with the players and we have an agreement to think of getting between 13 to 15 points every five matches.
"If we fail to get it, we sit down and ask ourselves questions about what happened and what we can do to make sure we get it next time."
Part of the strategy was to develop the team over individuals: "I work with committed players, not star players or experienced players. Everybody is part of the team."
A team where every player is expected to give everything.
All of these elements came together, with probably a hefty dose of luck, to help heave Plateau United to the finish line.