After missing the trophy in four different outings since 1983, Enugu Rangers made one of the biggest come backs in Nigerian football yesterday, overcoming a 0-3 deficit to beat Kano Pillars in the final of the 2018 Aiteo Cup at the Stephen Keshi Stadium, Asaba.
It was the first competitive football match at the Asaba Stadium since Delta State was created in 1991 and it ended in a dramatic fashion.
The last time Rangers won the Aiteo Cup (formerly known as FA Cup and Federations Cup) was in 1983, although the Flying Antelopes won the 2015/2016 NPFL title after 32 years.
In yesterday’s final, Kano Pillars opened scores in the fifth minute through Skipper Rabiu Ali and added another ten minutes later from the boots of Ibrahim Alhassan. It was 3-0 a few minutes into the second half through Nyima Nwagwua, who shot shot past Olufemi Thomas from a quick counter –attack and the spectators, including some Rangers supporters, had already given up hope of any survival. But like the Dammam miracle of Saudi ’89, where the Flying Eagles of Nigeria came back from 1-4 down to beat Russia, Enugu Rangers fought back by scoring two quick goals in the second before striking the equalizer three minutes into added time.
Coach Gbenga Ogunbote’s decision to substitute goalkeeper Femi Thomas with Ghanaian Nana Bonsu was the tonic Rangers needed to fight for their lives.
Kevin Itoya started the battle for survival with Rangers’ first goal in the 77th minute, while Chidera Ezeh added their second goal in the 82nd minute. In the second minute of the eight- minute stoppage time, Rangers completed the come back through Ajani Ibrahim’s diving header to take the game to a penalty shoot out conclusion.
Skipper Rabiu Alli, who had been majestic in the game, ballooned Kano Pillars’ opening kick over the bar, while Bonsu saved the Kano team’s fourth kick by Jimoh Ismail. It was then left for Beninoise international, Isaac Loute to settle the game for Rangers and he promptly obliged, sending the Flying Antelopes fans in the stadium to rapturous celebration.
The win ended Rangers 35-year wait for a trophy they last won in 1983. It was also the second time in three years that Rangers will break a long-standing hoodoo having won the league title for the first time since 1984 in 2016.
Rangers were presented with the dummy of a N25 million winners’ cheque by sponsors AITEO, while Pillars went home N10 million richer.