By Fisayo Dairo
Port Harcourt, the biggest city in South-South Nigeria, has enjoyed its fair share of footballing successes well etched in the annals of history of the country. From the Eagle Cement of the 90s to Dolphins in the 2000s, the famed Garden City has had football glory embedded in its aesthetic and aquatic splendour.
As the curtains fall on the 2021/2022 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season on Sunday, a major highlight will be that of Rivers United, the state-owned club who blazed past all competitors all through their record breaking campaign.
Eleven years after it was hoisted through the now defunct Dolphin FC at the Liberation (now Yakubu Gowon) Stadium, Elekahia, in the middle of the continually expanding city, the trophy is poised for another parade round the capital of Rivers State as the nation stands still for the Pride of Rivers who are without question the worthy winners of the league this term.
Between 2011 and 2022, there existed a decade of changed dynamics and evolving mechanisms in the football league. In all of them, the joy of a local boy impacting and participating in his boyhood club’s success remain unrivalled.
Festus Austine was a stalwart in Dolphins’ defence when they won that title in 2011 and he is now the captain of Rivers United, while Stanley Eguma remains as the team’s head coach. What has changed however is Austine’s role which is now more of a motivator and a non-playing leader off the pitch.
While Austine stayed on the fringes this term, Rivers United’s mantle of leadership rested on the arms of another locally grown talent, Temple Emekayi, a graduate of the Dolphins Football Academy. The intelligent centre back wore the captain’s armband on the pitch and dutifully led the team with assurance from the rear.
Emekayi spoke on the humbling experience of continental football at the start of the season and how it helped to galvanise a title challenge for his side. “I’m short of words now because it’s been a tremendous season for us”, said Emekayi to www.npfl.ng after a huge sigh of relief.
“Since our continental (campaign), we gave ourselves a target. We came out of the continent with our heads bowed down so we told ourselves that we must give the NPFL a go and come out as champions. We gave it our all. We saw every of our opponents as an enemy and made our home a fortress. Even in away games, we lost a few, yes, but we were able to post some good results which got us where we are now”, he added.
Starring in a star-studded Rivers United team loaded with footballing and coaching talents, Emekayi made 25 appearances, captaining the team on 24 occasions and leading them to 14 out of their 19 clean sheets. It was no doubt a fulfilling time for the club’s Number 33.
In the past couple of seasons, he had found game time very hard to come by, a surprising development given his talent and ball-playing tendencies. This season though and with the inclusion of Fatai Osho into the technical bench, Emekayi bounced back to reckoning and provided a solid base for the team’s attackers to thrive on. “That is football. As of last season, they brought in a couple of players and I think in football, everyone has his own time”, philosophised Emekayi.
“As of last season, the people that were playing were doing a great job and I sometimes sat on the bench, waiting for my opportunity and as God would have it this season, the technical crew gave me the confidence so I had to pay them back by giving my best on the pitch.”
A native of Rumuche in Emohua of Emohua Local Government Area of Rivers State, Emekayi was a secondary school leaver when Dolphins won the league title in 2011. He still remembers vividly the team of 2011 having watched a number of their games in Elekahia under Eguma, whom he now plays for.
The Dolphins Class of 2011 never had it rosy that year, nicking the title in a photo-finish with Sunshine Stars amidst off-the-pitch controversies. But they created a record: winning the league with 73 points, a joint highest return which has now been surpassed by Emekayi’s Rivers United Class of 2022.
“That was a good team. I watched some of their games then and I remember people like the Captain Godwin Emma, Festus Austine who is my captain now, Emem Eduok and others. So it’s a great joy for me bringing my state the league title and as an acting captain of the team.
“Festus gave me the platform to captain the team and inside the field, I always remember that this is my state and I have to give it my all to bring the trophy to this state and for the first time since the emergence of Rivers United. I had to put in my best to bring the trophy to my state”.
Emekayi is a graduate of Entrepreneurship and Business Management from the National Open University of Nigeria and he rounds off the session by assuring that his side will make a good impression in the continental scene next year. “We are not expecting anything less than giving it our all and I’m very confident we will hit the continent on a good note”, he further said.