By Patrick Omorodion
The fans, not even those Â Â Â seated at the covered stands and the VIP section were spared the searing heat from the scorching sun at the Dan Anyiam stadium on that Easter Sunday when Heartland played host to visiting Tiko United of Cameroon in the return leg of the African Champions League.
The crowd at the stadium was sparse, no thanks to the Easter, as most of the fans, die-hard Catholics presumably, could have gone to the hinterlands to celebrate with their loved ones.
Unlike in the past, the atmosphere was not electric, ostensibly as the fans and players alike were confident that Heartland, who pulled a 2-2 away draw against Tiko United at home a fortnight ago, would easily over-run the Cameroonians for a safe berth into the next round of the competition.
On hand to cheer the Owerri side was their supposed number one fan and financier, Governor Ikedi Ohakim along with a retinue of politicking officials of the Nigeria Football Association, NFA led by their president, Alhaji Sani Lulu Abdullahi, Amanze Uchegbulam, first vice president and Taiwo Ogunjobi, head of the technical committee.
They were in Owerri more for the politics of re-election bth for the NFA and the Nigeria Premier League, NPL Board than for the Heartland match.
Hardly had Cote dâ€™Ivoire referee, Leonard Nahiâ€™s whistle gone for the commencement of the game than Heartland players started jostling impatiently to nick in an early goal to ensure qualification.
In the process, anxiety crept in and robbed them of concentration, allowing the visitors to shock them with a first half goal from Jondane Joel. The whole stadium became silent like a grave yard thereafter.
On resumption of the second half, the players as well as their bench tensed up that the coaches, Kelechi Emeteole and Ben Iroha could hardly sit, almost encroaching the field to shout instructions.
The home side played with so much haste and rush and looked everything but one with intent and purpose to get a draw that would see them qualify ahead of the Cameroonians on goals aggregate.
The ding dong affair almost caused a tragedy when Tiko United player, Njayou Mouliom was elbowed on the chest. He caused a stir as he gasped for breath on the turf with medical attention very slow in coming. He was revived and still opted to continue.
While Heartland players were impatient, Tiko boys employed all tricks, including killing time by falling at every touch by the Owerri boys. The main culprit was their goalkeeper, Idrissou Oumarou, who also stood between Heartland and goal, stopping well-directed canon shots.
As the game wore on, lanky Ikechukwu Ibenegbu regain control of the midfield, spraying passes into the vital area of Tiko and in one of the goal mouth melee, Emmanuel Omodiagbe nicked the all important equaliser that set the stadium on fire with jubilation from ecstatic fans.
An obviously tensed Governor Ohakim did not spare a second at the sound of the final whistle as he stormed out of the arena without a word of congratulations to the team.
At the end the Cameroonians resorted to assaulting the match officials. One of the reserve players hit an assistant referee and got a red card for it.
Emeteole blamed the tough game and misses from his players on overconfidence, stressing that â€œI warned them not to complacent because Tiko are a good side. A team that won their countryâ€™s league and stopped Cotonsport must be a difficult team.â€
He prayed that they qualify for the group stage of the competition so that some of the new players they signed will reinforce the team for the greater battle ahead.
â€œThe league team is stronger the Champions League team for now. Once we enter the group stage, the new plyers will be eligible to play and we can then be more confident,â€ he said.
On his part, Iroha said, â€œI was tensed up as the players missed chances and at a time I felt like pulling my shirt to jump into the field to play. The players were too anxious to score and in the process missed the chances they had.â€
A Tiko player, Kelvin Agbor rued the equaliser by Heartland stressing that â€œif they (Heartland) had played the way the played today (Sunday April 4) during the first leg, we would have beaten them 3-0.â€