Enugu Rangers relegation would be a nightmare story for Nigerian football
Gradually, but with a sense of near inevitability, Enugu Rangers are inexorably drawing closer and closer to the once unthinkable: relegation.
Led by the likes of Christian Chukwu and Emmanuel Okala, the Flying Antelopes, carrying the hopes of the people of southeast Nigeria fresh off the civil war, pulverised almost anything in their path from the 1970s to '80s (okay, all but Shooting Stars, who ran them all the way) as they cantered to six league titles.
The last of those championships was won in 1984, following back-to-back victories in 1981 and 1982. And it took Rangers 32 years to return to the top of the Nigerian football pile.
Back then, it would have been unfathomable to think that Rangers would go decades without a title win. The sheer size of the club means that talent flock to Enugu simply for the prestige of pulling on the immaculate white strip and belting out the "Holy, Holy, Holy" chant in front of a sweltering mass of devotees.
But that was the fate of the club, and Rangers needed a young coach with brave new ideas and a positive style that resonated with the fan base to dig themselves out of a hole 32 years in the digging.
The task fell to Imama Amapakabo, who somehow accidentally stepped into the breach following the firing of coach Kelechi Emeteole. Initially a stop-gap measure, Amapakabo's bold style and good results earned him the confidence of both the club and the fans -- until the title was won in 2016.
However, even before the title was won, Amapakabo warned, in cryptic, roundabout fashion, that there were issues that needed resolving. His concerns landed on deaf ears, as the club celebrated their shiny new toy.
It appeared that having waited so long, Rangers had forgotten how to manage a championship-winning side or build a squad to compete on the continent. The first signs of trouble arose at their victory parade when a rickety trailer, barely good enough to haul cattle, was used for what passed as a trophy display.
It took weeks, and rumours of other clubs handing him a contract, before Amapakabo's position as substantive coach was confirmed.
For the players, it was open season. Almost every footballer who contributed to the title was on the lookout for pastures new. Top scorer Chisom Egbuchulam made his way out, goalkeeper Emmanuel Daniel did the same. Replacements were not acquired.
So while the club was significantly weakened by these departures there were few, if any, replacements, let alone those of matching quality.
The result was immediately clear to see. Rangers were beaten at home on the opening day of the season and have not recovered since. They have been rock bottom of the log almost from the beginning and now face the real and scary prospect of relegation.
This is the worst-possible nightmare scenario for Rangers, the only club never to have suffered the indignity of relegation in the history of the Nigerian domestic competition.
But there's bad news. Clubs who are bottom at the halfway mark almost never survive the drop. And the Flying Antelopes are right there. Here's the good news, though: Rangers are fortunate in that unlike previous bottom sides, they have four outstanding games.
If they can win at least half of those, they can crawl their way up. Sadly, on the basis of their current form, there is little cause for cheer on that front.
Grim is the only way to describe the prospect, both for Rangers and the domestic competition. Their 1980s rivals Shooting Stars have suffered that fate more than a few times and it has taken such a massive effort to keep them alive and afloat that they have become a yo-yo team. Here one season, down the next.
Rangers represent one of the last, great, true blue-blooded aristocracies in Nigerian football. If they go down, this could be the start of a descent into oblivion. And Rangers will not be the only losers.
That cannot happen. That should not happen.
Colin Udoh is the West African editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.