The 2007/8 season will be remembered as the tightest season in Gambian football as three teams (Hawks, Wallidan and Samger) all had a chance up to the last matches to be crown champion. At the bottom, (GPA, Bakau United and Seaview) battled it out to avoid relegation together with Interior F C. At the end, Wallidan F C deservedly clinched the title but two institutional teams were relegated, Interior F C and GPA which is bad for Gambian football.
Even though, the 2007/8 league cannot be described as "champagne football" in terms of the quality of football seen, the competitiveness, grit, determination and character of the teams is worth commending. The teams showed skill, endurance, luck and supreme confidence which are all vital ingredients for teams to secure the championship title. All the top three teams manifested these qualities with their coaches' foresight and vision ensuring that they are the top teams. Championship potential is to be measured by the quality of those who replace the missing first choice and all these teams were affected by the under-20's who failed to release their players when it mattered. But they continued to play and compete like champions.
Wallidan F C
The club Management should be commended for having patience with Foday Bah, the Head Coach over the past two years allowing him to rebuild the team in his own image. The near disaster that beset the club by almost losing their entire first team players enabled the coach to bring in young players and mould them with the few old heads that stayed. It could be said that Wallidan did throw away the championship as they were the top team until week 20 when they lost against Bakau United which enabled Hawks and Samger to have the chance of still hoping. But they bounced back like true champions by comprehensively defeating Hawks in the ultimate game of the season to clinch the title. They just deserved to win the championship as the team management went the extra mile of camping the team the entire 2nd round when they sensed that they could win the championship. This extra motivation paid dividends at the end.
Samger F C
Everybody loves it when a David slays a Goliath. That is why the Samger position is greeted with genuine pleasure by football fans with no direct interest in the team. The team was promoted last season and now they are the jewel in the crown and it has given hope to lesser teams that if Samger can do it, why not them? This is the beauty of their achievement. I don't think it has surprised most followers of Gambian football as the team had been together for the past four years. Even though the coaches have moved on the players remained, which gave them the cohesiveness and togetherness of a winning team. Jane Joof, the Head Coach, should be commended for creating a positive team spirit and a winning mentality especially during the 2nd round when most pundits predicted that the pressure would get to them. Statistics don't lie and Samger are where they are because of merit. Winning more games than all the teams (10 games) and drawing 7 and losing 5. If they were able to transform one of their drawn matches to a win they would have been crowned champions by now.
The injection of young players from their feeder team, created competition and ensured that the complacency that used to beset the team during the past season was no longer present. Each players' position was threatened and the motivation to perform and be consistent ensured a steady run of results. With only 15 points in the 1st round and in 5th position, they were able to gather 21 points in the 2nd round scoring 14 goals and losing only once. They were the most consistent team in the 2nd round and with luck they could have been the champions.
The relegation battle
The relegation dog-fight was as exciting as the competition to win the championship. Going into the last game of the league, Interior F C had already been relegated but three teams were fighting for survival and any one of them could have been relegated. Seaview and Bakau United were both tied on 22 points and only needing a point to survive whilst GPA were on 19 points and needed to win and hope that either of the other two teams would lose to stand a chance.
They were already relegated after been promoted last season. The writing was on the wall since the pre-season as all indications pointed to a team that would struggle. The team Management failed to give the necessary support when it mattered. Their pre-season was abysmal as they could not have a proper pre-season training which is a very important factor when competing in a league. Their lack of pre-season was reflected in their results with only 2 wins and 10 losses. This was more than any other team in the premier league.
This is the saddest chapter for someone who has the team in his heart. The club had everything but did nothing. two wins, 14 draws and lost draws tell the story of a team too inconsistent to be in the premier league. Ultimately, GPA were not good enough, the players did not have the heart for the fight. They looked like the 11th best team in the league. Hardworking, but without the quality needed to survive. The league table doesn't lie. The points total shows that they were not good enough. Over 22 matches they didn't do enough to stay in the 1st division. End of story.
It feels like the end of the world but it isn't. They have to regroup and get on with life and they should. Football is about character and resilience. It's how you bounce back. In all honesty, GPA FC cannot have too many complaints. Any team with a record of just two wins in 22 games and more defeats cannot hope for too much in a league where competition is now honed to cut-throat proportions.
It's just difficult to identify a single major reason for the team poor performance as I believe, analyzing it from outside, that there were a comedy of errors and misjudgments. The club management's' failure to monitor and intervene at the right time was a factor. Sacking the Head Coach, Ebou Joof was a big mistake as the intended objective was not achieved. Club management should always analyze when to sack a coach as it is bound to have a ripple effect on the players. Another problem, I think, is Management paying higher allowance to squad players than the so-called ordinary players was a destabilizing factor. As squad players normally play less matches than the ordinary players who are always much more committed to the team. This affected the team spirit and created the lack of courage, motivation and character to grind out results when it mattered.
The objective was to maintain the team in the premier league, which they have achieved. The club bringing in Alagie Sarr, the most successful club coach in recent years, is justified. With a further injection of quality players and Management support, the team could establish themselves as one of the top dogs in few years time.
The team has escaped relegation again but the fundamental question is can they continue escaping relegation every year. I believe the club management should try and bring more quality players to at least enable them to be a middle table team.
The middle table teams have a mixed season:
Real De Banjul
The defending league champions failed to replicate their championship winning performance. Drawing 12 matches is not good enough. Their strikers' failure to convert their chances resulted in a team unable to win some of their matches. Sacking the coach who won them the league with the same players and strikers that failed to score is just not the remedy. Maybe the team needed an injection of quality players to create competition rather than relying on the old guard.
Gamtel and Armed Forces
Both institutional teams need to improve their positions and start competing for the championship. Gamtel were runners-up last season and it was expected that they would be challenging for the title. Hon. Coach Alagie Sillah needs to bring in more quality players to challenge for title next season.
Armed Forces Management also invested a lot but were not rewarded. The team started extremely well but ran out of steam and ideas when it really mattered. Some players just seemed to lack drive and motivation which I believe indicates that they are to move on. The team collapsing like a ton of bricks is not expected from players who are paid handsomely and guaranteed a career.
Mid-table is a modest achievement for the team but the team should start challenging for trophies. An institutional team being financed by one of the top GSM service providers should be among the top dogs of Gambian football. They have the technical staff and support. What is required, I think, is to be able to attract more quality players and be able to keep them. They mostly lose their best players which doesn't help with the stability of the team. I predicted they would be relegated but Pa Faye, the Head Coach, did a good job in the 1st round by collecting 17 points which ensured their safety. Next season will be a big test for the team as they are expected to challenge for the championship.
Is the most improved side after escaping relegation last season? Abdoulie Bojang, the Head Coach, should be commended for having the vision to rebuild the team with younger players who are hungry and want to make a name for themselves. They were the most exciting side to watch, playing very good football. But you cannot be a great team without a great striker. Scoring 11 goals in 22 matches is not good enough. Sides can have all the technique and style, but if there is nobody to finish in the final third, what's the point? Lie Bojang now knows what he needs to improve on and if he does, Biko will definitely be among the top dogs.
Did increasing the teams from 10 to 13 create the exciting nature of the championship? I don't think so as one of the promoted teams Samger did extremely well whilst Interior F C were relegated. Also, the teams that were supposed to be relegated last season, Seaview and Steve Biko were able to maintain in the premier league. What created the excitement to my reckoning is the injection of young talent by all the top three teams. Samger are a relatively young team but both Hawks and Wallidan have younger players together with their much more experienced players who form the backbone of their teams ensure the competitiveness of the championship.
The only disappointment of this season was the lack of proper planning which has caused the season to overlap and be played in tandem with the Nawetaan. The FA should try to start the season in November as advocated by The Gambia Football Coaches Association over years. As technicians, this will enable them to properly plan their training and tactical adjustments during the season.