As a proud indigene of Benue State, one of the few things that is making me happy is the good start of our darling club, Lobi Stars of Makurdi, in the ongoing Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL). Lobi Stars have won six, drawn two, and lost three matches so far. Despite their slim 0-1 loss at Bendel Insurance on Saturday, they are among the clubs that are highly favoured to win the title at the end of the season.
However, there is something about Lobi Stars, which is not befitting of such a big club. The ‘Pride of Benue’ as Lobi Stars are called are presently playing their home matches away from home. As a matter of fact, it is happening back-to-back because they had played home away from home in the season before the current one. Lobi Stars are now among the ‘nomadic’ clubs in the NPFL because they have no stadium of their own. The other two clubs that are playing home away from home are Enugu Rangers and Niger Tornadoes. While Lobi Stars have adopted the Lafia Township Stadium, Rangers are playing in Awka, while Tornadoes for so many years have been using the Ahmadu Bello Stadium in Kaduna.
Without a doubt, the fact that Lobi Stars are playing their home matches in Lafia is, to some extent, an embarrassment, especially to the football-loving people of the north-central state. Unfortunately, there is no single indication that Lobi Stars will return home soon. While the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Stadium, which has undergone complete renovation, will soon be commissioned for Enugu Rangers, no one can say precisely when the Aper Aku Stadium will host Lobi Stars’ matches again.
For those who may be wondering what has happened to the traditional home ground of Lobi Stars, it is presently without a playing pitch. It will be recalled that towards the end of the Samuel Ortom administration in Benue State, a contract was awarded for the replacement of the playing turf inside the mainbowl of the sporting edifice named after Aper Aku, one of the best-performing governors in the first republic. Expectations were high that in no distant future, the stadium would be fixed for normal sporting activities to resume there. Unfortunately, after close to two years, the stadium is still comatose. It has been abandoned by the contractor after the worn-out artificial grass in the main bowl was hurriedly removed. Work stopped even before it started.
Now, for those of us who saw how quickly the Nasarawa State government replaced the playing turf of the Lafia Stadium with one of the best artificial grasses, the sorry state of the Aper Aku Stadium is a cuase for concern. Considering that Nasarawa State can not flex muscles with Benue State in the area of sports, it is indeed shameful that the ‘Food basket’ state is without a stadium that can host NPFL or even NNL matches. It is for this reason that Lobi Stars are now using an alternative ground to prosecute their home matches. It may be argued that Nasarawa United also made use of the Aper Aku Stadium when their home ground was banned from hosting matches, but there is no place like home.
One thing which I know is that the teeming fans of Lobi Stars who are eager to watch them play live are beginning to lose patience. Most of them can’t afford to travel to neighbouring Lafia to watch their darling club. Therefore, they want the Aper Aku Stadium, which is broken to be fixed immediately for Lobi Stars to return home. Moreover, the more the stadium is left unattended to, the more it will depreciate. It will cost more to fix those facilities that might be vandalized. It is said a stitch in time saves nine.
Therefore, as a major stakeholder in sports in Benue State and Nigeria in general, I want to appeal to His Excellency, Rev. Dr. Hyacinth Iormem Alia, to urgently do something about the abandoned Aper Aku Stadium, which is presently an eyesore. Of course, the governor, who is always meticulous and prudent in the way he goes about things, may have a plan for the stadium, but time is of the essence here. As he is trying his best to cut down on government expenditure, His Excellency should remember that it will cost more if Lobi Stars continue to play home away from home.
It is on this note that I want to suggest to the governor that if he is not satisfied with the contract that the past government entered into with Monimichelle which is owned by Mr Ebi Egbe, a self-acclaimed astro-turf development expert, for the replacement of the Aper Aku Stadium playing turf, he shouldn’t hesitate to order for its review. Contracts can be reviewed upward or downward or even terminated outrightly if all legal issues are diligently addressed. Some time ago, someone whispered into my ears that Governor Alia was planning something big for the stadium, but three months later, the stadium is still waiting for the much-needed attention.
Like I stated earlier, there is no place like home. So, even as Lobi Stars have found a second home in Lafia, the joy and satisfaction of winning right in front of their teeming fans is missing. There is also what we call home advantage. I don’t mean the must win at home by all means advantage. I am thinking of the home crowd that can effectively serve as the 12th player in the stands. Such massive support can not be achieved by any club that is playing its home matches away from home. I think this is what Lobi Stars are missing at the moment. Yes, they have won all their home matches so far, but the atmosphere can’t be compared with when they win at the Aper Aku Stadium in Makurdi.
So, apart from saving funds that are expended on transportation and accommodation of the players and their officials, if the Aper Aku Stadium is fixed without much ado for Lobi Stars to return home, it will create the right atmosphere for the Stars to shine brightly.
Moreover, Governor Alia, who is loved by the youths of the state, should use one stone to kill two birds. If he renovates the stadium for Lobi Stars to return home, his popularity among the masses will increase. Already, he is doing his best to resuscitate decaying infrastructure in the state, so fixing the Aper Aku Stadium should be a thing of priority. Not long ago, I got close to His Excellency, but it wasn’t close enough for me to ask this pertinent question. So, through this medium, I ask, my dear governor, how soon will Lobi Stars return home?