After URA FC's credible goalless draw away to Coton Sport in the CAF Champions League preliminary round first leg, the Taxmen have what it takes to finish the job in Kampala this weekend.
However, a mixture of anxiety and high home expectations could derail their campaign as Express FC learnt the hard way in 1976. Having punched above their weight to eject Cameroon giants Caïman Douala in the first round, Express faithful felt somehow hard done when the Red Eagles were drawn against Nigeria's Enugu Rangers in the second round.
It was easy to see why; the Nigerians had finished runner-up in the 1975 Africa Club Championship and had won back-to-back Nigerian league titles in 1974 and 1975. However, Express coach Robert Kiberu was confident of his team's abilities and based his confidence on the club's watertight defence.
Red Eagles invade Enugu State
Express travelled to Nigeria well aware of the uphill task they were about to face. Enugu had turned its Nnamdi Azikiwe stadium into a slaughtering house, having seen off African giants in the 1975 edition like Ghana's Great Olympics, Green Buffaloes of Zambia and Egypt's Ghazl Al-Mehalla.
Kiberu made a few changes to the team, eliminating Caiman by benching Ismail Kirungi and Fred Sekasi. He switched striker Edward Semanda to right back and played Richard Kembo behind Peter Kirumira on the striking line. The club heavily relied on solid goalkeeper Joseph Masajjage, skipper Wilson Nsobya and flying right winger Stanley 'Tanker' Mubiru.
Come D-day, Express put up a defensive masterclass to hold their hosts 0-0. Back in Kampala, the result was greeted with wild celebrations and upon the team's return from Nigeria, work came to standstill at the airport and along Entebbe Road as fans struggled to get a glimpse of their heroes. Incidentally, it was on the same day - at approximately the same time - Kampala Archbishop Emmanuel Nsubuga also returned from Rome after being ordained Cardinal.
In many ways, it was a double celebration as thousands thronged the airport and the roads leading there. Several arches were erected on the 33-km route, and it took the team more than three hours to arrive in Kampala.
The team was driven straight to Lugogo, where coach Kiberu narrated the journey to club faithful and later, the players were driven to the club's base at White Nile and treated to a big party.
"We travelled [to Nigeria] as underdogs and some fans called us students because of our diminutive size," recalls Timothy Ayiekoh, who was with the team as a midfielder. "But when we surprised them in the goalless draw, we returned as super stars."
Masajjage's gaffe spoils the party
It took nearly a week of partying before the team embarked on serious training at their Wembley ground on Kyaggwe Road (now Mukwano Shopping Centre). Kiberu, with his assistant Charles Jaggwe and trainer David Mukwaya, concentrated on utilising scoring opportunities after the strike force was kept at bay by Enugu's explosive custodian Emanuel Okala.
Come the big moment, Nakivubo stadium was already packed to capacity by 2pm as fans gleefully waited for another giant scalp. Express' starting XI had Joseph Masajjage, Edward Semanda, Ashe Mukasa, Sam 'Kapeera' Tamale, Wilson Nsobya, Badru Kakembo, Stanley Mubiru, Mike Kiganda, Peter Kirumira, Timothy Ayiekoh and John Ntensibe. Everything went according to plan as Mubiru and Nsobya put the red Eagles 2-0 up by the hour mark.
Deafening cheers filled the stadium and some fans stripped off their shirts. So dominant were the Express players that they ignorantly threw caution to the wind as they sought to kill off the contest. But in the 80th minute, Express gave away cheap possession and conceded a lousy goal. Still, fans continued to cheer on because time was ticking away and Express was destined to proceed to the quarterfinal.
However, two minutes into stoppage time, an Enugu player sent a speculative from 40 yards and somehow - almost in disbelief - it slipped through Masajjage's hands into goal. The safest pair of hands in the whole of East Africa had given away a cheap goal at a grand stage. The stadium fell silent; nobody could explain what had happened. That was perhaps the last kick and Express didn't even have time to push for a winner.
The Nigerians celebrated in the middle of the pitch as tears rolled on the dejected Express bench. A section of disappointed fans claimed Masajjage had been bribed while others wanted to beat him up.
"I can't explain what happened todate but we were really hurt," says then Express secretary Bablo Ali. "We still have scars on our hearts to this day."
"Masajjage made a mistake like any other player, I don't think there was foul play," adds Ayiekoh.
The proud Nigerians would go on to eliminate Zambia's Green Buffaloes in the quarters before bowing out to eventual winners MC Alger of Algeria. It's a lesson URA should learn from ahead of their Saturday showdown at Namboole.
The author is Director Marketing & Promotions of The Observer Media Ltd.