In the kick-abouts in the late 90’s and the early millennium, every football aware kid in Kenya, tasked with the duty of manning the goalposts had to automatically take the name Onyiso and any other name that did not come close to this would brand your team a losing a tag even before a ball was kicked.
From brands like Home Cup to football posters, the name Onyiso was a mandatory feature that couldn’t miss with many of the kids brought up prior to the 2004 African Cup of Nations that was held in Tunisia growing thinking that the name Onyiso was another synonym for a goalkeeper.
Terrifying. Fighter. No nonsense. Leader. Legend. Endless adjectives, analogies and appellations have been summoned by fellow professionals in sincere yet scant attempts to describe exactly what Francis Onyiso was at his prime, and the way he kept strikers at bay, and the unique qualities he possessed between the sticks.
Those comparisons seem to have been the fuel that ignited Onyiso’s flare every time he took to the field; the soft-spoken father of five is a tad shorter for the qualities today’s coaches would want in a goalkeeper, but appearances can be deceiving; Onyiso could leap. He could grow a few inches on the pitch to gather that high ball and leave all in awe.
As a goalkeeper, it was a more or less a curse being born at the same time as Onyiso, because there was no toppling him from the number one position. At his prime, Onyiso featured regularly for the Kenya national team, Harambee Stars; by today’s standards, he’d have attracted some of the big offers around. Yet for all his prowess, the legendary keeper did it mostly for passion.
“Football has totally changed. During our time we did not have enough money that the current players enjoy and it was basically for passion,” he says as he starts us off.
“The pressure of being emulated by the young and the old wasn’t something I took lightly. I went to the field of play knowing that there were people looking up to me and I couldn’t fail them. It was the motivation required to push me.”
He is the keeper with most caps (73) for the Kenya national team and a respected goalkeeping coach. But he is a worried man; with a faraway stare, Onyiso says for all the importance goalkeeping has in the game of football, it is not getting the attention it deserves from the football authorities, and even clubs.
He feels the gap between the young keepers and the old is widening which he says will come to bite in future.
“Im worried for the goalkeepers because I feel it is an area that is being ignored from the top level and to our clubs. We have young talented keepers but those who are handling them still use the old methods of training. It is only recent that the new head coach at the national team (Sebastien Migne) came with his own keeper trainer; in the past we have been depending on talent alone and not proper training.
“We need to evolve with the footballing world and equip the keeper handlers with the needed skills. You look at the coaching courses the federation is offering and most are on the basic things. We need to have training for the keeper coaches alone. This can be seen clearly on how the department has fared in the national team. People like Oluoch (Boniface) and Matasi (Patrick) should be having serious young competitors. The notion that keepers get better with age is long gone that only applies here because we don’t have proper transition.
“There is a huge gap between the keepers we have now and the upcoming keepers which if not looked into well will come to bite us in the near future,” Onyiso says.
Selection by Merit
Onyiso’s footballing journey is long and trodden on rugged terrain. Some of the teams he featured for no longer make headlines, neither did they those days, but he outlines one crucial aspect to growth in football – selection by merit. That is one line you will not miss from any player who got the privilege to play in Reinhardt Fabisch’s teams.
Those were the days when only talent thrived and no matter which team you played for, Harambee Stars players were only selected on merit.
“You look at the players called into the national team fold these days and you wonder what’s going on. It’s no longer based on merit. Once a player is said to be playing in a foreign league he is handed an automatic call up, unlike during our days.
“In our era players came from teams that I hadn’t even heard of before but you could see the talent. It gave everyone in the group a boost and good practice that encouraged those upcoming players who hadn’t gotten to feature for established teams.
“Some players currently being handed national team call ups could not even have a sniff of my team if I was the national team head coach,” Onyiso, who also serves as an assistant coach at Ulinzi Stars, says.
He handles the goalkeeper training department at Ulinzi Stars and after working with Fabisch and Jacob Ghost Mulee, two of the most successful coaches in Kenya, Onyiso says he derived a lot from the duo, which has since helped him in management.
Onyiso kept a hold of the number one jersey despite having top keepers including Duncan Ochieng, Mathews Ottomax, Willis Ochieng and many more for competition and this he says made him a better keeper.
One of his coaches – Ghost – was also a keeper at his time, so needless to say, the legend had better influencers around.
“I was lucky to have played under both (Fabisch and Ghost). They more or less had the same philosophy because Ghost worked with the German style so when Fabisch left he was the best guy for the job. Both insisted on discipline and hard work. They encouraged freedom among players and treated everyone equally but when it came to training you could think you were enemies; they meant business when it was business.
“You have to give Ghost credit because after Fabisch left, he maintained almost everything his predecessor had, which is something you’ll rarely see in coaches today. He didn’t break the squad and instead added wisely and that is why I think we made it to the 2004 African Cup of Nations.
One other influencer in Onyiso’s career was Ottomax. From the current AFC Leopards goalkeeping coach, Onyiso says he learnt a lot, and it is no surprise he ranks him really high. Among his mates who have already retired from active playing, he bills Ottomax as the best at the time but among the ones still active, his pick is Gor Mahia’s Boniface Oluoch.
“The competition is something I enjoyed and when Ottomax came to the scene I knew my days were numbered. He was this young keeper looking to prove himself and he kept me on my toes. When he was called upon to represent the country he did his best and gave it all just as any serious international would do.
“I see some of his qualities in Boniface Oluoch who I consider the best keeper we have in the country now that Origi (Arnold) is no longer with us. He makes mistakes which happens once in a while for goalkeepers but that doesn’t wash away his qualities,” Onyiso opines.
A reflection back to the days they played for the flag draws a bout of nostalgia from the legend and it comes out partly as a cry for his country, but also as a scathing attack. He is hurt at the level of dedication he sees in players getting called to the national team these days.
A former Bandari FC, AFC Leopards and Ulinzi Stars goalkeeper, Onyiso terms some of the call ups a mockery to the flag and wants to see more push and ambition from players, which he says is lacking, and the more reason we struggle as a nation.
“We did not have the kind of money the current crop has yet I can authoritatively say there is no group that has given this country a sense of pride in the footballing world than we did.
“At our time, the things that drove us would not move today’s players. In my career, I played for AFC Leopards and Bandari FC in the Moi Golden Cup just so I could to shake the President’s hand; for us it was never about money but the passion to leave a mark. We knew what it meant to play for the flag. We knew we had a responsibility to a million people and that rang in our minds every time we went to represent the nation.
“We had young players in our team. The likes of Oliech (Dennis) were just being introduced in the team and they knew what was expected of them. He listened to his seniors, never rushed and did exactly what he was told by the likes of Mike Okoth who by then was a key figure in the team. I think that’s why he (Oliech) had the career he had.
“The current young players should look beyond playing for money. Once you have the discipline and focus everything comes in place. Money is important everywhere but it shouldn’t form the basis of your footballing career. Look at Wanyama (Victor) who tells you he doesn’t need money? But since he knows what a good career is, he’s decided to take the path he is taking. The passion too is lacking in some of these players. They think they have a right to be in the national team. With this mentality I can assure you that some of them won’t be here even in the next three years,” Onyiso says.
As a defender of the nation, it is ingrained him to defend anything local. Onyiso believes the notion that the Europeans can do a better job handling the national team, than the local coaches is a myth that has to be overcome.
According to Onyiso, all they need is the trust of their employers and the liberty to do their work without interference from external forces.
“I still believe that hiring coaches just on the basis that they are from the European legion isn’t the way to go. If we are to employ someone outside the country, then we should go for the proven coaches. The Le Roy’s the Herve Renards’ of this continent. You have seen it even in the major tournaments that these people even don’t outperform their fellow colleagues some just keen to fatten their coffers. You saw it in the just concluded World Cup that England had one of their own taking their team to the semis after trying the foreigners and failed.
“When you look at the Kenyan Premier League we only have two foreigners with the rest being our coaches. People like Mwalala (Bernard) have been doing some good work. Kimanzi (Francis) to mention but a few have been here. Just as I mentioned with the goalkeeping coaches earlier, we need to send some of our people oversees to get these badges. It costs a lot to get the EUFA badges but if the federation can chip in and let’s say send like one tactician every year for the same then you’ll find that by the end of the fifth year, we will be having people who can handle the national team. It’s being done in Germany and in the established countries for those willing to acquire badges but are not able. The federation has done well with the basic courses and if they built on that in the future then it will be a plus for our country.
On the integration to the national team and ways to improve the national team fortunes, Onyiso was categorical; improve the junior teams or forget about making any improvements.
“I have said it over and over again, we need to concentrate on the youths if we are to improve. We only form these junior teams when we are about to participate in tournaments. These means we will always hurry in calling for football camps to select players and in the process lock out some potential young players.
“Let’s have a junior league where each club is required to field a side and I hope that is addressed with the CAF Club licencing because I know it is one of the requirements. When you have a junior league and a constant head coach for the U20 and U17 team, it makes their work easier. All they need is visit these leagues and select the best players for their respective teams for that’s the only way that we can ensure that talent don’t run dry in the national team,” Onyiso adds.
Onyiso in his last sentiments called for the recognition of former internationals and says he is enjoying life in management with Ulinzi Stars having given him the ample environment to transfer his skills to the club’s goalkeepers and is looking forward to taking over a team in the near future.
“I want to encourage the Ministry of Sports in conjunction with the federation to remember those who served this country diligently in their hey days. Not everyone can be lucky as I am to be handling team and not many can be coaches but at least they can come up with programmes to help them transfer what they learnt in their playing days to the upcoming generation.
“I am enjoying my time in Ulinzi and I can only get better. I have a supportive team here and that has made my work even easier. We played with the likes of Mulinge and seeing him here everyday warms my heart. I have ambitions of coaching a team in the future but I’m still working on my badges and I feel the lessons here at the club is the very vital towards that so I try to give my all now in my position just as I did during my playing days,” Onyiso concludes.
D.O.B: 16 November 1972
Harambee Stars Caps-73
This article first appeared on Soka Magazine Issue 14