No longer a prospect: The Silent Rise of Maurice Ojwang
No longer a prospect: The Silent Rise of Maurice Ojwang
By Fabian Odhiambo | Wed 11 Jul, 2018 13:00

Conventionally, in the lower tiers of football- anywhere in the world- to attribute a lack of progress on the continued loss of good players to the higher echelons of any given country’s football leagues will always be taken in as a good enough excuse from a coach.

George Ondula, however, is not in that set of coaches. He wants to see his players get fresher challenges, so losing Maurice Ojwang to Kenyan Premier League Side Western Stima FC midway through the 2015 Football Kenya Federation (FKF) Division 1 campaign was one that ushered in mixed feelings for him and Bondo United Football Club to a great extent.

He doesn’t deny the existence of gaping inadequacies that set in on his team soon after the departure of a good player; he just doesn’t believe it’s the end of the world.  For Maurice Ojwang especially, coach Ondula sees tremendous promise and wishes the 20-year-old well as he cements his place among the very few but indispensable utility players in the Kenyan Premier League (KPL).

Pools of Talent

‘’What few people don’t understand is that there is a vast pool of talented players in the lower divisions of Kenyan football. It’s an area that has only been seen as a churner of very few and spontaneous talents. They are here in plenty, and the more they leave to the higher tiers the better for others who rarely get a chance. So for me, it’s a win whenever two or three leave for sterner challenges,’’ says Ondula who himself was a beneficiary of a properly set-up youth structure.

Alongside the late former Kisumu Posta midfielder Dick Anyanga and former AFC Leopards striker Wilberforce Mulamba, Ondula and a few others were roped into Bernard Zgoll’s youth programs briefly after the German tactician’s arrival in Kenya in 1972.

‘’What few people don’t understand is that there is a vast pool of talented players in the lower divisions of Kenyan football,” George Ondula

It may be only his second year in the KPL but whenever the story of Ojwang is written, it should be noted-at least for anyone who cares- that the robust 5’6’’ lad is a championship material.

Twice he saw Bondo United scale up the ladder of the Kenyan tiers of football, and once he stood tall for Western Stima’s under 19 squad in 2013 as the Hesbon Nyabinge coached side flogged Tusker four goals to nil to dethrone Thika United, winners of the cup two years prior. 

Nyabinge’s assembly before the tournament began obviously was meant for the 2013 champions’ accolade. From Gabriel Andika (AFC Leopards) in goal, to Eric Ouma (FC Kolkheti Poti - Georgia), Vitalis Akumu (Western Stima) and Ojwang himself in defense, it really was the dream backline.

In the midfield, coach Nyabinge had the leadership of Billy Agai (Palos) and Harun Nyakha (AFC Leopards) to rely on whereas the final third comprised the variety of Wekesa Alfred (AFC Leopards), Baron Oketch (Ulinzi Stars), Kevin Okoth (Stima) and Laban Gambareko (Chemelil Sugar).

Ojwang played in all the six tournament matches but the clean sheet at the tourney’s final clash elates him more than the rest. He admits though, that Mathare United in the semi-final was a lucky escape.

Having trailed an Eric-Johanna led Mathare side till the dying minutes of the game, Stima’s junior side needed a late Billy Agai penalty to take the match into penalty shoot-outs. The rest- not as they say though, is a tale better told by Gabriel Andika who repelled Mathare’s two penalty kicks and saw Stima into the final.

Versatile Player

‘”It was my first real footballing experience outside of Kisumu, so to come back with a national title was monumental for all of us,’ says Ojwang, just minutes after seeing his name among the latest Harambee Stars call-ups by Coach Stanley Okumbi.

‘I was in school at the time, but not like many of my teammates who schooled in traditional footballing giants around the country. In my school in fact, we would go to class on Sundays,’’ continues the Kisumu South Adventist Secondary School alumnus.  

‘’It was my first real footballing experience outside of Kisumu, so to come back with a national title was monumental for all of us,’ Maurice Ojwang

Coach George Ondula first saw a traditional libero when Pro 16 football club visited Bondo United for a friendly match back in 2013. That’s the same role Ojwang would play for his team when he agreed to switch from the non-league side to Bondo- at the time already in the district league.

‘’Maurice can virtually play in any position. I’ve even used him as a wingback before,’’ Ondula chuckles. ‘It may be different where he is now (Stima) but that’s because every team has their own systems of play. Personally, I preferred having him in the libero position, he attacks from the back. Our two successive promotions from District to Provincial and later on to the Nationwide league were performances by the team that showed just how good we were, and the quality therein. Ojwang was an outstanding player for us,’’ concludes Ondula who at the moment offers his coaching experience to Manyatta Youth Resource Centre. 

August 1st 2015 was debut day for Ojwang at Stima- senior team debut as just two years before, he had worn the junior team shirt. How he makes a second coming to Stima isn’t much different from how he joined Bondo from Pro 16 FC.

Henry Omino had had a tough day cracking Bondo United’s defense in a friendly match and with the final whistle, made it clear that he was ready to offer Ojwang a Premier League chance. Bondo had only one condition, that Ojwang be allowed to play one last division 1 league match, and the rivals; a fast-rising Palos FC side.

Of course after two years of service he wasn’t going to let anything blemish his record at Bondo, and Palos fell 0-1 as Bondo dispatched them from second on the log. All paperwork done, Ojwang had his bow against a red-hot SoNy Sugar FC who had just dismissed AFC Leopards in Awendo. This is the last time those who follow the local game here, in Kisumu, saw him play in the midfield. Stima fell 0-2 to their visitors, both goals netted after Ojwang’s withdrawal. The next time he showed up, he stood beside Captain Joash Onyango in defense- an idol and father figure to him.

‘’I never thought I could learn so much from just one person. Playing alongside Joash built confidence in me. He was the leader in the team, and led from the back,’’ Ojwang holds his regard high for his former captain who has since joined Gor Mahia FC.

Up next for him was Chemelil in which he played for the full ninety minutes and the match ended in a draw. He has never looked back since then.

Early Years

Maurice is a product of the meticulous breeding that goes on in the slum areas of Kisumu. Nyalenda in this case. Benfica and Monaco, his first ever clubs in the very few, dusty (and now diminishing) pitches of Nyalenda are probably now defunct.

These are clubs he followed through and through and as school became a thing of necessity, football paved way for his secondary school education. A generous chunk of Premier League footballers raised in the City of Kisumu presently will tell you something about Kisumu Youth Football Association (KYFA), a youth league that dates back to ten years ago.

Maurice too, has played here in three categories. Just like most, the U-18 KYFA league was his last and he signed off in style bagging that edition’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) accolade. His masterly ball handling techniques are all credits to the league and his youth coach Fred Oloo at Pro 16. This, in fact, is what makes him stand out according to his current coach at Stima, Mr Henry Omino.

‘’I like his handling of the ball but most of all, he is a player who likes to listen and a fast learner at that. Playing him alongside Joash was probably an advantage to his development because our former captain was a leader here,’’ Omino says.

‘’I like his handling of the ball but most of all, he is a player who likes to listen and a fast learner at that,” Henry Omino

Despite sitting out the first half of the 2016 KPL due to an injury lay-off, Ojwang returned to feature for Stima in the entire second leg as they finished a record fifth. He picks out two matches as his most favorite so far; a 0-0 draw at home to Posta Rangers and his last outing for Bondo United. Joash Onyango saw red just a minute after restart and from here, Ojwang knew it would be a tall order against the experienced mailmen. Coach Omino tactically dropped Frederick Shimonyo in defense and it was Ojwang’s turn to now lead from the back with his captain out.

Massive talent in the region

‘’We may not have won the match against Posta but I’ll take that clean sheet any day. There’s only so much you can do when your defensive partner- and whom you look up to in this case- is red carded with 45 more minutes to play. It’s like leaving a baby to walk on their own just minutes after seeing them make the first baby-steps,’’ Ojwang recollects.  

Against Bondo United in 2015, National Super League (NSL) side Palos FC needed a win to cement top position on the log and eclipse Vihiga United’s dominance in the Division 1 table standings. All they needed was to win away to Bondo United, but Ojwang in his last match, wanted a little more respect. The 1-0 result for the hosts took them to second as Palos dropped to 3rd. Even though Bondo would not gain promotion into the second tier until later on at the end of the season, Ojwang settling in well at Stima was a win for Coach Ondula.

‘’The teams that eventually gained promotion (Palos and Vihiga) truly deserved it. One might look at it and say that the loss of key players in the course of the season cost us, but I choose to look at it differently. Ojwang and a few others had done their part and it was only fair for the younger upcoming ones to also get their chance. We can never run out of talent in this region,’’ concludes Ondula, who is just one of the few Football Kenya Federation (FKF) instructors from Kisumu.

Maurice Ojwang has just received his maiden call-up to the national team, one backed by all his previous coaches some of whom feel it should have in fact come early. The 20 year old just like his idol and Kenyan international David Owino- does not fluff chances. He takes it and he owns it. Given a chance soon, it will be his.   

Fabian Odhiambo

Twitter.. @Fabian_Odhiambo

Mail.. abu.fabian@gmail.com

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