Kenneth Muguna won the 2016 MVP Award
Star on the rise: Unleashing Western Stima’s Kenneth Muguna
By Fabian Odhiambo | Sat 17 Dec, 2016 12:45

Widely regarded as one of Kenya’s brightest young attacking talent’s, Muguna has lit the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) on his first season after joining Western Stima from second-tier side Palos FC – and there’s more to come …

Football is played with the head. The feet are just tools – those were Andrea Pirlo’s words, and he had a career perfectly summed up by this phrase. A player whose considerable lack in burly build- compared to his peers, has a Kenyan youngster anchoring his beliefs onto it. A lean Kenneth Muguna not only gracefully plays football with his head like Pirlo wants, he’s taken his idol’s name too - Pirlo, they call him at his current club Western Stima.

How it all started

It’s the start of the 2015 season and there’s a boy straight out of high school and wants nothing but play football. It’s always a long shot to aim for the Premier League sides when you are just out of school so Kenneth Muguna’s deal with third tier debutants Palos FC will do just fine for now. Here, he’ll meet Coach Paul Ogai, and a year-long mentorship journey will begin.

“I look at Kenneth now and marvel at what confidence can do to a player. He’s the type I had full belief in, sometimes castigated for playing him whenever we lost. In a few people’s eyes, he wasn’t still good enough – maybe good, just not enough to start for Palos. I have never regretted any match I threw him into,” Ogai goes back in time.

Born on 6th January 1996, Muguna’s first encounter with a football came nine years later at Kondele Primary School, and after insisting that this is what he wanted, earned himself his first football boots at nine years. A father’s first sign of approval, Michael Muguna had unknowingly told his son, ‘you can be whatever you want to be.’

Urusi Football Club is a name that will send shivers across a section of opposing teams here in Kisumu. Ten years back the name would also prompt an opponent to fail to honour a match. It was The Team, and Muguna already among the best among his peers at school, sought to join Urusi’s junior teams. He would start with the U-10’s.

“I would play football in school during break time but this wasn’t enough. Back home after school I always found myself heading to Urusi’s training grounds. They had good players, and I needed a bigger challenge,’’ Muguna – who wouldn’t last more than four years at Urusi, says.

The sunset years in primary school saw him join another Kisumu colossus in football; Real Kisumu, a club that just a few years to come would miss out narrowly on promotion into the Kenyan Premier League. Muguna – now at Nyabondo Boys High School – played for Real Kisumu’s U-16’s during the school holidays.

St. Ignatius Magadi in their perennial quest to dethrone Nyanza footballing giants Kisumu Day Secondary School, snapped up Muguna from Nyabondo two years into his High School journey in 2012. This is a call he heeded given he would not only play school football but also feature in the country’s Provincial League. St Ignatius School and the then Kisumu Youth Olympic Centre (KYOC) had a strong bond and the latter, featuring in the League, often came to take a few good players from the school. The only boy in a family of five was one such player.

The youngster’s tactical ability now starts to emerge and a few can see that indeed he would be huge in a few years to come. 

Waore James Diang’a, the head of Kisumu Youth Olympic Centre believes Muguna’s arrival at the centre was a blessing in disguise. Part of the reason for him leaving Nyabondo Boys had been cold weather conditions that adversely affected his already ailing chest. He thus joined St. Ignatius on medical grounds but with massive talent. From here, joining the school team (and by extension the club KYOC) was a no brainer to his potential teammates who Waore reveals have a massive say in who joins the team

“At KYOC we leave the onus of selecting new arrivals to the players themselves. Yes, we are that democratic. We call new players for trials and ask the already registered team members to select whom they think will add quality to the team. So when Muguna’s time came, there weren’t any qualms about whether he was some prospect,” says Waore who prides himself in producing such talents as Wellington Ochieng (Gor Mahia), Andrew Murunga (Kakamega Homeboyz) and Thika United vice-captain Vincent Omumbo.

Now having people who understood him around, Muguna took up light training on the advice of Coach Wycliffe Odhiambo so he wouldn’t aggravate his already dire chest condition. It’s here that he would spell it out clear that his football would be played in the mind, his frail frame perfect bait to unsuspecting opposition.

“We knew he was good from the onset, and vowed to keep him and give him a chance here at KYOC. He was good in class too, unlike other footballers we know. We have produced a lot of good players from here who currently play in the Kenyan Premier League but I think Junior stands out,’’ a visibly delighted Waore says.

The decision to rope in Muguna and a few youngsters from St Ignatius paid off massively for the club in 2013. From Amule Robinson, Livingstone Ochieng and himself, all students at St Ignatius, KYOC gained promotion into the then Nationwide league; the country’s third tier of football. 

Palos sojourn

Year four in school saw Kenneth partake in little football – related activity and this might explain KYOC’s failure to rise up a league higher. As 2014 came to a close, school ended with it but for Kenneth, football didn’t. This is where the story of Palos and Coach Paul Ogai begins. Two stellar seasons at the Olympic Centre between 2013 and 2014 sees him join Palos Football Club – debutants in the Nationwide League. 

“I think it was time for a fresher challenge for him. Palos had been on the rise since its formation in 2012 and it’s a club that had its sights firmly fixed on an upward trajectory. I brought Muguna alongside Francis Alumba and Bernard Ochieng; all of them from KYOC,” Ogai who would engineer Palos FC’s rise into the second tier reveals. 

A nagging injury picked during Palos’ pre-season training rendered Muguna unfit for the first six matches of the season, a period he admits was one of the toughest in his career. Being debutants, the team was doing fairly well, but fair had never been in the DNA of Palos, so pressure to perform mounted.

“It was a difficult time for me and the team. Here I was, out injured and for a new signing that only creates more anxiety among the fans. As they say though, it is darkest before dawn; the season that was before me is one I will never forget,” the 2016 KPL August player of the month recalls.

Muguna joined Ogai’s train – now at full throttle – seven matches into the season but wouldn’t walk right into the first team. David Amimo, Clifford Omondi and Bernard Ondiek were in top form so he had to be contented with starting from the bench, but even here, Coach Ogai admits it is a decision that raised eyebrows.

“To even name him on the match day squad for any match was a decision I had to labor hard with because a lot of criticism was thrown at me. To be honest, we had very good and fit players in the team, and Kenneth was just coming back from injury. He had something special in him, and I’m glad I took the risk to try him out one match at a time,” says Ogai who’s vindication would come when Palos faced an in-form Gor Mahia FC in the 2015 GOtv Shield round of 16 match in Nairobi.

Big break

The Shield match is a highlight in Muguna’s career, he says. One of the three moments he doesn’t want to forget despite saying bye to teen-hood just a few months ago. Despite going down 4-2 to Gor Mahia in the tie, an indelible mark in the two assists he gave to Calvince Omanga on that day remain a source of joy to him. He had just done it against the champions, one wonders if there’s anything he couldn’t do.   

Western Stima Head Coach Henry Omino is a man of his word, play well and you will continue getting the chance to play. Muguna’s entry into the top tier straight from third division is testament to this.

Normally, when one gets such a chance to mingle with the big boys the first instinct is to try and learn from them, stay on the ropes and wait for your chance. Muguna did not, he grabbed the first chance with both hands and the successive senior national team call-ups have been the result of sheer hard work and an unrelenting self-belief that in just ten months have brought him a monthly award.

Kenneth Muguna’s star is on the rise, a very fast rise and he is in no mood to look back. Just five months in Western Stima and three KPL giants – in the June mid-season transfer window – flocked Kisumu, each with some hope of walking home with this gem. Stima didn’t budge, and all of them walked away empty handed.

It is incredible how fast time flies. One moment you’re chasing a collection of expertly woven polythene bags in a dusty gravel-filled soccer field and the next, you’re declared the best footballer in the country for a particular month. To someone else, his exploits to this moment can serve as lifetime accomplishments, but for Kenneth Muguna, the ship has just set sail.

This article originally appeared on the fourth edition of the Soka Magazine

Fabian Odhiambo

Twitter.. @Fabian_Odhiambo

Mail.. abu.fabian@gmail.com

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