The Korogocho slums in Nairobi are believed to be among the most dangerous points in the city with cases of runaway crime, a ballooning population and very little of good reports coming off the densely populated area of Eastlands. However, 35 years ago this same region produced a man who by a lot of prospects, is bound to be one of Kenya’s famous sons; Stanley Okumbi, the Kenya national team head coach.
From afar, Okumbi doesn’t cut your authoritative figure and the fact that he speaks in a diminuendo with a soprano kind of tone that betrays his age all adds to the absence of that aura of authority. That though is just from the outset and as they say, appearances can be deceiving.
Here is a man who has set out to conquer Africa with the Kenya national team Harambee Stars and believes he can do it despite being rated lowly at the start of his national team career. Before delving into his time with Harambee Stars, here is a glimpse of his journey to the top.
But just how did he start his coaching career?
Coaching, for him started as an accidental stop, when he was 19 and his team in the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), Korogocho Youth, suddenly found itself without a coach midway through the championship.
Then playing as a defensive midfielder, he opted to take up the coaching role while also playing and he says he was as good as the current Kenyan international Victor Wanyama.
Though untrained as a coach, he managed to lead the team to some good results, helping the side finish top of the Korogocho region for three years in a row and his fine run started attracting attention and in 2003 he took up the Korogocho Youth U14 team and went on to win the MYSA Championship that year.
With that, he enrolled for his first ever-coaching course, a basic course at MYSA in 2004 after which he went all the way to win the MYSA Championships with the Korogocho Youth Over – 16 team in 2005.
The success saw him get the attention of the MYSA top brass and not long after he was entrusted with a bigger job – to lead the MYSA U16 team for the Norway Cup in 2006.
“That was a big break of sorts for me. My performance with a team I had grown up with saw me entrusted to lead a bigger team out of the country. It was a special moment,” he says.
Before heading to Norway, he had to beef up his papers and knowing too well he was creating a niche in coaching, took two courses in succession – the advanced course and diploma.
Mathare United stint
He went on to lead the team to a third place finish in Norway and noting his potential, MYSA was not about to let him go; he was offered a role as a volunteer coach at Mathare United in 2006 after returning from Norway, his specification then being under coach Francis Kimanzi.
Kimanzi, one of the most celebrated Kenyan coaches, passes a glowing tribute of the man he helped launch a coaching career having first met Okumbi at one of the MYSA coaching clinics. Here Okumbi’s case was one of perfect opportunity combining with luck.
“What really excited me about Okumbi is that here was a young man very brave and eager to learn. He approached me at one of our clinics and asked to get a learning chance at Mathare United at the time there was a big coaching team around with Salim Ali and David Ouma also in the picture and given we were producing a lot of good players then, I couldn’t deny him this chance,” Kimanzi says.
Here, Okumbi says is where his real coaching journey started as he brushed shoulders with the big names in coaching in Kenya while at some points still served assigned roles at MYSA, and he says he gained a lot in his stint as a volunteer at Mathare United.
“Getting a place on the Mathare United bench was not a mean feat then; you had to inspire a lot of confidence in the management and even as a volunteer, it was a great step for me; I could not resist and I should say here the real journey in coaching had started.
“I went on to serve for three years as volunteer assistant coach then the team was under coach Kimanzi from whom I really gained a lot and will always be thankful to,” he notes.
Kimanzi adds that what really touched him about Okumbi was his perseverance, having served three years at the team without a salary.
“Okumbi served with us for three years on free service; I do not remember a day he stood up to me or the management to ask for money unlike many boys his age at that point in time. That to me was the ultimate conviction that he had true interest in coaching.
“By that I knew he’d do well in the coaching industry and I am happy with the far he has come,” Kimanzi opines.
With the opportunities getting real Okumbi traveled to Holland in 2008 to upgrade his papers to UEFA C category and in 2010 he got the confirmation as the Mathare United assistant coach, elevated from a volunteer, and with Kimanzi having left the team, Okumbi served under Salim Ali.
His head would however be turned in 2011 when Kariobangi Sharks came calling and for the first time he served in a setting outside MYSA. That though, lasted only up to 2012 when he was lured back to Mathare United, following the departure of coach Gabriel Kingi Njoroge and he went back as the head coach this time.
Taking up the team in bottom place after a poor start to the campaign was always going to be a tough task but he rolled his sleeves for the job.
“It was not easy at all taking a team bottom of the league and with just four points, but we worked hard and at the end of the season we were eighth and the recovery was so good that I was named the second runners up coach of the year,” he says with pride.
The second season at the team would turn to be a nightmare in the coach’s stint as financial difficulties occasioned massive departures that saw all but three players leave and he had to start rebuilding. He terms it the toughest time of his career.
“After performing well definitely my players were targeted by a number of teams and with the financial state there was little we could do to keep these players. I lost 24 players and at the start of the year I had only three players and was forced to start rebuilding.
“I had to prepare a team for the top flight season by scouting at school games and estate tournaments and it was not easy especially without money. At that point the only thing for us was to fight to stay in the league,” he adds.
National team break
The steel in the coach despite all the challenges kept Mathare United moving and even the Football Kenya Federation (FKF) saw his potential and he was named the Kenya U20 coach. His stint there was not too enjoyable though.
He was handed a team that got really little support from the federation and nation that his stint lasted just five matches, the team winning none.
His appointment to the senior national team came as a surprise, after the election of Nick Mwendwa as the new FKF boss but the coach is known for his knack for taking up even the most daunting of tasks. He settled in the role despite the opposition from most stakeholders.
While most people felt the job should have been given to a local, they were not too inspired by the announcement that Okumbi would be the man and two opening losses in his time at the helm did not help matters either.
He however doesn’t feel his appointment came too soon and results have vindicated him as well.
“I can’t say the appointment came too fast because I had coached for three years in the premier league and obviously I had to set my targets high. I was looking beyond the KPL level; in the premier league there are coaches who are satisfied by just being there but personally I was always looking to go further.”
His confidence when taking up the Harambee Stars role was definitely spiked by the fact that he could compete well with the established coaches in the premier league; the likes of Kimanzi, Zedekiah Otieno, Twahir Muhiddin and Francis Baraza.
“I used to compete with coaches who have been in the league for long and I could match them tactically and with a youthful team. That meant I was ready for the next level,” he says.
On the opposition he met when he was appointed and the defeat to Guinea Bissau, blamed on his team selection, the coach says he took all the attacks positively and vowed to stay on to make the team better.
“Of course we encounter criticism everywhere; for the opposition I met upon the appointment, I took it positively and I should say the criticism built a lot of courage in me and the belief that local coaches can do this job well. It was not all gloomy because a few fans supported the team.
“My first call ups to the team were blasted but to be sincere, that time the premier league had just started and to select the team I definitely had to use records from the past season. I did not have much choice. After that when the league had resumed I think we started getting positive results,” he clarifies.
The team went five games without a loss after the two opening losses and the coach says that is the reward for stability in the team and getting a perfect way to blend the locals and the pros in the team.
He believes for the team to succeed, there has to be a lot of cooperation from the local coaches. This comes in the wake of complaints earlier on that senior coaches are out to sabotage his work at the national team.
A fact that is not lost to him is the standard of Kenyan football, which he says is still very low and he knows it can only rise with the local coaches having an input.
“I have been talking to all the coaches when we meet; formally or informally and one thing I always tell them is that the national team is not mine alone. It belongs to all of us. Compared to other nations, say in Africa, we are still down in terms of football standards and without their cooperation we will fail.
“The beauty of it all is that if we perform well as a country our players will get to be recognized by the teams in the big leagues and when these same players get to pro, they get good training there and when they come here to blend with the locals in the national team you note a big improvement.
Though the coach admits the Kenyan top flight is still lower, compared to the other African leagues, he is pained by the fact that well established players from Kenya are still subjected to trials before signing for teams in the developed leagues.
Vision for Harambee Stars
He says among his ambitions is to create a strong team that will have clubs out there treat Kenyan players with the respect they deserve. This, he cautions, will come with every stakeholder giving everything for the good of the team.
“It is painful that a player like Michael Olunga, a very good striker who is among the top scorer and the best in our league, is subjected to trials when he goes to the Swedish league. You find that it takes him like three months to convince the club to sign him; three months of his career.
“But then if we do well as a team and qualify for these major tournaments, it will be easier for our players to go to teams directly. The message is that everyone, including club coaches have a role in improving the standards of football and thus the lives of our players,” he adds.
Okumbi has settled well in the role and he is proving to be his own man, which the team is gaining a lot from and with stability injected in the team, he can spare some time to plan for the long term future of the team.
Top of his list, he says with a faraway reflection, is to be able to lift the team to compete with the best in the continent. He is confident there is nothing the team cannot achieve with the right dedication.
“I have always been telling my players that we can play at the top most level but first of all we need to be able to compete and play at the same level as teams that regularly qualify for the World Cup and African Cup of Nations (AFCON).
“We want to be able to play at the level of teams like Nigeria, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon and a few more; we want to be able to play them at home or away without fear. That is when we can say we want to be at the World Cup and AFCON to not just participate, but also compete.”
Unlike his predecessors, the coach has been a beneficiary of very good cooperation from the Football Kenya Federation (FKF). His team has been able to go to camp in good time and players are motivated. The same has resulted in good performances by the team and he is very thankful.
He says not just the support, but trust from the federation is very important and that, coming with high profile friendly matches, leaves the coach very confident that with the current office, the team will scale new heights.
“The federation has been very supportive and for them, the ambition is to see that the national team plays as many friendly matches as possible. The more we play these friendly matches, the more players gain the confidence and get to express themselves.
“I am happy and satisfied with the support from the federation and I am sure with that the team will go far,” he notes.
The federation has a target of seeing the team make a first ever appearance at the World Cup in 2022 and the coach shares the same ambition. He says with the efforts being put in place, the team stands a chance.
“It is possible and it is a genuine ambition. If we can play the big boys without fearing them then we can say we are ready and that is what we all want.”
And when it comes to the debate of foreign coaches versus local coaches, Okumbi’s answer is coy but he wants to be judged in matches against the foreign coaches.
“My answer to that is very simple; I want to be analyzed when playing against these foreign coaches,” he concludes.
The coach, a CAF A license holder is a believer in doing things with keen attention, and that could be well picked from the story of his time in the national team thus far, as well as his stint as Mathare United head coach.
In his parting shot, he notes with a nod that he only focuses on success and to get there you have no option – “do it meticulously, or don’t start it at all.”