How will AFC Leopards end 26-year drought for league title as Gor Mahia take 2023/24 crown?

As the dust finally settles on Gor Mahia’s historic success - winning a record-breaking 21st Football Kenya Federation (FKF) Premier League title - focus shifts to their sworn rivals AFC Leopards, whose last league celebrations date back 26 years.

Formed in 1964 as Abaluhya United Football Club, AFC Leopards, dubbed ‘Ingwe’, lifted the title in 1998 and since then, K’Ogalo have gone ahead to win the trophy nine times, with this season’s success confirming their status as the most dominant team in Kenyan history.

During the triumphant season, Ingwe finished top of the table, three points ahead of second-placed Mumias Sugar to win their 12th title in history.

In the following campaign, Ingwe failed to defend the title, finishing second and it is from then until now that they are still searching for the elusive crown.

AFC Leopards’ last trophy was the FKF Cup, then the GOtv Shield, which arrived on October 20th, 2017, following a 2-0 victory against Kariobangi Sharks. Under coach Robert Matano, Ingwe scored through defender Abdalla Salim and forward Vincent Oburu to win the final and clinch the domestic cup.

Ingwe, who suffered relegation from the top-tier in 2008 but regained straight promotion in 2009 after winning the lower division - National Super League (NSL) - have won the domestic competition 10 times, and the Council of East and Central Africa Football Association (CECAFA) Club Championship, now renamed to Kagame Cup five times.

Ingwe’s stuttering start to the 2023-24 campaign

So in a nutshell, it is over two decades without a league trophy, and seven years without a major trophy for Ingwe. At the beginning of the campaign, many pundits had predicted Ingwe to mount a strong challenge for the title.

Meanwhile, Ingwe chairman Dan Shikanda remained bullish they had the right balance of experience and youthful blood to help end their trophy drought.

“I have a good idea where we want to go, it is possible and practical so I am convinced this club can return to its fierce days and start to win trophies,” said Shikanda as quoted by People Sports.

“When you look, our current squad is balanced and sharp so I know what I am talking about. I desire that during my time in office, we can win the league title.”

But contrary to many, Ingwe’s season got off to a worst possible start. While rivals Gor Mahia were on a roll, sweeping past their rivals easily and taking command of the 18-team table, Ingwe surprisingly remained winless from their opening seven matches, a performance that dragged them into the relegation zone by the halfway stage.

Ingwe struggled to win matches and lost where they should not have prompting the club’s top management to fire coach Tom Juma and the entire technical bench, replacing him with Tomas Trucha.

AFC Leopards head coach Tomas Trucha
AFC Leopards head coach Tomas TruchaSportPicha

The arrival of the Czech tactician somehow galvanised the Den as the team started to register positive results, hauling themselves out of the drop zone.

By matchday 31 when Gor Mahia got crowned after amassing an unassailable 67 points, Ingwe found themselves sixth with 47 points, accumulated from 12 wins, 11 draws and eight defeats. But what is ailing AFC Leopards?

FKF Premier League standings
FKF Premier League standingsFlashscore

High turnover of coaches hindering progress

AFC Leopards has set an ominous record in the firing of coaches. For instance, in 2015, Ingwe set a new record in the history of the Kenyan league after firing 14 coaches in less than five years. During that time, the sacking of Dutchman Hendrik Pieter de Jongh on December 28th, 2015, made him the 14th coach to leave the club since 2009.

Despite guiding them back to the top-flight in 2009, Gilbert Selebwa was the first to face the sack; Edward Manoah came in and lasted two months before being fired. Other coaches, who were sent packing, include Nick Yakhama, the late legendary Chris Makokha, Robert Matano, Belgian Robert Bollen, and Dutchman Jan Koops, who was hired in the middle of the 2011 season but was kicked out after just one campaign.

Then in came former Harambee Stars coach Tom Olaba to replace an interim bench that former player Nicholas Muyoti led, but he only lasted four months. He was replaced by Belgian Luc Eymael, whose tenure ended after one season to be replaced by James Nandwa.

AFC Leopards fans at Nyayo Stadium
AFC Leopards fans at Nyayo StadiumSportPicha

According to former Harambee Stars player Elijah Onsika, this trend of firing coaches is disastrous in several ways.

“It is not a preferred idea to keep changing coaches like clothes, and especially, for any team that wants to be successive (to win trophies), it is something they (AFC Leopards) need to avoid at all costs in the future,” Onsika told Flashscore.

“First, it creates a lack of consistency of programmes and club projects as every new coach will champion new ideas, ignoring programmes left mid-way by their predecessors, and automatically stall any ambitions to success.

“Secondly, it disrupts players’ training programmes as new coaches will always come up with new styles and patterns of playing and sometimes even new players and these will affect the results, it may take time before you get to see positive results.”

Former Gor Mahia goalkeeper Mike Kisaghi concurred with Onsika saying regular changing of coaches would result in a lack of continuity and affect results. “If the technical bench keeps changing there is no continuity and so no stability and the results will not be impressive,” Kisaghi told Flashscore.

However, Kisaghi, who won the league title with K’Ogalo in 1995, believes with Ingwe’s stable leadership under Shikanda, they are not far away from ending their trophy drought.

“AFC Leopards currently have a stable leadership led by Dan (Shikanda) although initially there were a lot of wrangles, this usually runs down to the performance of the team because the management of the team will be affected. Now the team is slowly picking up but not yet at Gor Mahia’s level but soon they will probably end the long wait for the title.”

Apart from coaches, Ingwe should strive to maintain consistency within the playing unit. Every season, Ingwe witnesses a mass exodus of players and their recruitment exercise does not seem to find quality replacements.

“Gor has been brilliant all these years because of its strategic recruitment programme, they seem to be able to identify talent very well, which fits into the team,” explained Kisaghi.

“And also (Gor Mahia) they have had a steady technical bench, unlike AFC’s which has undergone many changes. Gor loses its best players but still finds quality replacements.”

In a recent interview, former AFC Leopards midfielder Charles Okwemba underscored the need to retain a cohesive unit saying it will go a long way to improve the team’s results.

“The loss of key players significantly undermines the team, irrespective of the mitigation strategies employed. Consider Gor Mahia - they sustain a consistent line-up season after season, a stark contrast to our recurrent player turnover,” Okwemba told Citizen TV.

Adopt a strategy of early planning, vigorous start

Last season while other Premier League teams were busy in pre-season training, AFC Leopards were yet to assemble their squad. In fact, with five days to season kick-off, Ingwe hurriedly organised a two-week camp in Mumias Town, situated in the (Western part of Kenya), and played friendly matches against lower division sides.

To make matters even worse, Ingwe were serving a transfer ban imposed on them by the world governing body FIFA following failure to pay KSh20 million salary arrears owed to their former coach Patrick Aussems during his three-year stay with the club.

In 2022, Ingwe had served another two-window transfer ban after they registered John Makwata, Cliff Nyakeya, Victor Omune and Josphat Lopaga while serving yet another transfer ban for failing to pay their former captain, Soter Kayumba Ksh1.8 million for breach of contract.

With both bans lifted and Ingwe free to reinforce, they should embark on an early recruitment exercise to get ready to get off the new campaign and compete with the 'big boys'.

“AFC Leopards have grappled with numerous challenges; for a team to vie effectively, stability, a robust season commencement, and a well-crafted plan are prerequisites for championship success. A strong start invariably augments any team’s prospects,” added Okwemba.

Though Ingwe have struggled, some of their players have been a revelation. Youngster Kaycie Odhiambo, Randi Bakari, Vincent Mahiga, Bonface Munyendo, (Victor) Omune and Rwandese striker Arthur Gitego to mention but a few, have been the key reason AFC Leopards managed to evade the relegation trap.

For instance, (Kaycie) Odhiambo’s superb display caught the attention of Harambee Stars head coach Engin Firat, who named him in his 25-man provisional squad for the upcoming 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches against Burundi and Ivory Coast on June 8th and June 11th respectively.

With their improved show in the second round of the top-flight, Ingwe should strive to keep the squad intact for continuity and, if possible, extend the contracts of goalkeeper Levis Opiyo, midfielder Clifton Miheso and Kevin Kimani in readiness for the new season.

Kisaghi concluded: “Proper planning is what AFC (Leopards) needs to do, they should get their new signings early enough to allow the coaches to work with them and integrate them to the team, and then aim at kicking off the season with a bang if they manage to do all these, then why not, soon they will challenge for the title.”

Whether AFC Leopards will learn from past mistakes and put their house in order is a question for another day, however, unless the office puts in place a strategy of meticulous early planning and a vigorous start to the new season, their aspiration to win the league title will remain a pipe dream.

Dennis Mabuka
Dennis MabukaFlashscore


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