Flashback 2016: Sofapaka escape act spiced 2016 KPL
When the 2016 Kenyan Premier League (KPL) season kicked off on Saturday, February 13, no one tipped Sofapaka to struggle to hold on to their top flight status.
The 2009 champions waited until the last day to complete a memorable survival against the chop, sparing the blushes of the once glamour club of the KPL who thumped Thika United 5-1 to complete the ‘Great Escape’.
Since they were promoted to the top flight in 2008, Batoto ba Mungu have never finished outside top five but even on the final day, their fate was not entirely in their hands as they needed Ushuru FC to slip up against Posta Rangers.
The stars aligned for Sofapaka when Ushuru slumped to a 3-1 reverse to close their dreadful season level on points with the taxmen at 16 but boasting a superior goal difference of -6 against -8 as Ken Kenyatta’s side fell into the relegation pit.
“Okay, I wanted so much for us to survive, but I couldn’t be sure because it depended on too many factors. Matters were not in our hands. First we had to win the game, and then we needed Ushuru to lose otherwise our efforts would have been in vain.
“That was a lot of pressure and I just didn’t want to think about it. I was just focusing on that last game and when I found out that we had actually survived I was very happy.
“I am yet to get over the excitement. In fact, I can’t explain how we did it but we managed to survive and that is very exciting. This was a miracle,” then Sofapaka head coach John Baraza told the official KPL website after completing the survival miracle.
Baraza, a former striker at the club took over the team that was stuck in the red zone throughout the season from David Ouma who abandoned the team to take charge of Starlets.
Financial constraints were the root Sofapaka’s troubles which saw most of their experienced players leave for greener pastures ahead of the 2016 season.
They could not hold onto Ugandan veteran coach Sam Timbe after the 2014 season when the first signs of money problems surfaced leaving Ouma who was then at the helm.
The rain started to beat them when flamboyant club president Elly Kalekwa left the country amid a storm of controversy and by the time he returned in June Sofapaka were first sliding out of the top division with unpaid players and technical bench finding little motivation to soldier on.
Ouma, who once lamented eventual league winners Tusker FC were thriving on nine former Sofapaka first choice players then jumped ship to the more secure role with Starlets when they needed him most.
Baraza took full charge towards the end and results started streaming in, managing three wins and a draw in the last four fixtures, including a win against AFC Leopards.
As the soft spoken former KPL golden boot winner masterminded the resurgence, Kenyatta was free falling with his Ushuru, going winless in 12 matches. This was the other side of the miracle for Sofapaka, as their last win was in July 2 against Sony Sugar (2-1).
The return of Kalekwa did not only inspire the escape, but has seen preps for 2017 season begin early with the re-appointment of Ssimbwa as head coach.
-Gor reign ends-
When record 15-time champions Gor Mahia failed to make any impact in the CAF Champions League (was eliminated in the first round by Madagascar’s CNaPs), then head coach Frank Nuttal pledged to concentrate on defending the KPL league title he won in 2015 unbeaten.
However, the magic had vanished, with key figures that orchestrated the historic run having left the titleholders.
The season’s KPL Most Valuable Player (MVP) Michael Olunga, striker Meddie Kagere and influential attacking midfielder Victor Ali Abondo were no longer part of playing unit.
John ‘Bobby’ Ogolla, who assisted Nuttal alongside Frank Ouna had joined rival side Nairobi City Stars.
After a poor start in the league, under pressure Nuttal went AWOL only to find a safe haven that never was at Egypt’s giants Zamalek.
His departure was followed by resignation of Ouna, who was disappointed with Gor’s management decision to hire a foreign coach, having shown interest in the job.
This meant only Tom Ogweno, who was previously helping in Team Manager role, was left in the title-winning technical bench as Brazilian Jose Marcelo Ferreira came on board in March.
He embarked on a mission to save the K’Ogalo sinking ship, which he succeeded in but could not manage silverware.
Losing midfield maestro Khalid Aucho to South Africa’s premier league Baroka FC in June was a major blow in his quest to catch Tusker in the summit, while a returning Kagere was a pale shadow of himself judging his 2015 exploits.
Jacques Tuyisenge, who was roped in from Rwanda’s Police FC to replace Olunga failed to live to the billing scoring only 10 goals, seven shy of Olunga’s in 2015.
Not only did Gor falter in the league, but also in the KPL Top 8 Tournament and the GOTv Shield Cup that Muhoroni Youth and Tusker lifted respectively.
It will remain in history books that Gor hired a Brazilian striker Thiago de Lima, who never featured for the side in any competitive match in his six months stay at the club, earning a cool Ksh.250, 000 and unspecified house allowance.
The 2016 season was harsh on under-performing coaches with some decrying they were victims of witch hunts.
Besides Gor and Sofapaka, Leopards, Nairobi City Stars, Muhoroni, Thika, Bandari FC, Posta Rangers and Sony Sugar replaced the figures at the helm.
For Leopards it was a managerial circus that started with Dutchman Jan Koops when the starting gun was fired only to be handed another role at the Den six games in to pave way for Belgian Ivan Minnaert in February.
After a promising start that saw Ingwe top the table, Minnaert was unceremoniously sacked in September and Ezekiel Akwana, a former player took over on interim basis.
He would not last long. As soon as the incumbent Stewart Hall arrived at the end of October, the entire bench was fired, including Team Manager Joseph Milimu.
Ingwe managed only 30 points, finishing 13th on the final log.
Muhoroni fired James ‘Odijo’ Omondi, paving way for Ogolla who was eventually dismissed as his assistant Tom Juma took over.
City Stars had no choice when Ogolla found greener pastures and hired Ugandan Richard Tamale.
At the Dockers, Twahir Muhidin was not spared, leaving his assistant Ken Odhiambo leading the only coast based top tier club. Leonard Odipo resigned from Sony in April following what he termed as unnecessary pressure.
Thika replaced Moses Irungu with former Harambee Stars coach James Nandwa taking over in March while Posta suspended and later replaced Zedekiah Otieno with another ex-international Sammy Omollo.
The latter’s appointment came immediately after the conclusion of the season.
-New stars born-
At the 2016 KPL Footballer of the Year Awards on December 13, Western Stima FC’s Kenneth Mugambi Muguna was named the Most Valuable Player against all odds.
A new star was born as the debutante beat rank favourite Eric ‘Marcelo’ Ouma of Gor, Humphrey Mieno, John Mark Makwatta and David Okello among others to lift the coveted prize.
Despite missing out on the top gong, Ulinzi striker Makwatta finally landed the coveted Golden Boot with a league-high 15 goals as his team finished third.
He may not have hit Jesse Were’s 22 from 2015 season but was one of the leading lights of the competition having finished third last year and the year before.
“This season has been a good one for me, but it hasn’t been smooth all through. There have been ups and downs, at some point I was even starting as a reserve player because of player rotation, and other times I used to play and not score goals.
“That is why I am so happy to have achieved this Golden Boot. Scoring goals regularly has enabled me to be called up to the national team and I just pray that I will be able to replicate this good form in the years to come.
“Even though we didn’t win the league, it has been a very good season for the club because we came third, reached the GOtv Shield final and also performed very well at the East Africa Military Games. We did it as a team” Makwatta remarked.
Meanwhile, the stand-off between KPL and Football Kenya Federation (FKF) on the number of clubs to feature in the topflight in 2017 remains a puzzle as the year turns.
The club licensing monster has come in to the picture too, and the size of the league is yet undecided. Will it be 16 as KPL wants, 18 as FKF wants or even less as the Local Licensing Committee will dictate?