30 January 2011

Kenya: Thika Coach Hopes Patience Will Pay

Nairobi — Since they were promoted to the Kenyan Premier League in 2002, Thika United are yet to bag the coveted trophy, eight years on.

The closest they ever came was a third place finish in 2006 and 2009.

Thika United has, over the years, defied the 'norm of signing experienced players' as the management goes a different way to recruit teenagers, year in year out; no wonder their tag, "the Arsenal of Kenya."

"The future of any football team is the youth. We might not win the title at the moment due to our inexperience, but in the long run, we will," notes the team coach, Juma Abdalla.

"We are building a team for the future; it is our long term plan (to win the league)."

Thika United is known to sign young players especially from the secondary school competitions and this year has not been any different as they have approached seven players.

But still, they have been a struggling lot and coach Abdalla is a man on a mission to pull off a major coup in the 2011 Kenya Premier League season by helping Thika United re-claim its former glory.

The team has re-evaluated its line-up and brought in young, fresh talented player directly from the East African schools ball games championships system.

In a bid to accord the team the best support possible, title sponsors Brookside Dairy has renewed its annual sponsorship of Sh15 million for 2011 with all indications of improving the terms in the season.

Just like in 2003 when midfielder Matthew Dickinson hit the headlines after leaving Brislington Badgers in Bristol England to join the Kenyan side, Abdalla has done it again.

Engaging school boys

Last year, he invited six young players from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania identified in the regional schools competition for trials with the club.

Three have been signed and the rest sent back home in Uganda and Tanzania to complete their secondary education. Those who have already signed are David Bogere and Juma Balinya both from Uganda and Kenya's Wycliffe Nyengich.

Ugandans Dan Bilikawala, Tonny Kizito and Shaban Mooka from Tanzania will have to wait until they are through with their education before joining the team.

While many football fans will question the idea of engaging school boys for top-flight football, several players have been brought through the same programme.

Keeping a low profile

The national secondary schools ball games championships have seen Hadji Mwachoki, Fahim Elmoge, Michael Bodo, Lucas Indeche, Francis Kahata, Simon Mbugua and David Okello, among others, join the club.

"The best thing now is to keep a low profile while we continue with our pre-season training and I know and believe that as time goes by, we will officially release the names of the players for this year," notes the coach.

Last year, the Thika-based club finished 10th in the league, a performance which was viewed by aficionados as commendable bearing in mind the average age of the team which at 21 years, was and is till is one of the youngest in the league.

But Abdalla, who is accustomed to success, was not satisfied and admits he has been having sleepless nights haunted by painful memories of last season.

After 12 defeats and 10 draws, you surely don't expect him to be among the proudest of KPL coaches.

That notwithstanding, the head coach can take pride in his side finishing in the top 10 last season.

But after a keen look, this was nowhere near their third position finish both in 2006 and 2009.

Capacity in midfield

To drop seven positions can be worrying to any tactician, but not Abdalla.

"I can understand the pressure of any fan to drop in the rankings, but one thing many of them ought to understand is that this is a team being built from humble beginnings and we will get there," says Abdalla.

Thika United Football Club started in 2000, under the name Beirut FC and was your usual team in the estate.

The current management took over in 2001 just when the team had been promoted to the Nationwide League.

Through sheer grit, willpower, wise investment in players, the team beat all the odds of inexperience at high level football to gain promotion to the Premier League after just one season in the Nationwide League.

The club was sponsored by Italian pharmaceutical company, Medisca Farmaceutici and Italian sports designers KAPPA for three seasons, from 2001.

As the team intensifies training ahead of the league, the management of Thika United is not chancing on resources in order to ensure the team is fully prepared to face the task ahead.

The medical department has been hawk-eyed to ensure injuries are minimal.

While United struggle to have a gelled side, they will be happy to welcome back to the fold, international Peter Opiyo.

The 24-year-old Kenyan international started training with United last year in September after nursing an injury that had put him out of competition for months.

According to the team manager, George Maina, Opiyo's experience in Gor Mahia will greatly increase the capacity of the midfield as he and his long term counterpart Michael Luvutsi form the midfield axis.

"His experience will be invaluable. He has been a very key player, both at club and national team level," says the team manager.

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