15 May 2017

Uganda: Maroons FC Return Breath of Fresh Air to Top-Flight League

In terms of historical legacy, Maroons FC is one of the traditional giants of Ugandan football.

Starting out as Prisons FC in the fifties and one of the colonial institutional clubs alongside Police FC, and later Army FC, Maroons built its foundation on recruiting powerful players.

Also as one of the pioneer clubs when the national top-flight league commenced in 1968, Maroons won the inaugural title and defended

it successfully the following year. Legends such as Parry Oketch, Peter Okee and Eddie Semwanga made the Luzira-based side a formidable force in the late sixties and throughout the seventies.

However, the club's fortunes dipped in the seventies with the emergence of powerhouses Villa, Express and KCC. From then on, it has not been a smooth ride for the club, especially after its first relegation in 1987.

It took a concerted effort by club diehards in the mid-2000s for Maroons to regain a semblance of its old self.

In 2007, the club gained promotion back to the top- flight and although they have been relegated three more times since, Maroons has exhibited great determination to come back to the high table of Ugandan football.

Fast forward to the current situation, Maroons finds itself on the mend, thanks to their recent triumph in the Fufa Big League. These are promising times and the club looks well positioned to take the 2017-2018 Uganda Premier League by storm.

KIRKHAM GLORY DAYS

Shrewd tactician Asaph Mwebaze, the man at the centre of Maroons revival, was not yet born when Maroons became the first Ugandan club to feature in a continental competition. That was way back in 1969 when Maroons represented the country in the Africa Club Championship.

Bill Kirkham, a former British Royal Marine who served as the deputy commissioner of Prisons, molded the side to become the best in the country. [I last heard from him almost a decade ago while he was in South Africa].

Kirkham was the focal point of everything in Maroons. This included procuring funds, offering employment and promotion of players on top of acting as the team's coach.

He was also renowned for spot- ting talented players and made Maroons the envy of local clubs, boasting of the cream of The Cranes side at the time.

Names such as Steven Baraza, Sam Munyenye, Salongo Nyanzi, John Sekiziyivu, Ali 'Kiggala' Muhammad, Peter Babu and Ben Izaga were products of Kirkham's talent-spotting campaign countrywide.

They were later joined by the likes of Abbey Nasur, Peter Wanyonyi, Charles Ebalu, Evans Abwooli, Natal Mwaka, Sam Natulya, Mike Diku, Erias Wapicho, Vincent Khisa and Dr Timothy Mutesasira, among others.

Kirkham's Maroons were built around the attributes of athleticism and physicality. At a personal level, Kirkham's biggest rival was Joseph 'Jolly Joe' Kiwanuka, the Express FC boss with whom he shared similar football roles. Their rivalry reached fever pitch in 1969 when Maroons beat Express to the league title.

However, Maroons' fortunes dipped when Idi Amin became Ugandan president in 1971. It has been argued in some circles that Amin's hatred for British expats prompted him to prop up the Army side, later renamed Simba, to challenge Kirkham's side.

Incidentally, Maroons' dominance waned as Simba became the country's top side. Matters were not helped in 1973 when Amin expelled Kirkham from the country.

That turned out to be the end of Maroons as a formidable side even though it was still able to attract some top players such as Raphael Bwire, Sam Mubiru, Jimmy Drati, Amadeo Sentamu, Franco Buteri, James Kaliisa, Mike Latim, Yosa Yeka and later Denis Obua.

Okee had replaced Kirkham as coach but his elevation to The Cranes job in 1976 meant he had to divide his time between the club and national team.

Around that time, a host of top players left Maroons to join more fancied sides, particularly big-spenders Nile FC. Simba FC was the hardest-hit side after the 1979 war that ousted Amin but Maroons was not spared either. Several of their Cranes stars such as Semwanga, Babu, Ali, Kaliisa, Nasur, Obua vanished for fear of their lives.

BYABAZAIRE ERA

Maroons had to go back to the drawing board in 1979 when football-mad Barnabas Byabazaire became Uganda Prisons commissioner general.

Byabazaire set out to rejuvenate the club by offering bigger funding to recruit promising youngsters such as goalie Jimmy Ebong, Moses Oketayot, John Buga, John Oyet, Steven Dakota, James Kyeyune, Charles Kavuma, Paddy Mulumba, and Okech Magoba, among others.

However, Okee's departure to Germany for coaching studies in 1982 stalled the team's master plan. Oketch was elevated to become coach/player but still, Maroons found it difficult to challenge the status quo led by KCC, and Villa, among others.

When Byabazaire was appointed Fufa boss in 1986, many expected Maroons to challenge for the league title - citing the massive influence and power vested in the Fufa chairmanship at the time.

However, Byabazaire left the team to fight on its merits and in a surprise move; he left Prisons later that year.

FALL FROM GRACE

Thereafter, the club went into a downward spiral and in 1987 Maroons got relegated from the top-flight. From then on, Maroons languished in the lower divisions without any signs that it would return to the top.

So, the new revival, which started in 2007, has been remarkable for the club's sheer grit. Three relegations in the past decade have not dampened the Maroons spirit.

Ugandan football needs clubs such as Maroons to be competitive simply because they have got history, tradition and, to some extent, pedigree to entice any neutral.

Meanwhile, I have witnessed a campaign to revive legendary Nsambya FC. It is a good gesture and my hope is that it is not mere rhetoric.

On a side note, there is so much to smile about at Prisons' sports department in recent years. Stephen Kiprotich continues to fly their flag the world over and just a few days ago, the Prisons netball team retained the East Africa regional club championship.

The author is operations director of The Observer Media Ltd.

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