Kenya: Peter Odhiambo - From Gor Mahia's Pan to Wazito's Fire

23 September 2020
opinion

Peter Fredrick Odhiambo is a man of few words.This year alone he has only made two posts of his own on Facebook, the only social media platform that he is active in.

On May 25, he posted: "I won't stop training" and on June 8 he had time for two sentences but this too was conveniently short. The post read: "There are many ways to give back to society. They are your future let's help them to become our future goalkeepers," referring to the next generation of keepers he mentors at Makongeni area in Nairobi.

Both posts paint a picture of who Odhiambo truly is; a quiet man who prefers to keep a low profile off the pitch and let his performances on it speak for him. His character mirrors that of his mentor Boniface Oluoch, who is also reserved but splashes arrogance in goal that is often mistaken for overconfidence. Despite being born two generations apart, both keepers have striking similarity in terms of ability and their football journeys.

Right move, right time

The pair is a product of Makongeni, arguably Kenya's premier goalkeeping hub, and stand out as one of the most comfortable goalkeepers with the ball on their feet. At some point they shared a starting role at Gor Mahia and until August this year, they were teammates before Odhiambo joined Wazito.

While Oluoch has featured for Harambee Stars, Odhiambo has struggled to break into the senior national team despite representing Kenya across all junior age group categories. Former Kenyan international Willis Ochieng', who was part of the Harambee Stars squad to the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations and currently a goalkeeper coach at Gor, insists Odhiambo has all the qualities of a top keeper and believes his move to Wazito may unlock his potential.

"Technically he is up there with the best keepers I have ever worked with during my time at Gor. He has very good agility, fantastic handling and is also very brave in one on one situations. Sometimes his height has worked against him and also the pressure and competition at Gor was very high such that when you get that rare chance (to play) you end up trying too hard to impress and in the process you make mistakes. One mistake could relegate you to the bench for two months and this affects your momentum," said Ochieng', who worked with Odhiambo for four seasons at Gor.

"I think the Wazito move has come at the right time in his career. He works so hard in training and with regular game time he will soon be called up to the national team because he has the quality," added Ochieng', who played professional football in Finland and South Africa during his playing days.

New challenge

Last season was not the best for Odhiambo who was often benched with Tanzanian David Mapigano emerging as Steven Pollack's first choice. Mapigano's move to Azam this transfer window would have eased Odhiambo's route to Gor's first 11, but he wanted a fresh challenge. KCB, Sofapaka and Bandari showed interest but it's Fred Ambani's project at Wazito that fit the bill.

"I've always wanted to play for the senior national team but I can't achieve that without playing at least 30 games in a season at club level. I would have stayed at Gor but I'm different. I had achieved a lot with Gor and wanted a new challenge. I wanted a club where I could play regularly and I was impressed by the Wazito project because of the professionalism within the team," revealed Odhiambo, who is seen as the remedy to Wazito's defensive woes.

Ambani was among coaches who went through Wazito's revolving door in a bid to salvage a poor start to the 2019/20 campaign. The moneybags had a season to forget having conceded 30 goals in 23 matches before coronavirus struck in March.

The return was a paltry 23 points that left them 13th on the log. The writing was on the wall, Wazito were destined for another mid-table finish despite huge spending. As expected, another big turnover happened this transfer window and the goalkeeping department was hit hard, Kevin Omondi and Steven Njung'e being axed.

Peter's arrival last month was part of concerted efforts by the club to shore up a department that is deemed to be key to Wazito's revival. While Stephen Odhiambo is part of the Western Stima brigade that has been lured to Wazito by new Sporting Director Stephen Ochiel, Peter stands out as the likely first choice with his mentee from Makongeni, Bixente Otieno expected to continue his development under less pressure.

"Fredrick is a keeper I have known and worked with before. I coached him while at Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) in 2009 when he was a little kid and I have watched him develop to become one of the best keepers in the country," Wazito goalkeeper coach Elias Otieno waxed lyrical about their new signing.

"He brings quality and experience in the team. He has that winning mentality which is also very important.

He has featured in the Caf Champions League and Caf Confederation's Cup and played against English Premier League side Everton and all that experience has helped make him a better goalkeeper," added Otieno, before reading page two of Peter's job description.

"His presence will also be important for a young keeper like Bixente (Otieno) because he will be in a position to learn from him," noted Otieno, who alongside Ambani has been reinstated to Wazito's bench this season.

Peter is a diamond

At Wazito, Peter will probably not share the number one spot like he did with Oluoch at Gor Mahia, Robert Mboya at Mathare United or Ronnie Kagunzi at Nairobi City Stars. He will be expected to play regularly and save Wazito on their bad days when they don't turn up completely.

Unlike Omondi who cracked under similar circumstances last season, Peter has been hardened at Gor having enjoyed spells as the number one keeper under Dylan Kerr in 2018 when K'Ogalo narrowly missed out on the Confederation Cup quarter-finals on D-day.

On that cold night of August 29, 2018 in Algiers, Odhiambo saved a penalty and produced a string of top saves despite Gor going down 2-1 to USM Alger to finish third in Group 'D' behind the North Africans and Rayon Sport of Rwanda. The top two sides qualified for the last eight.

"He deserved it (to start ahead of Oluoch). That night he showed why he is a diamond among other keepers. Peter is an amazing keeper with good attitude and he is always working hard to become better. I admired his professionalism, heart and good work ethic," said Kerr, who now manages South African topflight side Baroka FC.

It's that kind of performance that Wazito will expect from Odhiambo week in, week out. Deep down, Wazito will hope that that heroic display at the July 5 Stadium will be the template for Peter's performances this season. However, the truth remains Wazito is not a good place to be a keeper.

Ask Phillip Odhiambo, Martin Musalia, Edwin Mukolwe, Ryan Hamisi, Vincent Misikhu, Njung'e or even Omondi. There will be pressure from all corners; a new head coach, new teammates and his two able deputies, Bixente and Steven. Then there is the vociferous owner Ricardo Badoer who doesn't mince his words when calling out a poor performance.

"In football pressure begins when you sign a contract. I'm not coming to walk straight into the first team, I have to work for my place. We have equally good players at Wazito and when we gel this team can do wonders. It's up to us players to work hard and deliver," Peter told Nation Sport.

Wazito craving league title

The controversial Badoer has trusted Ambani to steady the ship and steer Wazito to the top echelons of Kenyan football. A maiden league title is certainly the main objective this term given his unrivalled investment.

But title winning sides are built around mean defences and a keeper who can keep clean sheets consistently.

In Johnstone Omurwa and Bernard Ochieng', Wazito have one of the best centre back partnerships in the league. They are still young and are already knocking at the doors of the national team. While Ochieng' is a natural leader, Omurwa is a rugged defender who thrives in doing the dirty work.

Maurice Ojwang, another acquisition from Western Stima, could be used as back up for the duo while David Otieno's experience and utility traits are priceless. The different talents of the centre backs means Ambani can comfortably switch from a back four to a back three with different game situations, a luxury few KPL clubs can afford.

Then there is Kelvin Okumu, Dennis Sikhayi, Alvin Ochieng, Mark Otieno and Dennis Ng'ang'a. The latter enjoyed a renaissance during Stewart Hall's brief stint at Wazito last season, while Okumu has been touted as one of the players to watch out for this season at right back. The signings of Fidel Origa and Clifford Omondi provide further options in the defensive midfield position beyond Anthony Njeru, Joshua Otieno and Brian Musa.

Whoever Ambani settles for in his defence will not matter a lot given the talent at his disposal. Odhiambo will certainly be in the last line of defence and Ambani believes he is the missing piece in the jigsaw.

"We committed a lot of mistakes in that area (last season) and that's why we went for Peter who is an experienced keeper. He is also a modern goalkeeper who can play the ball with his feet and this is a big advantage for the team. We can build from the back and also initiate restarts from anywhere on the pitch. In my philosophy the goalkeeper has to be part of the build-up," noted Ambani.

"Having Peter is a plus because he is a calm keeper and this naturally adds confidence to our defence. I believe we have a good team that can challenge for the title. I would be in the wrong career if I didn't want to go for the title. When you have such a group of players who are hungry to make a name for themselves then you can achieve something big," underlined an ambitious Ambani.

Peter cut his usual relaxed figure in his first interview as a Wazito player during his unveiling on August 24, perhaps his own unique way of easing the load of expectation surrounding his arrival. He was brief as usual, the interview lasting only 14 seconds.

"Nafeel poa kujoin Wazito. Nashukuru kwa hiyo chance nimepata kujoin hapa. Mafans kitu naweza wachapia ni watuspport tu juu support yao pia tunahitaji (I feel good to have joined Wazito and I am grateful for this opportunity. I would like to urge the fans to support us because we will need them)," said Peter smiling and donning Wazito's purple jersey.

When the new season starts, Badoer will hope the gospel of Wazito emerging as a third force in Kenyan football will finally gather pace.

Wazito's de facto Number one will pray for a purple patch in his early days at least to get him going but Badoer will hope 'Saint' Peter can lead the other disciples in spreading this gospel.

Peter has his work well cut out, he has to find the Word(s) to command his troops and clean sheets to go with it. Arise, go forth and conquer!

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