NAIROBI, Kenya, February 13 – After two months of serious transfer business, all 16 Kenyan Premier League (KPL) clubs are set for what promises to be a keenly contested season which kicks-off on Saturday with six fixtures on the cards.
With traditional giants, Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards who won the league and Cup titles away on continental assignments in Gabon and Ethiopia, other contenders for the honours mainly 2011/12 champions, Tusker FC and big spending Sofapaka have a chance to lay down the marker.
With KPL relaxing the rules on foreign players’ involvement by sanctioning a proposal that will allow teams to field up to five at any time during matches, another step in the evolution of the domestic top-flight to mirror famed leagues world wide that is bound to add more intrigue to the campaign besides challenging local players to step up their game to stay relevant.
Already, some coaches have expressed concerns that the measure could see chances for Kenyan players to feature in the competition reduced although successful modern leagues have long shed involving indigenous players in pursuit of glory, good examples being top English, German, Spanish and French clubs.
The other twist in the 2014 KPL tale is Nairobi based giants relocating to new homes, with 10-time champions Tusker preparing to vacate to Meru County’s Kinoru Stadium while 2009 champions Sofapaka and Mathare United are expected to switch to Kenyatta Stadium in Machakos.
Officials at the three sides hold the migration is inspired by the need to garner more supporters with Gor and AFC commanding the lion share of fans in Nairobi as they seek to also compete in the masses’ stakes as ways of breeding more revenue.
Thika United, Western Stima and Chemelil Sugar on the hand, will have to look for alternative venues after KPL’s Stadia and Safety Committee temporary banned Thika Municipal, Bukhungu and Chemelil Sports Complex stadiums failed to meet minimum safety standards.
This decision has further cemented the development of KPL into a more professional outfit with the affected stadia long criticised as the main cause of injuries among players that bedeviled most teams last season.
There are a lot of expectations from teams that flopped last season while those who performed well have a challenge of maintaining their positions.
With Gor and Leopards engaged in continental action, it remains to be seen whether they will catch-up with early pacesetters once they return to domestic duty with previous representatives in CAF competitions including the pair, struggling to bridge the gap.
Tusker reversed the trend when they managed to handle the pressure and win two consecutive titles in 2011 and 12, but could not repeat the same last year after bowing out in the first round of the CAF Champions League.
In mitigation, champions Gor, who will also represent the nation at the Cecafa Club championships in July smack in the middle of the season, recruited heavily as they sought the depth required to sustained a mufti-pronged assault in all competitions they will be involved this season same as their arch-rivals Leopards.
Towering defender Donald Mosoti and keeper Ivo Mapunda to Tanzanian giants Simba SC, midfielder Joseph Njuguna(Mathare United), forwards Moses Odhiambo and Paul Kiongera (KCB) left K’Ogalo in the close season.
Coming in the opposite direction were Ugandan duo, left back Godfrey Walusimbi and midfielder Geoffrey Kizito, former Kakamega Homeboyz stopper Haron Shakava, winger Shaban Kenga from Bandari, and the return of strikers Rama Salim and George ‘Blackberry’ Odhiambo.
Coach Bobby Williamson, underlines his main objective is to defend the title they won last season with 60 points, 10 ahead of Leopards and Sofapaka who finished second and third.
“We will try and do our best in the continental games but I’m more concerned to defend the league title and I know its going to be tough since we are scheduled to play in many competitions which will not be easy.
“So we better focus on what we have at hand and that’s the league because I have capable players who can deliver including the new signings who are catching up with the rest.” Williamson who joined K’Ogalo mid season last year to replace Zdravko Logarusic, told before departing for Gabon for the return leg of Champions League preliminary round tie against US Bitam.
Ingwe were the highest spenders in the transfer window after acquiring the services of experienced players Harambee Stars defender James Situma (Sofapaka), Joseph Shikokoti (Tusker), shot-stopper Wycliffe Kasaya (Sony Sugar) Ugandan Musa Mudde and forward Jacob Keli from KCB.
But the den has been invaded by injuries of Stars striker Allan Wanga, Noah Wafula and defender Anthony Kimani who is ruled out for eight weeks after undergoing a knee operation leaving head coach James Nandwa, favoured by many to be the first in the managerial sack-race, struggling from the start.
Nandwa, who was appointed last September after the club parted ways with Belgian Luc Eymael, is aiming to give Ingwe their 14th title for the first time in 16 years, but it will all depend on consistency in performance and technical bench that has seen numerous changes in recent seasons.
Tusker FC are likely to give challengers a run for their money and already look like potential champions judging by their decision to bringing on board former Harambee Stars tactician, Francis Kimanzi, to steer the team that finished fifth last season under the tutelage of Robert Matano.
The former Mathare and Sofapaka tactician hit the ground running by signing players that he understands well, raiding the Slum Boys and Batoto Ba Mungu camps for defender Jockins Atudo, midfielder Osborne Monday.
Others coming in are Bob Mugalia from Sofapaka, Mathare duo Dennis Nzomo and defender Lloyd Wahome, forward Clifford Alwanga and midfielder Brian Osumba from KCB and 2012 KPL player of the year Kevin Kimani.
According to Kimanzi, who has stayed out of the football lime light for the last two years, he has quality players to reclaim the title.
The Brewers have on paper, the best squad of defenders like of Atudo in the center, Wahome, Martin Kiiza and Monday with Osumba, Nzomo, Khalid Aucho and Ali Abondo manning the midfield as Alwanga and Jesse Were partner for goals.
“We have a team that is working hard to bring the trophy back and I’m sure we are capable because we have the depth and professional players who can do that job.
“Having Alwanga, Monday, Osumba, Atudo and youngster keeper Faruk, I have nothing to worry, we only need to make sure we form a team within them since they are mentally prepared, the only thing they need is combining the tactical aspect with the rest of the players and its working very good,” Kimanzi who won his first title with Mathare in 2008 stated.
A team with the likelihood to stun many is Mathare, a side widely known to nature and promote young talent from parent Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) who flirted with relegation last season, managing to secure safety with a 13th finish that was against their usual high standards.
This time round they have broken their tradition of signing only MYSA players, by bringing in defender Noah Abich, John Wawu (Kakamega Homeboyz), Isaac Otieno (Sony Sugar), Karuturi Sports duo defender Amon Muchiri and forward Hussein Zzinda.
The Slum Boys started their pre-season on a high note after finishing second in the Kenya Power Charity Cup, losing to Sofapaka 2-1 in post-match penalties.
Team Manager William Muluya, who noted they performed poorly last year after losing almost half of the players, is confident they will have a good outing since they have invested on the squad.
“The boys are in for it, they are more committed this time round, they have known why we struggled relegation last season and that’s why we want to rectify it earlier enough so that by the end of first leg we acquire over 20 points and make sure we finish top six,” the team manager told Capital Sport.
Debutants Top Fry All Stars and Kenya Revenue Authority will be put to the test starting from this weekend when they make their maiden bow on top flight football.
Both sides have retained a sizeable number of their nationwide players but the taxmen look to have the better squad than fellow promoted aide All Stars after sighing seven experienced players.
Coach Ken Kenyatta, who has been with the team for long and missed promotion for two consecutive seasons, said his main goal is to keep his side up.
“For now I’m training for Bandari and I want to finish in a better position by the end of first leg, to make sure we are not relegated and next year, I can fight for the title.”
The former Stars and Leopards custodian has Milton Milimo, Carlson Mweresa (KCB), Edwin Misiko (Chemelil), Roosevelt Blaty (Bandari), Ivan Anguyo (Gor), George Mwangi (City Stars) and Joseph Emeka from Muhoroni Youth.
On the other hand, Top Fry appear to have a week squad with inexperienced players with pundits branding them relegation candidates despite appointing former Nairobi City Stars German tactician, Oliver Page, as their head coach.
The other question is whether the curse of the KPL PLayer of the Year will follow the incumbent, Keli, who joined Leopards with no one retaining the accolade since it was introduced in 2009.
In fact, predecessors, Francis Ouma (2008), John Baraza (2009), ‘Blackberry’ Odhiambo (2010), Kevin Kimani (2011) and Dan Sserunkuma (2012) have all struggled in the subsequent season to impose themselves in the KPL or abroad.
A potential successor is in the shape of Tusker forward Were, who found the back of the net 15 times to finish runners up in last year’s Golden Boot behind Keli who had 17.
“I’m hoping to perform well this season as I target to score 23 goals and become the top scorer as well as be the best player of the season.
“Most important is out team to lift the league since we have good players and a professional coach. Osumba is a great midfielder and will depend him to provide us with the goals.”
Among those who need to rediscover their touch is K’Ogalo forward Salim, who is yet to settle and perform well after making a come back to the league champions following a poor stint in Qatar.
He did not rise to occasion during the Kenya Power Charity Cup and Champions League first leg against Bitam, forcing Williamson to substitute him in the second half and it will be interesting to watch whether he will return to his good days in Gor when Logarusic was in charge in 2012 or as a star of Congo United.
Mathare begin their campaign with an away fixture to Western Stima in Mumias Sports Complex, while Sony Sugar host debutants Top Fry All Stars at Awendo Green Stadium as Sofapaka will be away to face Muhoroni Youth.
Fading 2010 champions Ulinzi Stars welcome Chemelil at Afraha Stadium while on Sunday, newcomers KRA will travel to Mombasa to face Bandari as Thika United invite Tusker at Nairobi’s City Stadium.
GOtv winners Leopards will play KCB in a mid week fixture on Wednesday at Nyayo National Stadium before defending champions Gor, host Nairobi City Stars at City Stadium on Thursday.