Football Football

Will Olunga pay the price of meteoric rise?

Michael Olunga in action for Harambee Stars against club side Gor Mahia on Wednesday, July 1 at Nyayo Stadium. PHOTO/Raymond Makhaya.
Michael Olunga in action for Harambee Stars against club side Gor Mahia on Wednesday, July 1 at Nyayo Stadium. PHOTO/Raymond Makhaya.

NAIROBI, July 1- At the moment, anything he touches turns to gold. He’s Kenya’s hottest football property with moves abroad already mooted but is the country draining 21 year-old Michael Olunga a tad bit too much?

In recent history, emerging prospects have illuminated the domestic scene only to fade out of the latter almost as first as they appeared. Some manage to find their way back to the top whilst others have not been too lucky, disappearing to the oblivion.

Olunga has been credited with a staggering 11 goals in 16 domestic games, his four-goal blitz against Chemelil Sugar the latest salvo to enhance his blossoming reputation as one of the most fearsome finisher anywhere at the time.

The former Tusker FC lanky youngster who was snapped by Kenyan Premier League (KPL) champions Gor Mahia post-season was rushed to the national team set-up, starring for the Under-23 side that bowed out of Rio 2016 Olympics qualifying by Botswana.

Having missed the first leg, Olunga almost completed a Kenyan football miracle when his hat-trick sunk Botswana 4-1 in the return leg, with Stars exiting on away goals rule after a 4-4 tie on aggregate following a 3-0 first leg reverse.

Head coach Bobby Williamson then drafted him to the senior squad for the 2017 AFCON qualifying opener to Congo Brazzaville where Stars escaped with a credible 1-1 draw.

Such is his importance to the national side that he was flown straight from a KPL game in Kisumu where Gor wrapped up the first leg unbeaten by beating Tusker 1-0 to Kigali, Rwanda where the team was playing an invitational peace tournament.

The forward shook off jet-lag to score alongside Southampton star, Victor Wanyama in a 2-0 win over Sudan, repaying all costs incurred in flying him in having come on as a second half substitute.

There was nothing the Geospatial Engineering student at the Technical University of Kenya could do as his team surrendered to Ethiopia’s Walya Ibex 2-0 during the first leg of their Africa Home Nations Championships (CHAN) qualifier in front of a partisan crowd.

If there is one man Williamson is counting on to overturn the deficit on Saturday against the Ethiopians, then it has to be Olunga who seems unfazed at the moment with the spotlight shone on him a year after he was just another rookie struggling to find his bearings at Tusker.

– No fears-

Gor head coach and Williamson’s fellow Scot, Frank Nutall, maintains there is no risk of the striker who is admittedly still the raw article of burning out despite the heavy burden placed on his young shoulders.

“The player is our player so we will use him whenever we feel we need to play him. It’s not having an impact on him as you can see he scored four goals this past weekend and he’s scored 11 or 12 goals so far.

“As well as that his overall play during games is at a high level and at a very good tempo so I don’t think it’s having any effect on him in a negative way,” Nutall, who succeeded the Stars boss at Gor asserted after his side held the national team 1-1 on Wednesday.

“He’s a Kenyan player and surely when you have a player of that type and the things he brings to the U23 and the national side you would use him. If I weren’t using him and the national coach wasn’t using him, we would be getting criticism.

“And personally he is a 21 year-old. He gets time off and he gets plenty of time to rest and recover and he’s doing fine,” the K’Ogalo boss explained further.

If Olunga needs a timely reminder of how quickly the tide can turn, he only needs to look at the Gor bench where one George ‘Blackberry’ Odhiambo usually sits when not getting a rare start such as Wednesday’s friendly.

In 2010, Blackberry burst to the scene with almost similar venom to Olunga, storming to the top of local scoring charts and being catapulted instantly to the national team besides being named the KPL player of the Year.

A swift move to Randers FC of Denmark followed end season and after playing for a grand total of seven minutes, his contract was cancelled a year later with two years to run before another high profile move to Tanzanian giants, Azam, also went belly-up.

He returned to the KPL with strugglers Nairobi City Stars before making a prodigal return to K’Ogalo, a shadow of the imposing player who mesmerised crowds and filled stadiums.

Francis Ouma (2008) and Kevin Kimani (2011) are some other former KPL players of the year who had barnstorming seasons and earned quick national team caps only for their careers to wander south after their campaign of wonder.

With Stars and inevitably foreign clubs nosing around the latest sensation, it is up to Nuttall and the national team set up to ensure he does not crash and burn as fast as he arrived to the big stage.