NAIROBI, Kenya, May 11 – ‘Dok skul! Kijana dok skul!’ (Go back to school! Young boy go back to school!’).
Those were the words Joseph ‘Crouch’ Okumu heard on his Kenyan Premier League debut on February 17, 2016 as he walked down the tunnel ahead of Chemelil Sugar’s match against champions Gor Mahia at the Moi Stadium in Kisumu.
The noise at the stadium, the insults hurled at him and his teammates, the fright of playing the defending champions with a fearsome attacking line up were the base ingredients awaiting a certain feeble 18-year old who was expected to marshal the defense, barely three months after finishing Form Four at the Kakamega High School.
The Gor fans, especially the Kisumu based ones knew Okumu well as he formed part of the concrete Kakamega High School squad that beat Kisumu Day two years earlier at the Bukhungu Stadium to clinch the national schools’ football title.
“It sounded funny to me because definitely those were people who knew me. The shouts were so loud and it is one thing I will never forget. But, instead of intimidating me, I think they strengthened me. I just took them as a fun part of the game and I decided, I will go into that pitch and have fun as well,” Okumu, now turning out for Swedish top tier side IF Elfsborg says.
“I also had some confidence because at Chemelil I was with Apollo (Otieno) who was part of our squad at Kakamega then on the other side, there was Marcelo (Erick Ouma). We were three ex-school boys in the league and I got more confidence.”
It ended out okay. Against the defending champions and league leaders, Chememlil scoured out a 0-0 draw, Okumu being an integral part of the clean sheet, marking the start of what would be a budding career.
For him, making the debut against Gor wasn’t something he expected.
“After the game, coach Baraza (Francis) ran to me and congratulated me. “Si nilikuambia una uwezo! Nilikuambia! (I told you you have the ability)”… I was so excited. I couldn’t stop smiling,” he explains.
-Unexpected debut against Gor
“As we were training, I really didn’t expect to make my debut against Gor. I was a young boy, just from school and didn’t have much experience. I looked around at the team and there were so many experienced and better players,” Okumu explained.
“Before the camp, I was named in the 18. I told myself, ah I will be on the bench. But Majid (Victor) kept telling me I would play, that he believed I was good enough for that game. In the pre-match meeting, they named me in the starting 11 and I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that they could hand me a debut in such a match. But I just psyched myself up. I was used to playing in front of crowds at Kakamega and so partly, I told myself I am ready,” further adds Okumu, speaking to Capital Sports from Boras, Sweden.
His youth coach, Benedict Wanjala, who was also part of Chemelil’s technical bench at that time said he had thrown the suggestion at coach Baraza to field the 18-year old.
“At first, Baraza was skeptical. But that week in training, he fielded him with the first 11 and started preparing him for the game. I knew he would make it and I knew he was up to the task,” Wanjala, now head coach with Mwatate United stated.
That game proved to be the catalyst to a career that would take off on a high as he went on to start in the subsequent games against Sofapaka and AFC Leopards.
The ease at which he glided into the starting team and stuck his toes trickled down to his training as a kid. While turning out for the youth team at Chemelil, Wanjala would force him to train with the seniors in the morning to build his resilience.
“His ball handling was different and was playing very mature football for his age. I thought training him alongside other youngsters would not be helpful to him. He was better off facing the tougher guys. He didn’t like it and sometimes he would cry a lot,” explains Wanjala.
-He wanted AFC Leopards, but ended up at Chemelil-
Joining Chemelil wasn’t his initial plan. He had wanted to join AFC Leopards who tracked him all through the last two years in Kakamega and had watched him several times. His mind was set that he would don the blue and white Rio Tinto of Ingwe.
But Baraza who had tracked him from his Under-12 days at Chemelil was really interested in working with him and signing him up for the sugar millers where interestingly, his father, Hillary Ouma was the Team Manager.
“Baraza had wanted to sign me even when I was in Form One, but my father refused. He wanted me to finish school. When I finished, I was interested in going to AFC Leopards because I didn’t want people to say that I was going to Chemelil because of the link with my dad. I wanted to go where I merited,” revealed Okumu
“But Baraza didn’t give up. He talked to me for a long while to convince me to join Chemelil. Looking back at it now, I can say it was the best decision for my career,” Okumu, nicknamed Crouch due to his tall frame stated.
But the fun didn’t end there. He had to negotiate a contract on his own. Even his dad, the Team Manager didn’t know that he was signing for Chemelil.
“There were some assurances I needed from the club and when we couldn’t agree with coach Baraza and the Chairman, they called the TM. He was called into the office to ‘come negotiate with a player’. When he came in and saw me, he was shocked. But at the end of it, his presence made it easier and that’s how I joined Chemelil,” narrates the 22-year old.
“Looking back, it was the best decision for me. At Chemelil I trained very well and there was no pressure. Coach baraza would take me for individual sessions and he would pick out all my weaknesses and strengths and that built me as a player,” he notes.
His father Ouma never entertained the idea of him giving full focus on football, despite being in a managerial position at the club. He wanted him to concentrate on school.
“I used to ‘steal’ him and take him for tournaments against the wishes of his father. But always, he would come back with a trophy of the best player and when his father saw that, the anger died down. I would go with him even without him training. That is how much I trusted him,” says the youth coach.
-National team call ups
Just one season into playing at Chemelil Sugar, Okumu began being a constant figure in the junior national teams and that year, he was called up to the senior Harambee Stars squad for a friendly match against Sudan at the Kasarani Stadium.
“For me this was a massive step. 2016 was just the year. Growing up as a player, I always looked up to Brian Mandela and David ‘Calabar’ Owino as role models and now boom! My first year in the KPL and I am in the national team, with them!”
“I was so excited and sometimes, I feared even talking to them because I was a young boy from the village and they were big players playing abroad. I used to be so excited to be honest. In training when I was put on the same team with them, it was like a dream come true. Then in the friendly against Sudan, I started and partnered Mandela in defense. Talk about dreams!” an excited Okumu states.
He was then selected to be part of a squad that headed for friendly matches in Morocco and he played two more matches for the senior team.
His career was on the runway and the engines were running wildly for a big leap.
In 2017, just one season after playing locally and at the tender age of 19, he made his first professional move signing for Free State Stars in South Africa. It was a huge leap, one filled with lessons especially when things didn’t go as well as they were planned.
“It was a good step in my career but also, it was tough. I had four coaches in one season and one came who did not feel my style of play and wanted to ship me out on loan. I wasn’t comfortable with that and we made the decision to terminate my contract,” Okumu explains.
Once he terminated his contract down South, he came back home and stayed close to seven months without a team, but continued training with Chemelil Sugar before he made another leap, heading to the United States of America.
“I didn’t want to hurry myself and I said I would stay home until my mind was settled and was ready for another challenge. It was a tough time for a young boy like me and I really felt I had to give myself some time off,” he explains.
He went on to sign for AFC Ann Arbor and Real Monarchs in the lower tiers of the US leagues and his performances there saw him make another leap, signing for Swedish side Elfsborg.
He played the final three games of the season and proved his mettle, seeing the side draw one and win two, after a poor run and finishing the season positively.
“My first game was against AIK and they were in good form while the club wasn’t doing so well. We picked up a 1-1 draw and won the next two matches. It was a good start for me.
“So far so good. It was really tough at the start but now I really feel that I have settled well at the club. The facilities are amazing, the training is great and everyone is so supportive. For me, I feel this is a good start for me,” the defender further opined.
-Three year wait for another Harambee Stars chance
The topsy-turvy turn of his career between South Africa and USA saw him miss out on call ups to the national team.
But in 2019, when Kenya’s squad for the African Cup of Nations squad was announced, his chance would come again.
“Even getting that opportunity to be in the France camp was huge enough for me. I was excited. But I knew ahead of me were very good and experienced defenders so playing wasn’t really top on my agenda. I just wanted to be there and learn,” he states.
But, just as luck would strike, he got his chance in the friendly match against Madagascar in Paris and came on in the second half for an injured Musa Mohammed. He would seal his starting slot with a solid performance, attracting the praise of everyone in the stands.
He played the full friendly match against DR Congo and with his ‘big brother’ Mandela and Joash Onyango injured, went on to play all three matches at the Cup of Nations.
“It was a surreal experience for me though tough. I had never played with Musa before and so it took some bit of time to adjust. Playing at the AFCON remains my highlight because it was another stern test against big players. I now understood what coach Wanjala was doing making me train with the big boys,” he states.
He looks back at the lessons he picked from Cairo, including a battle with Algeria’s Baghdad Bounedjah.
“He is the toughest player I have ever played against. He has the physique but as a defender when you expect him to come all over you with force but he is very intelligent and fast. Playing against him was a challenge and in our game against Algeria, he was torrid on us in the first half,” recalls Okumu.
-Plans for the new season-
Looking back at the local season in Sweden, Okumu had hoped to further cement his place in the starting team this season, but all those hopes have been slowed down by the novel coronavirus which has caused a stoppage to the protracted date of starting the season.
“We had done a really brilliant pre-season and I was feeling ready for the new season. I was in very good form personally but you know some things are beyond our control. So at the moment it is just to wait and see. I feel lucky that we have been able to train on the pitch over the last one month and when the dates are announced, we will be ready to start,” says Okumu.
He believes he is just getting started on his career and by the words of his former youth coach Wanjala, he is destined for the very top and has all it takes to play in the English Premier League.
“I look at him and only compare him to Coulibaly (Kalidou). He has everything to succeed at the top and I am sure he has what it takes to play in the EPL. He is very disciplined and naturally talented. He works hard and also a go getter,” Wanjala opines.
As he waits for his next big leap, Okumu will look to give his best with Elfsborg in the new Swedish season and probably eye a first ever league title as a player.