NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 1 – At the start of the 2017 season, Joash Onyango arrived at Gor Mahia with a high pedigree, or so he thought, after skippering Western Stima to a successful campaign and being one of the core-figures for the Kisumu based side.
But what he thought was a step higher in his football career, didn’t exactly start in the way he had anticipated.
He found a solid pairing at Gor, the then club captain, Musa Mohammed having gelled in superbly with Harun Shakava and their partnership not easily breakable. His playing time, a massive contrast to his time at Stima, dramatically went south.
He played at most, maybe five matches.
“There was a time I was really frustrated. I wondered, when will I ever play? But I knew at the back of my mind it was difficult to break that solid partnership. I kept asking myself whether I had really made the right decision to join Gor. At some point, I even thought of moving to another team because I really wanted to play. Previously with Stima, I played all matches. It was a very tough time,” Onyango disclosed to Capital Sport.
-What did I do to myself?-
He added; “At times I never even made the final list of 18 players and that bothered me a lot. You know, you expect to get at least a few minutes but they don’t come. So I thought, ‘What did I do to myself’?”
But, former Gor assistant coach Zedekiah ‘Zico’ Otieno proved pivotal in Onyango remaining at K’Ogalo. He encouraged the defender to stay put at the record Kenyan Premier League Champions, work hard and wait for his time.
That is exactly what he did and in 2018, his chance came when Musa Mohammed left Gor for Albania to join KF Tirana.
“Still at that time, there were so many defenders in the team and I knew it was going to be tough to get a place in the team. I had worked hard in the previous season but I still knew I had to keep working hard and in pre-season, I worked harder to impress the coaches,” recalled Onyango.
His performances at the back for the record 19-time league champions made him a darling of the K’Ogalo faithful and earned him the nickname ‘The Berlin Wall’ as he solidified the backline with superb precision
His hard work, persistence and patience finally bore fruit. He got the chance, grabbed it with both hands and not only went on to be a starter for the club, but the national team as well.
His decision to stick with Gor despite playing scarcely in his first season proved to be the right one as he went on to pick experiences that have improved him as a player and a person.
That capped off with the Player of the Year as well as Defender of the Year award at the 2019 Sports Journalists Association of Kenya (SJAK) awards.
“It was a great day for me. Getting an award is something that was a huge achievement for you because it is not often a defender is given the Player of the Year award. That is one of the most priceless moments of my career,” Onyango adds.
“Looking back now, I can say patience pays. I have worked hard to be where I am and I can say my career has taken the shape I thought it would,” the 27-year old, born and raised in Eldoret further stated.
Playing in the SportPesa Super Cup and winning it twice in a row was a particular high moment.
“The first one in 2017 in Tanzania, we played and won. We had almost a second-string side because most of the first team players were away on national team duty and finally some of us found a chance to play. Unfortunately I did not play in the friendly against Everton in Dar es Salaam,” Onyango narrated.
“We did a double in 2018 when we won it in Nakuru and we got a chance to travel to Everton. It was a big deal for most of us who had not been out of the continent before. We always watched the English Premier League with admiration and when we heard the winner would travel to Everton, we had to give our all,” the tough tackling defender stated.
He says he picked massive lessons from the trip to Everton and evaluated himself further as a player, pointing out he has hugely improved since that time.
“I wanted to look at myself and know what kind of a defender I am. Not just playing in the local league here and thinking you are the best. To measure yourself against some top players was a huge thing for me and it made me realize there was a lot I needed to work on,” he underscored.
-National team chance-
And in the national team was where he really stepped up and put himself up in the kings’ parade.
After playing in one friendly match, Onyango was tossed into the deep end, playing as a starter in the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifier against Ghana in Nairobi, a match that Stars won 1-0 to more or less earn themselves a slot at the Cup of Nations.
“To be honest, when I was called into camp, I didn’t think I would play. There were far much more experienced players ahead of me. Unfortunately Mandela (Brian) was injured and then again Calabar 9David Owino) was also injured in training and was not available,” Onyango explained.
“So at the centre of defense there was Cheche (David Ochieng, Musa, Crouch (Joseph Okumu) and myself. In training, the coach was rotating Cheche, Musa and myself and he told us he didn’t know who was going to start.”
“During the pre-match meeting, my name was called out and I was told I would start alongside Musa. I was delighted to be honest. Not afraid. There were players like Atsu (Christian) in the Ghana side and getting to face them was a mouth-watering challenge to me,” he further underpinned.
Onyango went on to play that match with brilliant calmness, until he was red carded early in the second half.
“To be honest looking back at that situation now, I don’t regret the red card. The player was going through on goal and we never know what might have happened if he passed me. At that time though, I was a little bit worried. It was still so early, and this is Ghana; a powerhouse in the continent. But I thank my teammates because they saw the game through,” looking back with nostalgia, Onyango said.
Though he was suspended for the next two games, Onyango had assured himself as a stalwart in former coach Sebastien Migne’s team and was one of the assured names on the starting team when they eventually qualified for the Cup of Nations.
“I thank him a lot because he trusted in me and gave me that opportunity. That was a huge boost for me,” Onyango said of Migne.
When Mandela picked up an injury in training, it was now almost assured that he would partner Musa Mohamed at the heart of defense as they were the two most trusted lieutenants in Migne’s army.
But, calamity struck.
“In the last five minutes of the final training session before our first game against Algeria I picked up an injury. I was devastated. I had worked so hard to be there but just as the chance came my way, I couldn’t grab it. I tried to ice the injury to reduce the sweeling and pain to see if I would make the Tanzania game but I couldn’t,” he remembered.
“I was so sad just sitting there on the bench and watching, but helpless. I was heartbroken. But missing that opportunity has given me some renewed hunger to work hard, get into the team again and see if we can qualify to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations , something I believe we can,” said Onyango, currently the assistant captain at Gor.
-Seeking new, bigger challenge-
Having already won three league titles at Gor and helped them reach the quarter finals of the CAF Confederation Cup, Onyango feels it might be the time to leave and seek a bigger and better challenge, with his contract ending in December this year.
“Gor is a huge team and I have enjoyed every moment here. We have won the league in every season since I came in and that is no small achievement. I feel that maybe this is the time for me to look into a bigger challenge outside the country,” Onyango, who idolizes Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and Juventus hard man Giorgio Chiellini underlined.
With the league called off due to COVID-19, Onyango’s plans might have suffered a hit, but remains hopeful that the league will resume in August and he will use the remaining months to improve his profile and seek a bigger suitor.
“There have been ups and downs but I can say it has been a great time. Gor has lifted me to where I am today and I am truly thankful to have been signed up here.”
Joash Onyango at a glance:
Birth place: Eldoret
High School: Shamberere High School, Kakamega
Previous teams: West Kenya Sugar (2010, June 2011-2013), Chemelil Sugar (2011), Western Stima (2014-2017)
Awards: LG/Sports Journalists Association of Kenya (SJAK) 2019 footballer of the year
Winning against Zamalek at home. “Zamalek is one of the best teams in the continent and beating them 4-2 is no mean feat. We played against very good strikers and being able to keep them at bay to me was a massive high for me.”
Lowest moment: Losing to Rayon Sport in a Confederation Cup decider.
“We just needed to avoid defeat in that game to qualify for the quarter finals and we ended up losing at home which was something very painful. We had a very good team in that year and I had the feeling that if we progressed, we could have gone all the way to the final.”