NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 4 – From failed trials to growing up in the midst of crime and drugs, Jesse Were’s life wasn’t all that rosy from the start. Here is the story of hard work and determination, which, according to the Harambee Stars striker is nowhere close to its best end.
On the final day of a week-long trial with Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) FC, Jesse Were was full of expectation that his dream of earning a first ever top flight contract was in the horizon.
He had managed to hang on till the final day, alongside defender David ‘Cheche’ Ochieng and he was almost certain he was going to be selected, until one Mungai Kiongera was called in in the eleventh hour.
The brief end of it is that Kiongera, a former Gor Mahia and Tanzania’s Simba forward was picked at Jesse’s expense.
Well, it was not a bad pick by the Bankers as Kiongera went on to hoist himself as one of the best strikers in the country but for the then 20-year old boy from Kibera, it was a day in which he contemplated hanging his boots.
Like dew on a fine sunny morning, his dream evaporated away, remaining a mirage from distance and he felt he had come to the end of his tether.
“I was really heartbroken. I had given my all and was certain that I would be signed. I had put my expectation there and for me, this looked like the start of the dream. But it didn’t happen. I wanted to hang my boots and when I left training, I had decided I was forgetting about football,” recollects Were, speaking to Capital Sport from Ndola, Zambia.
-Deserved a place in the team-
“It was a disappointing moment for me. It is like going to war with a partner and coming home alone. It pained me more because I know he has the talent and he deserved to get a place in the team and seeing him dropped was a sad moment for me,” Ochieng who remains a close friend to the striker also stated.
He went back home to Kibera, with his mind made up that his marriage with football was going to end in a messy divorce. A heartbreak and broken dreams. He had had enough.
But, his academy coach, Glyde Aswani, the head coach at the Soccer Talent Academy wouldn’t hear any of that. Were had to be called back to their training base at the Kenya Assemblies of God (KAG) Training Ground for a good whipping.
“I couldn’t agree to what he was saying. I had been with him from when he was 11 years old and any tournament we went to, he was the top scorer. I knew he had talent and I could see it from the training ground. He was a natural goal poacher even at a young age,” coach Aswani said.
He added; “He is very hard working and disciplined and I managed to convince him to keep playing because I knew he was a star in the making. Looking back, it was a wise decision to convince him to keep playing.”
-Growing up in a toxic environment-
What further inclined the Emusiria High School alumnus’ decision to keep playing was the kind of environment he had grown up around in Kibra where crime, drugs and sex were the norm.
He had watched as some of his friends, more talented than he was, die by the gun due to their wayward ways of going into crime in search of quick bucks and a better life.
“I grew up in a very toxic environment with lost of bad things from drugs to crime… there was a lot of peer pressure but I thank God I was focused. I saw my friends die because of crime and this was a lesson to us. Some were very talented and probably if I followed them, I would be dead as well,” Jesse recollects.
He says he was lucky to have gone to boarding school after finishing class eight at Toy Primary School and the fact that he was away from the hood during most of his teenage years helped him escape from the net of crime and drugs.
When he ultimately came back, football was all he thought of, even after failed trials with the KCB FC.
-Dusted himself waiting for a chance-
The forward dusted himself from the KCB fall and went back to Kibera Black Stars who were then playing in the Nairobi Region League. He kept his chin up, continued working hard and hopes his moment would soon come.
And come it did.
While playing in a friendly match with Mathare United at the Goan Institute, he caught the eye of then coach Salim Ali who picked up interest in him. Coincidentally at that same time, Salim was picking up a young team to head to Egypt for the Nile Basin Cup.
Salim called up Jesse to the national team training at the Nyayo National Stadium as he needed to see him more. Well, he wasn’t selected to proceed to the tournament with the national team, but earned himself a contract with Mathare United.
“When I saw him, I saw a top striker. I invited him to the national team to see him more and he had attributes that told me he had the potential to be a top striker not only in Kenya but in the continent. I decided I would sign him at Mathare,” Salim confirmed.
Even at Mathare, it wasn’t an easy journey for Were. Apparently, most of the top honchos at the club were not pleased with Salim’s decision to sign the young inexperienced boy from Kibra. They didn’t see much in him. But Salim did and stuck to his guns.
“He was very thin at that time and many people disapproved my decision to sign him. He was very small for a striker but I trusted him. He was blessed with technique and as a coach that is all you need. The rest you can work on to build that potential,” explained Salim.
-Extra training, improved diet-
Extra training on the pitch and in the gym at home, an improved diet and more target practice were the ingredients Salim sprinkled on the young Jesse with the hope that he will sprout to become one of the best in the country.
“He trusted me and did as I told him and for a coach, that is a great thing,” Salim noted.
His prowess couldn’t go unnoticed and after just a season and a half at the Goan based club where he primed himself as a trusted lieutenant infront of goal, scoring nine times in the 2012 season, the brewers of Ruaraka Tusker FC came calling.
Jesse joined Tusker at the beginning of the 2013 season but his start was on and off, playing a paltry matches. But as soon as he got his rocking boat smoothly sailing, he didn’t stop.
“Being at Tusker was one of the best moments in my career. It was a different environment from Mathare with more facilities and a different mindset because the demands there are a lot. They want to win the title every season and there is no room for slowing down. It improved me as a player.”
His success grew at the Ruaraka based club and he went on to clinch the Golden Boot in 2015, netting 22 goals in the process with his nemesis Michael Olunga going on to win player of the year and second in the golden boot chase with 19 goals.
The success in 2015 invited the appetite of many clubs around the continent. He had so many teams on the table, but he had to make a decision.
“There were so many teams which knocked on the door at the end of the 2015 season and I needed to make a good decision. I didn’t want to rush or be carried away by the financial aspects of any deal. I sat down with my family and advisors and we deliberated on all the clubs,” Jesse explained.
-Turned my neck-
“Everyone had their own opinion, but Zesco turned my neck. I wasn’t very sure, but the fact that Calabar (David Owino) had been there before and was successful further convinced me that I can trust my instincts and move there.”
“What bettered it further was the fact that when I landed in 2016 to sign, we met with Teddy (Akumu) there. We were now three Kenyans in the same team and that in short meant you feel at home,” Were further stated.
His wheels kept grinding in Zambia and quickly became a darling of the team, and was named the side’s best player in 2017 when he was the top scorer in both league and continental matches with 23 goals; 16 in the league and seven in continental football.
In his first season, he won the Absa Cup with the team and despite failing to clinch the league title, he still managed to bag 16 goals and was the second top scorer in the Zambian league. He went on to win league titles in 2017, 2018 and 2019, where he also won his second Absa Cup title.
“My highest moment with Zesco was in 2016 when we reached the semi-finals of the CAF Champions League, narrowly losing to Mamelodi Sundowns. We had such an amazing campaign and we played really well in a year we deserved to go all the way to the final,” Jesse underscored.
But 2017 still remains a season he will never forget, especially in the manner in which they won the league title.
“It was the final game of the season against Mfulira Wanderers and we needed to win the match to clinch the title. We were trailing 2-0 but we turned that round and won 4-2. I scored two goals and with that we won the league. It was a surreal moment,” Jesse recounted.
-Another league title-
With the COVID-19 situation halting football all over the world, the Zambian Super League is on hold but pending resumption. Zesco are fifth and four points off the pace with 10 rounds of matches remaining. Jesse is optimistic he can finish off another season with a title.
He looks back at the last four years in Zambia with a lot of admiration and happiness, all this coming down to that one decision in 2011, to rescind his decision to quit the beautiful game.
“Coming to a foreign land and doing so well and fitting in is not something easy. I am really proud of everything looking back at all the success. I am thankful to coach Aswani for never giving up on me and encouraging me to keep working and never give up,” Jesse pointed out.
“I am proud looking at him now. I always knew he was going to make it and now, he is one of the people who are influencing the next generation of players in my academy. Every time he is home, he has to come to the academy and talk to the young players,” coach Aswani commented.
His first top-flight coach at Mathare, Salim Ali said; “If there is something that always makes me proud as a coach is seeing the success that Jesse has had. The belief and faith I had in him has proved to be right because going on to become a top scorer in a foreign league is no mean achievement. I am really happy to see him succeed.”
-National team struggles, missing out on AFCON-
While it has ticked for him at club level, the national team has remained an elusive hit for Were despite his good form. In 26 appearances in Harambee Stars color, Jesse is yet to get the glee of celebrating a goal in the red black and white uniform.
Last year, 2019, proved to be a particularly discouraging year, matters national team.
He had been on good form at Zesco and with Harambee Stars qualifying to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 15 years, he had hoped to fight for a place in the final team to Egypt.
But it was never to be. Not even the provisional training squad that travelled for a training camp in France.
“It hurt me a lot to be honest because AFCON is one of the biggest tournaments in the continent and it’s everyone’s dream to play for their country there. I was in top form and I missed a call up and definitely it hurt. But that said, it’s part of life.”
“Coaches are different and everyone has their own style and preferred players so I have no hard feelings for that miss.I was happy for my fellow teammates that they got that chance and I know my time will come someday,” outlined.
Were who has been recalled by new coach Francis Kimanzi, who coached him at Tusker, believes he can succeed because the tactician understands his strengths and weaknesses.
“He is a coach I know and who knows me as well so I know it will be smoother. I can excel working with him and I hope to impress and get my opportunities. I will keep working hard and hopefully the best is yet to come,” he said.
-Future at Zesco-
With the success at Zesco, the 30-year-old believes he still has what it takes to try out another top league in Africa.
“I am still committed here at Zesco but definitely I would love to scale up and try a different challenge but it will depend on a lot,” he said.
Were, who has invested in his life outside football with several businesses in the city, also plans to set up an academy in Kibra as he looks to impart more lives positively and give young players a platform to showcase their talents and launch careers, same way coach Aswani offered him a platform at Soccer Talents.