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Like father like son

Brian follows his dad's footsteps at Ulinzi Stars

I regret not having played for the school team. Honestly speaking, I wasn’t keen on doing so — Bryan

In Summary

• Unlike many top flight footballers who cut their teeth in football while still in primary school, he was more focused on academics because that’s exactly what his parents asked him to do.

• Birgen says his best national team assignment was his debut match against Malawi at Kenyatta Stadium in Machakos under coach Stanley Okumbi.

Ulinzi Stars Bryan Birgen in action with Tusker's Sydney Ochieng during apast KPL match
Ulinzi Stars Bryan Birgen in action with Tusker's Sydney Ochieng during apast KPL match
Image: /FILE

Rarely in football history have we come across stories of father and son who featured for the same team in top flight football. It’s even more interesting to find out that they both serve in the same military.

Brian Birgen was born on 22 November, 1994, being the last born in a family of two boys and a girl.

He spent his formative years in Kabete Barracks where his father, former Kenyan international footballer, Joe Birgen, served as a soldier in the Kenya Defence Forces.

Birgen first joined State House Primary School for his elementary education but was later transferred to Thika Damsite Academy in Kiambu, his parents eager to afford him a better learning environment.

Birgen says that playing football never dawned on him at this age. Unlike many top flight footballers who cut their teeth in football while still in primary school, he was more focused on academics because that’s exactly what his parents asked him to do.

“When I was in class five, I was transferred to a boarding school where nothing much went on in terms of football. My parents emphasised on the need for a good formal education,” says Brian.

That notwithstanding, he became indirectly involved in the game in one way or another, on numerous occasions, spending his time watching training sessions and attending league matches for Waterworks FC, a team his father featured for. Most of the time during the matches especially at home, he would be a ballboy. This made him develop a huge appetite for the game.

It was only while at home on school holidays though, that he would get involved in football. Back at school, nobody seemed interested.

“Our school was in the remote parts of Thika, where people were indifferent to the sport. One of our teachers tried in vain to introduce football in school. The pupils snubbed the idea,” observes Brian.

Even at home, he only had a short period to enjoy the game, given that out of the entire four weeks holiday break, the school only allowed them two weeks at home while setting aside the other two weeks for tuition.

Upon completing his primary education in 2007, he proceeded to join Nakuru High School, an institution known more for rugby than football. Brian says that the school, which has earned its rightful space as a rugby powerhouse in the secondary schools games, and which also always features in the national finals, hardly made it past the zonal championships in football.

“Although I was more interested in playing football, our school had established a rugby culture. In rugby, we were always assured of a place in the national finals of the secondary schools games, but never made it past the zonals in football,” he says.

He was ultimately carried away by the wave into playing rugby as his initial interest in football dwindled.

He developed a keen interest in rugby to an extent he even influenced his friends back home to start playing. What more? He was already featuring for the school team in his first year at the school. He says his father, an ardent football enthusiast, was surprised by his new-found love.

“I was an upcoming fly-half in rugby. People began seeing a lot of potential in me. I got immediately drafted into the school team. Back home, I had influenced my friends to embrace the game, always teaching them the basics. My father didn’t entertain the idea,” he reveals.

After two years at Nakuru High School and playing for the rugby school team, he transferred to Jamhuri High School in Nairobi where the culture favoured football more.

He got a chance to play during the inter-classes competitions while in Form Three, featuring as a defensive midfielder.

He, however, never got to play for the school team despite having the potential to do so because he wasn’t all that deeply interested in football. After a brief dalliance with rugby in Nakuru, he had lost interest in football. However, regrets never exhibiting his talent in football during his high school years.

“I regret not having played for the school team. Honestly speaking, I wasn’t keen on doing so. I guess I lost the interest in football back at Nakuru High, where all focus was on rugby,” he says.

Back home, Bryan was still struggling to reignite his interest in football. He only got to play if he had time and when an opportunity arose.

“I didn’t have any passion left for the game anymore. I only indulged in it leisurely,” he adds.

His attitude towards the game would, however, take a different direction when an opportunity to feature in the maiden edition of the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) U-19 tournament that was launched in 2011 came begging.

He was among the players recruited through trials by coach Danston Nyaudo to play for Ulinzi Stars in the tournament. Making it to the final squad was not a mean feat, given that players came as far as Thika, Langata and Kangemi to compete for the few available slots in the squad.

“Since it was on short notice, it was difficult to get a team from Nakuru, so Nyaudo was given the chance to raise a team in Nairobi,” Brian says.

During the selection process, Ulinzi Stars left their doors open so that anyone could join the U19 team which was not strictly meant for players residing in the barracks. Brian says that their side made a good impression of themselves in the tournament that lasted three weeks.

“We were eliminated at the semifinal stage by Thika United, who went on to clinch the trophy. Thika had good players including the current KPL stars Clifford Miheso (Gor Mahia), Jackson Macharia (Tusker) and Frendrick Chitai (Ulinzi Stars),” says Birgen.

Ulinzi Stars were being captained by the current Wazito Chief Executive Officer Dennis Gicheru.

Brian says that he featured as an offensive midfielder throughout the tournament but later decided to turn into a fullback after being prevailed upon by coach Nyaudo and teammate Abdi Ibrahim, who all convinced him that he was more suited for that position.

He went back to school soon after the tournament and did his KCSE 2011. In 2012 he was invited by the Kenya Defence Forces to join their Recruits Training College in Eldoret where he spent seven months being shaped as a soldier.

Upon completion, he officially joined the military in 2013. His presence in the military stirred up his interest in football again. He would soon feature for Ulinzi Warriors — a feeder team for Ulinzi Stars — during the inter-brigades tournament. The team was also playing in the FKF Provincial League. It was a year later, in 2014 that coach Robert Matano invited him to join Ulinzi Stars after gauging his performance for a while. Brian has achieved quite a lot with the side, having won the East Africa Military Games title thrice and featuring in the finals of the GOtv Shield Cup in 2016.

He has had an opportunity to wear the national colours too. He received his first call-up and earned many caps under former U23 national team head coach Bobby Williamson.

“I respect Bobby quite a lot. He gave me a lot of exposure by fielding me in as many matches as he possibly could,” says Brian.

Birgen says his best national team assignment was his debut match against Malawi at Kenyatta Stadium in Machakos under coach Stanley Okumbi.

“Although I came on as a second half substitute I feel elated up to now,” he says.

His Premier League debut game, against AFC Leopards, remains his best. He had just been freshly fished from the Provincial League and handed his first league assignment. Ulinzi fought back from a goal to win 2-1.

“Coach Matano believed in me. Despite the fact that it was a big game against a star-studded side, he went ahead and fielded me. We came from a goal down and won the match 2-1,” he said.

He also fondly remembers the day they overcame the same side again in a different encounter, this time handing them a 4-0 thrashing during their GOtv Shield Cup match where he was also named man of the match, taking home with him a decoder in recognition of his outstanding performance.

Brian, however, says he has had a share of his dark moments in his career now spanning 10 years.

In 2015, while at the airport on his way to Cecafa championship, he received the shocking news that he had lost his best friend.

“I had made the final Cecafa squad and was on my way to the championship when I received news that my best friend Kelvin Ongete had passed away. I felt deflated and suddenly lost interest in the tournament.”

His toughest game ever? “We lost in the GOtv finals to Tusker in 2016. We had invested a lot of time in preparations but God had other plans,” he observes.

Brian agrees that the reigning Kenyan Premier League Champions Gor Mahia are undoubtedly the best local side, adding that Ulinzi have always found them a hard nut to crack.

He further says that he always runs into difficulties trying to contain Tusker’s Robert Omunuk and Boniface Muchiri.

His family has always been his greatest source of inspiration. Brian largely attributes his successful career to the endless support he has received from his mother Roselyn Obonyo and father Joe.

“They have been my rock always... mum rarely misses matches unless she’s busy. She calls me before a match day to wish me the best,” adding that: “anytime the results are unfavorable she encourages me a lot.”

Brian says his father has always been a mentor, who points out both his strengths and weaknesses during matches, which has helped him grow tremendously. Interestingly, his father still buys him football boots despite the fact he has a well paying job.

“Dad believes I’m the best and he has never hesitated to tell me this. He usually draws my attention to a couple of mistakes in my performance during matches while also emphasising on my strengths. He buys me football boots to-date,” he says.

How do his siblings view his career in football?

My brother, Evans Tisia and sister Vivian Atieno are my biggest fans. They are usually very proud of me regardless of the match outcome. My brother attends our matches and he encourages me a lot to continue flying the family’s name high,” he adds.

Although not yet officially married, Brian says he is in a serious relationship with a lady he loves so much, Fiona Pendo, with whom they have a five-year-old boy, Kaylan Joe Birgen.

“Fiona always calls me while on my way to a match. She’s the last person I always converse with before I feature in any game. She gives me her best wishes,” he says. How does he spend his free time?

“I like play station quite a lot. I play Fifa online.”