SHARPENED TALONS

AFC Leopards eager to claw back after limping for 20 years

Despite boasting the rights as Kenya's oldest top-tier club, the 13-time Kenyan Premier League champions celebrated their last top-flight title in 1998 and their performances have been uninspiring in recent years.

In Summary

•Last season, they shook off a torrid start to crack a top-ten finish after blowing hot and cold in their fixtures.

•Initially called Abaluhya United Football Club, the club changed their name to AFC Leopards in 1980 when a number of small clubs joined forces.

AFC Leopards coach Patrick Aussems with his players in a past match
AFC Leopards coach Patrick Aussems with his players in a past match
Image: ERICK BARASA

With 12 top-flight league titles to their name, AFC Leopards are Kenya's second most successful club after arch-rivals Gor Mahia who boast 18 titles thus far.

Formed in 1964, Leopards have also bagged the Kenya Cup 10 times, and the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (Cecafa) Club Championship five times.

But one wonders where the rain started pounding the Den. It has been two decades now since Ingwe won their last top-flight title.

Despite boasting the rights as Kenya's oldest top-tier club, the 13-time Kenyan Premier League champions celebrated their last top-flight title in 1998 and their performances have been uninspiring in recent years.

Last season, they shook off a torrid start to crack a top-ten finish after blowing hot and cold in their fixtures.

Initially known as Abaluhya United Football Club,  Ingwe changed their name to AFC Leopards in 1980 when a number of small clubs joined forces.

The birth of Ingwe resulted from the amalgamation of Marama, Samia United and Bunyore — all Nairobi-based clubs that featured in the Kenya National Football Division One League.

Other clubs roped in included those in the lower tier such as Kisa, Tiriki, Bukusu Brotherhood, Busamia, Lurambi, Butsotso, Bushibungo and Eshirotsa.

Leopards have enjoyed immense success on the local football scene that can only be matched by that of arch-rivals Gor Mahia.

However, all has not been rosy for the club that boasts a huge fanbase across the country, mainly in western Kenya.

Their 20-year title drought underlines their torrid form in recent years. In fact, Leopards' fortunes have been diminishing by the day.

They are yet to record a win in the Mashemeji derby over bitter rivals Gor Mahia since 2016.

AFC Leopards' John Makwatta (L) shields the ball from Charles Ouma of Police during a Premier League clash at Nyayo Stadium
AFC Leopards' John Makwatta (L) shields the ball from Charles Ouma of Police during a Premier League clash at Nyayo Stadium
Image: FILE

Questions now abound if Leopards possess the talons to claw their opponents and the magic wand to turn things around in the wake of a far-reaching transfer embargo imposed by the world football governing body, Fifa which has limited their capacity to charge for the title.

The existing AFC Leopards leadership has vowed to turn the club's fortunes around.

On June 30, the newly elected officials pledged to steer the club to unprecedented heights beginning this season.

Speaking days after they got a nod from the club's supporters to serve for the next three years, Dan Shikanda (chairman), Gilbert Andugu (secretary-general) and Oliver Napali (treasurer) all expressed hope for a brighter future at the Den.

Club chairman, Dan Shikanda, reckons he has finally found the magic wand needed to resuscitate the club from its deathbed.

Shikanda has urged those given the fresh mandate on July 30 to serve in the office to forge a unity of purpose in order to revive the fortunes of the club.

“Let us join hands, work together and ensure that AFC Leopards regains its lost glory,” Shikanda said.

Shikanda said he is determined to adopt a fresh model in a bid to salvage the club from perennial financial hiccups that have jolted their aspirations for a 14th title over the years.

“When I took the reigns, I set out to establish an institution as opposed to concentrating all the efforts on enhancing the performance of the team on the pitch," Shikanda said.

“Making the players perform better without offering them better services only end up exposing them to rival clubs with better financial muscles and, as such, possess the capacity to snatch them from us.”

The exit of key sponsors including SportsPesa has left their accounts badly damaged, he said.

“We can't just sit back and watch as our ambitions continue to go down the drain. Urgent steps must be taken to restore the dignity of the club,” Shikanda said.

Brian Eshihanda of Kakamega Homeboyz (L) contests for the ball with Fasamni Ojo of AFC Leopards during their Premier League match at Nyayo Stadium.
Brian Eshihanda of Kakamega Homeboyz (L) contests for the ball with Fasamni Ojo of AFC Leopards during their Premier League match at Nyayo Stadium.
Image: ERICK BARASA.JPG

The Leopards' honcho said an unprecedented mass exodus of star players had forced them to discard their title ambitions last season.

Shikanda said he was glad they managed to remain afloat in the top-flight competition in the wake of all the grave challenges that have rocked and threatened to capsize their ship in recent years.

“After losing key players in the preceding season, there was a general feeling we would become the whipping boys of the top tier and perhaps sink into relegation. Against all expectations, we have weathered the storm,” said Shikanda.

“In the preceding season, we grappled with a 60 percent deficit in our annual budget. What our shirt sponsors are pumping in is not enough to address all our needs," he said, adding that funds donated by the Football Kenya Federation (FKF) Caretaker Committee haven't been enough to plug all the loopholes.

Shikanda is happy the club finally managed to land a shirt sponsor after a tough season.

The club unveiled gaming firm Betika as their new shirt sponsor in a partnership agreement worth Sh 195 million meant to last for the next three years effective August 1.

The Ingwe honcho said the arrival of Betika was bound to alleviate the grave financial constraints they have contended with in recent days.

“A good sponsor always stabilizes the club and, yes, Betika will most certainly solve most of the problems we have experienced in the past,” Shikanda said.

The deal came exactly a day after Leopards terminated their contract with Spotika citing a violation of contractual terms.

Shikanda said the club will no longer sign foreign players to avoid unnecessary confrontations with the world football governing body, Fifa.

“We have realised that most of our problems stem from signing foreign players who end up reporting us to Fifa anytime there is a slight misunderstanding,” Shikanda said sounding infuriated.

While thanking the club for entrusting him with the honour of serving as treasurer, Oliver Napali promised financial sustainability and stability at the club.

AFC Leopards chair Dan Shikanda
AFC Leopards chair Dan Shikanda
Image: FILE

“I’m sure, the future looks bright. Our efforts combined will usher a new era at the den,” he said.

“The task ahead can only be achieved if we hold each other's hand and strive towards greatness.”

“Our combined efforts are what will make us achieve the  success and trophy-laden term for the fans.”

Napali is among the new officials who were elected on June 30 at Moi Stadium, Kasarani. He romped into the treasurer's office unopposed.

On the other hand, Shikanda garnered 429 votes against Namai's 282.

Gilbert Andugu bagged 433 votes to secure the secretary-general's seat after beating Robert Omusawa and Tonny Omusina who got 224 and 49 votes respectively.

AFC Leopards skipper Eugene Mukangula is optimistic the new season will offer the club a perfect opportunity to end their 20-year Kenyan Premier League drought.

Mukangala reckons that the current squad has gelled into maturity and it's only a matter of time before they break their jinx.

“The academy players have shown they have the potential to clinch the title after helping us to a fourth-place finish in the last season and clinching the inaugural Elijah Lidonde Memorial Cup a week ago,” Mukangula said.

Mukangula said he experienced difficulties motivating his teammates, owing to the numerous challenges they faced throughout the season.

“As you are already aware, Kenyan clubs experienced financial constraints occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic and the players found themselves between a rock and a hard place.”

“It wasn't easy trying to inspire a team that had players who would sometimes report to training on hungry stomachs and had been locked out of their homes after failing to pay house rent,” Mukangula said.

Mukangula believes the Sh195 million sponsorship deal the club has secured with Betika will ease off the incessant financial headache they have endured in recent times.

His remarks are in sync with those of assistant coach, Tom Juma, who said the academy players promoted to the senior team last season have eventually come of age.

“We have quite a good number of young players who have matured with time right from the very day we absorbed them from the youth team. Soon they will be able to compete for titles, perhaps, even win the league next season,” Juma said.

AFC Leopards' captain Eugene Mukangula
AFC Leopards' captain Eugene Mukangula
Image: AFC LEOPARDS MEDIA

Juma extolled head coach Patrick Aussems for rolling out a comprehensive development plan, which he says has created a conduit for youth team players to blossom through the ranks.

“If you examine our current crop of players, you'll realize that 90 percent of them evolved from the youth team. We have agreed as a team to take that route going forward.”

Juma believes Leopards can end their 20-year title drought next season.

“I don’t think setting a target to win the league next season is farfetched. We have an effective plan in place to achieve that goal,” Juma said.

AFC Leopards are hammering away to break Gor Mahia's six-year dominance in the Mashemeji derby come the new season, assistant coach Tom Juma has said.

Juma asked Leopards' adoring fans to exercise patience as the squad gather the prerequisite ammunition and adequate momentum to halt their opponent's unrivaled supremacy in the country's most cherished football showpiece.

“Of course, we know how hungry our fans are to win the Mashemeji derby given the honour winning such a match comes with,” Juma said.

“They only need to exercise some patience. In the last three matches, we came so close to beating Gor Mahia and they only ended up winning on penalties. That alone shows we've been improving over the past few years and we shall soon break the jinx.”

And after rising above all odds to secure a top-five finish, Juma reckons they will bounce back even stronger next season with their eyes firmly set on the ending of their 20-year title drought.

“We kicked off the season on a torrid note with five straight losses after losing our star players due to financial difficulties.

“We also lost three key players to other clubs early in the season. Collins Sichenje joined the pro ranks in Greece while Daniel Musamali and Marvin Nabwire left to join Kenya Police.”

Juma said, unlike their rivals in the top tier, they didn't have the luxury of rotating the lineup due to a limited squad.

“At the end of the day, we had only 24 players left as the competition entered its crucial stages, despite the growing list of injuries.”

Juma reckons the Kenyan football scene is too chaotic at the moment to plan aptly for the future, although they already have a tentative training program in place.

“It's a little bit difficult to plan ahead given the current situation in the country. We don't have the right information about the next season including when it will begin. We have given our players a two-week' break.”

Hopefully, the current office will find ways of salvaging Leopards from their predicament.

AFC Leopards players line-up t Moi Stadium, Kasarani last season
AFC Leopards players line-up t Moi Stadium, Kasarani last season
Image: FILE

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