At long last, light shines at the Ingwe den, but it can get brighter
Analysis, by Jacob Icia
When current AFC Leopards head coach Andre Cassa Mbungo arrived in Nairobi to take the reins of the club as the team’s third coach in three months in the 2019 season, there was little hope that the 12-time champions could challenge for a top 10 spot in the Kenyan Premier League (KPL).
There was debate of the possibility of relegation, rightly so after a sorry start characterized by changing of coaches early in the 2018/19 season, making him the 27th coach to pen for Leopards since thir promotion back to KPL in 2009.
Argentine Rodolfo Zapata had his short stint at Ingwe ended with the coming of Serb Nikola Kavazovic, who prepared the team during pre-season — just before the start of the current campaign only to abandon the Leopards stable a week to the league kickoff, after getting a “better deal” in South Africa.
His then assistant Marko Vasiljevic immediately took over, quite a rookie in the business, as Leopards secretariat had nowhere to turn to.
But again, there was every subtle sign that Vasiljevic was not going to last long, and a 4-0 thumping by Bandari at the Mbaraki Sports Club broke the camel’s back.
Out went Vasijevic and in came Mbungo, a man who was said to have ranked lower to Kavazovic in the interviews for the head coach position, after the exit of Zapata.
The Rwandese found Leopards lowest point, least on paper, but there was a tell-tale signs that he would help guide the club to some ‘respectable’ league finish, let alone relegation.
Fast forward to April 27, 2019 and Mbungo is leading Leopards against Bandari FC at the Kenyatta Stadium Machakos, silencing early season title favorites 2-1 to climb to 10th on the log.
The match highlighted several talking points on his short yet exciting journey of at den; in his efforts to restore the club’s fortunes against all odds.
On the pitch, juicy football was flowing (of course enhanced by Bandari’s competitiveness), while on the stands the relatively increased number of fans and their renewed zeal in rallying the players underscored the changes taking place at the club.
Poignantly, after his arrival, Mbungo said there was a lot to be done including adding experience and skill in his squad, and that he did make some signing statement in the mid-season transfer window roping in Kenyan internationals David ‘Cheche’ Owino, Paul Were and former Sofapaka ace Soter Kayumba.
“They have added something that was lacking; that experience and high level of professionalism. That was good job by Were (the assist to Vincent Oburu’s opener). Credit goes to the entire team though we can’t talk much about the win and forget where we are going. It remains work in progress,” charged Mbungo in a post-match interview after the Bandari win.
To get the services of Were and Cheche, who are eyeing slots in the Sebastian Migne’s final 23-man squad to Egypt for the June African Cup of Nations finals was a good business, adding international flavor and finesse touch to the team’s play.
Both have the knowledge of local league football having started at the KPL level before their ventures in Europe and America.
That Migne must see their best to give them chances in the Egypt travelling party is a blessing for Leopards, as a near 100 performance performance is possible.
Although good strides can be seen thus far, Mbungo says there is nothing much to celebrate save for the confidence restored in the playing unit, and gradually creeping back among the initially disillusioned fans.
“You can see there is something happening; the way we play and our expression on the pitch not only in this match (against Bandari) confirms a lot of growth. We cannot talk about ultimate season target; everyone knows where we were and where we are now. We are looking at every match after the other, hoping to finish strongly,” offered the 51-year-old coach, whose career highlights include stints at AS Kigali and Kiyovu – both top-tier clubs in Rwanda.
Notably, the mid season business included coming of Anthony Kimani into the den as an assistant coach, and so far there are signs of more output from the technical bench.
Mbungo and Kimani are now sailing on quite calm waters and should the momentum be sustained, there is light ahead as the former says.
The reassurance of the fans through the game could not have started growing back at a better time, when the club is preparing for elections in June, as the Leopards’ position on the KPL log will matter in the report card of the officials seeking fresh mandate.