Olunga: A star in the making or just another young pretender?
One day in August 2013, my name and that of Michael Olunga appeared in print for the first time. Mine as an electrifying byline, and his as the day’s superman.
This was during the 2013 Kenyan Premier League under 19 tournament where the young master had smashed two breathtaking goals for Tusker FC. This would be the first time I meet Olunga.
Watching him play, there was no question about his capabilities, his determination, or the sheer talent he displayed. His powerful left foot was available for all to see. Including a naïve, broke and garden-fresh college student like me.
He has since waddled from Tusker to Thika United, although it is at Gor Mahia that his career has taken a real sprout.
During the five months that he has spent at K’Ogalo, Olunga has grown into something of a wizard, and he currently poses a real threat of becoming Kenya’s next top class striker. In fact, he is already being compared to the once mercurial Harambee Stars striker Dennis Oliech, and it is quite easy to understand why.
For starters, it has been a while since a striker with such a gangly frame made as many headlines in the back pages of our local dailies as Olunga does. And before last week, it had been hopelessly long since a Kenyan striker had produced a hat trick for the national team.
Forget his physical attributes. The Upper Hill School alumnus is a straight A student, and once he finishes his undergraduate degree in Geospatial Engineering in June 2017, he is going to join the very few Kenyan footballers who possess a credible university certificate.
When the K’Ogalo management splashed Sh 200, 000 to pluck out Olunga from Thika, where he was on loan from Tusker, it was because the diminutive but fiery Dan Sserunkuma had left for Simba in Tanzania, and the management chose to sign two strikers in his place to mitigate the chances of a possible collapse of the striking department.
The two strikers would be Olunga and the equally hyper-talented Rwandan Meddie Kagere.
But as is usually the norm with all worthy suitors, Olunga held off signing for K’Ogalo for a good one month, as he awaited results from South African club SuperSport United where he had gone for trials and failed in June 2014.
Bad news that he had failed yet again came in early January, and it exactly four days later, he shook hands with Chairman Ambrose Rachier on a two-year contract at K’Ogalo.
When he arrived at the club, few raised questions about the precocious young man with a highly utilitarian physique and a spiky hair cut from the 80s. They remembered the few anxious moments he had caused them while at Thika United and a few more as a Tusker man where he found his stay untenable due to Coach Francis Kimanzi’s refusal to consider his academic development as germane.
And when time came for him to prove his mettle during Gor’s first friendly game against Bidco United at City Stadium, his talent, (though terribly raw and a little rough around the edges when placed against Sserunkuma’s outstanding precision), was laid bare for everyone to see.
In his own words, coach Frank Nuttall “fell irretrievably in love with his work rate, sheer determination and team contribution”, and has never once failed to summon him in his starting lineup.
But five games afterwards, Olunga found himself without a single goal to show for his “impressive work rate”, save for a series of awkward off target shots. It is at this point that the club’s impatient and outspoken fans took notice of his weaker right foot, and promptly began to cast aspersions at the youngster.
He is “too wasteful and inexperienced” why should he start ahead of Blackberry (George Odhiambo)! If he cannot calm his nerves then he shouldn’t have signed for K’Ogalo in the first place. How wasteful! His learning curve is not impressive!…
On and on the partisan and results-oriented loud mouths went about on the liberal corridors of social media, but Nuttall repudiated and remained uninfluenced by the public opinion court.
And then it happened. On one dull Saturday morning at the City Stadium, Olunga leapt across and headed in his first goal in a green shirt, and it was against Mathare United. February 21st.
He managed a brace during this match, and it took only three more premier league goals for K’Ogalo to enable national team coach Bobby Williamson make up his mind. He effectively did away with his team mate Timothy Otieno as well as Sofapaka’s Enoch Agwanda for the next Harambee Stars assignment against Seychelles where Kenya won by two unanswered goals.
His next big assignment would be in the return leg of an Olympics qualifying fixture against Botswana. Here, Olunga was played as the target man in Williamson’s 4-4-2 formation, and he saw the back of the net a good three times to command a standing ovation from the few spectators who had turned up for the match.
Put together, Olunga’s exploits for both country and club have made him the current subject of national obsession, and even though he currently has zero caps for the senior national team, it is difficult to envisage Harambee Stars minus the hard runner.
Watch him on the pitch and you will realize what everyone’s fixation with this 21 year old is. In him you will find a man whose highly impressive output belies his young age. A man with the ability to perform his goal scoring obligations, but also one with the aptitude to fall back and commit his physical strength to defense in the anxious moments when his team’s defense gets carried away.
Like Oliech before him, he has succeeded in pushing back the boundaries of footballing capability. He has reinvented the manner in which we view our strikers, and he has put new meaning to the tired old phrase “top class”.
On the flip side however, some degree of suspicion remains in the minds of local football enthusiasts and pundits with regards to whether he has prematurely hit his prime.
The question on everyone’s lips, one that is inescapable even to the club’s inner circles, is that of whether Olunga, unlike Bob Mugalia, Jacob Keli and Allan Wanga, can take his potential and turn it into goals and assists, goals and assists, season in season out.
Yes, Olunga has declared publicly that he is here for the long haul. He has repeatedly spoken to me of his ambitions of playing in Europe; of engraving his name alongside that of Victor Wanyama as one of the country’s most prized football assets.
“I know my capabilities and I know that I can only get better. I know there is pressure here (Gor) but that doesn’t bother me because I am working towards becoming a world class footballer, and there is a lot of pressure that comes with that,” he told to me on the day he put pen to paper at K’Ogalo.
But all these dreams can be forgiven for one so young, and even his football “godfather”, his mentor and agent, Mr. Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee, accepts that failure to maintain a steep curve on his growth rate graph could hinder his progress on the pitch.
“This is a player I have worked with for close to a decade now, and I have observed his mindset from when he was a teenager. He is a hard worker, a very focused individual and with his favorable physique and stern left foot, he is one who has the ability to become the next big thing in Kenya,” the former Harambee Stars coach told me one Sunday afternoon at the City Stadium when Olunga was still an ostracized 18 year old striker struggling to fit in at Tusker.
Oliech has scored 34 goals in all his 65 appearances for Harambee Stars, and Olunga can have no better role model, no better target to chase down than “The Menace”. Olunga’s evidence of future goal scoring prowess has already began to show, but will he sustain this performance?
Will he maintain his place on our lips for the next five years and earn his place in the back pages of local dailies for another five? Or will he get in line along with the other one-use up starters aforementioned, who have eventually turned out to be disposable nonstarters?