REAPING IMPROVEMENT AND SUCCESS year after year is a tricky scheme to accomplish for even the very best and most capable of managers and players. Simply put, the art of long-standing perfection is a near mythical one in the shape-shifting world of football.
Despite this realisation, the landscape of Kenyan domestic football is currently being dominated by the presence of one particularly brilliant team, and they are doing their very best to stubbornly chase impeccability.
Although it might have passed undetected under most people’s noses, Gor Mahia FC are one of the great football stories of the last year and what they have managed to achieve in 2015 is incredible to say the very least. Truthfully, their success lacks the same media coverage and prestige of that bestowed on some other top leagues and teams across the globe, but when one gets down to the bare bones of it, theirs is a terrific achievement very much worth talking about. What have they done, you ask?
Well, under the guidance of their forward-thinking Scottish boss Frank Nuttall, K’Ogalo have just completed two league titles in a row as well as winning a slew of other top honours including the league cup and the KPL Top 8 Cup, but that’s not all. Under his stewardship, they have lost only one domestic match in 48 and have tasted defeat just four times from 60 fixtures in 15 months – it’s astounding to say the very least and it has earned their boss Kenya’s prestigious FOYA Manager of the Year Award.
They have also managed to take home the SportPesa trophy for keeps following an enormously impressive “invincible” season for the first time in nearly 40 years.
Shining brightly as the country’s best team by far, the cash-strapped club eventually became an unstoppable unbeaten force after lasting 30 KPL games without defeat. Along the way, they scored the most goals with a frightening 60 in total, the highly-touted Michael Olunga emerged as the team’s top scorer and they also racketed up a whopping 70 per cent win record.
Speaking exclusively to These Football Times recently, the UEFA Pro-Licensed coach Nuttall began by discussing what their terrific season had meant to him as well as divulging his eagerness to qualify his own abilities to himself, more than anybody else.
“I was confident that my overall experience, gained over 30 years, would enable me to fulfill the role of being the head coach. I wanted to prove it to myself and to those that support me and believe in my capabilities to succeed as a head coach.
“Our aim was to win the league title again but, of course, to do it without losing a match is very satisfying.”
It was a massively satisfying achievement for all involved and the first time the club had managed it since 1976. Now, Nuttall believes that his charges can go one better and push themselves in the continent’s biggest club competition, the CAF Champions League. He’s under no illusions just how tough the competition will be but he’s of the opinion that, despite their massively inferior budget – they currently don’t have shirt sponsors and receive only slightly more in prize money than a relegated team in the South African ABSA Premiership does – they can mix it with the best on the field of play.
“It will be difficult because of the financial power of many of the other clubs. However, we gave a good account of ourselves last time and we were very close to progressing even though we had four top regulars missing.
“We will certainly be a more experienced team this time around. Travel and hotel arrangements as part of our overall preparations have to be considered very carefully, not to mention the quality of the players and teams that you can be drawn against. So impossible to know how far we will go. For sure, we will be give it our best shot.”
There’s a matter-of-fact tone to the 47-year-old’s replies, but it seems that’s down to his own self-imposed pragmatism more than anything else. Sure, the aspirations, hopes and dreams are there but Nuttall is keen to stay grounded amidst all his current success and he’s well aware just how difficult it will be to emulate their 2015 heroics next season.
Presumably, it would be even more difficult without the free-scoring Olunga amongst their ranks. He has been continually linked with a move away from Kenya in recent months, so it’s possible that he could be headed for the exit door. Attracting admiring glances from a number of clubs, ‘The Engineer’, as he is fondly nicknamed, has been linked to a move to South African giants Bidvest Wits, in particular.
The star striker has been incredibly pivotal in such a wonderful season, so I enquire about precisely how key the 21-year-old is to their set-up. The coach’s reply pays due homage to the attacker, but it also uncovers a great deal more about his own vision; one that’s more focused on how to orchestrate a team-oriented campaign in the months to come than it is on thrusting too much significance on any one individual.
“Michael has played an important role in terms of goals and also through his overall contribution to the team. He also recognises the efforts of his team-mates to help him perform. He can certainly play a big part in our attempts to go further in the Champions League next season, though we cannot be reliant on him alone.”
Clearly, he is a coach who prides himself on endeavour and hard work as well as one who aims to foster a team-centric core, and it’s easy to see the fruits of that labour, especially when one remembers the way the whole team and management celebrated the league title together out on the pitch in front of the adoring fans.
When the Scot originally took the reins at Gor Mahia, he was jumping on board a ship that had already seen its crew plunder the league title a few months before his appointment, so there was always bound to be a certain amount of pressure on his shoulders to defend that crown with the same fearlessness and fizz that helped them take it.
Some were doubtful about his credentials, with dissenting voices making reference to him as nothing more than a glorified fitness coach. The criticism was entirely unfounded and, in the end, proved to be wildly laughable as he has helped polish the club into a group who fight hard for each other in all aspects of play and all areas on the pitch. Choosing not to rely on past success as motivation, they have chased new goals and silverware, but always in the knowledge that nothing is guaranteed, as the 47-year-old himself says.
“We want to win the league again and try to do well again in CECAFA and better in the Champions League, so there are big challenges ahead.
“We got to the final of CECAFA for the first time in about 20 years, so I would like to see if we can win it next time. We just have to keep trying to find ways to win each game that we play and see where we end up.”
Finding the winning formula on a consistent basis is the Holy Grail for coaches everywhere, but it’s also somewhat of a pipe dream. Nevertheless, the Scotland-born boss is doing a pretty good job of drilling his players on the nuances of his systems and philosophies, and is working hard to make sure they understand how to implement his ideas.
My interests piqued, I attempt to eke out a little more detail about what areas of coaching he likes to focus on whether it’s on the training pitch or via the tactical whiteboard.
“We all have our ideas and beliefs about how we want to organise our teams and leaders should have that, but flexibility is also key,” he says. Remembering that ‘1+1 = 2’ but so does ‘7-5’, as well as the phrase ‘Adapt or die’ come to mind.
“I work mainly on communication, man-management, planning and maintaining focus, as well as the usual aspects of variation of tactical approach for each game, developing and maintaining fitness.
“An emphasis on a disciplined, focused, calm and thoughtful approach with a high-level of flexibility in the man-management of players and staff has been my approach, along with the other aspects such as attention to player recruitment, fitness and injury prevention. I also have players who are mentally very tough with a massive desire to give their best to succeed.”
This mirrors his own attitude very clearly, and it’s easy to see how the winning mentality that permeates the squad emanates from him. A quick look at as his previous successes reveals a track record of working at the highest levels in football. Whether it has been his position as the China national team assistant coach or his stint as a fitness coach in helping the England under-17 team win the 2011 UEFA Championship (positions he says he enjoyed due to the “higher level of footballing intelligence”), he has often aimed to test himself in a variety of destinations that require a vast array of skill and expertise.
However, it’s his involvement in an assistant capacity back in 2005 when Glasgow Rangers won the Scottish Premier League title on the final day of the season, pipping Nuttall’s childhood club Celtic to the trophy, in the most dramatic of fashions that really catches the eye on his employment history. It’s a memory he holds dearly and is one that has no doubt continued to help fuel his career trajectory upward.
“To win the league and, in such a way, will forever stay with me. Winning has the effect of wanting more and it has always been my aim to be a winner and successful in my career.”
Drawing on this desire to flourish, I wonder whether or not they’ll ever get the opportunity to play against Chelsea, or teams of that stature – some Gor Mahia fans were pictured challenging the London-based outfit to an exhibition match towards the end of their unbeaten league campaign – and I also want to see just how big the ex-Rangers man’s desire to develop and nurture the club truly is.
“In the short-term, it is highly unlikely, though if the club grows and markets itself correctly, sometimes fixtures such as this can happen, for various reasons. If there are any clubs out there that are interested to play us, they should get in touch.”
It might sound like a flippant request to the cynics among the wider football community but it’s obvious from our chat that the former fitness coach is eager to test himself, his approaches and his players against the best of the best, something that can surely only be helped further by playing exhibition matches against top quality opponents from near and far.
Furthermore, Nuttall’s sights are unafraid to waiver towards a return to Britain (he mentions that a coaching role in Scotland would be tempting) and he certainly doesn’t want to rule out a move back to the Land of Hope and Glory either, as he tells me.
“Of course, I would always consider coaching jobs in England. I have experience in all of the league divisions and have worked with all levels of players from current England players to players in the lower leagues. So I have the skills set to work in those leagues.”
This isn’t merely a flash in the pan and it’s clear the aim is to continue to mix it with the best wherever possible, once his current journey comes to an end. It’s this push to succeed, improve and grow that marks Nuttall out as a tremendous advert for the road less travelled.
Taking the plunge abroad for British coaches is never an undertaking to entertain lightly, but the experienced Scotsman has proven his capacity to thrive in unfamiliar scenarios. Effectively, he has so far defied the odds and is agonisingly close to masterminding a thrilling quadruple haul of titles this year.
Who knows what else the future will hold for him?
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90