Limping giants Leopards look forward to 2017 with hope
Fans of domestic giants AFC Leopards cannot wait to forget 2016 after a miserable season on the pitch coupled with a technical bench managerial circus that made a mockery of one of the most decorated clubs in the country.
Amid the turmoil at the Den, Leopards did stage peaceful elections, seeking an end the bickering over the control of the team that led to parallel factions claiming leadership in a dispute that threatened to tear the club right down the middle.
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It was also a year when sordid details of players indiscipline provided rich fodder for media and gossip columns, reaching a crescendo when four first-team stars were reported to have contracted Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
At the beginning of the 2016 Kenyan Premier League (KPL) campaign, Leopards started the season on fire, losing only once in their opening nine games and shooting to the top of the table, their 1-0 defeat of then champions and eternal rivals Gor Mahia on March 6 the icing on the cake.
However, it all started unravelling when Belgian Ivan Minnaert was brought in to take the place of returning Dutchman Jan Koops when relegated Nairobi City Stars stunned them 1-0 on April 3.
Five losses inside a month took the wheels off the Ingwe wagon as the first half of the season came to a close with the team sliding down to 10th.
Minnaert ordered a massive clear-out at the Den that saw 16 players exit and 13 come in ahead of the second term and after an encouraging start, drawing 1-1 with Posta Rangers and edging Ulinzi Stars 3-2, the team lost three of their next four hastening the sacking of the Belgian.
Minnaert-who was accused of losing the dressing room- left amid reports of alcoholism, dissent and the embarrassing STI reports within his playing unit that saw the club trend on social media for all the wrong reasons.
“All the players are tested by the club doctor before and there is no way they would be allowed to go on to the pitch with such illnesses. The three players mentioned are seeking legal advice to sue the one who made those reports public since they are known to them,” Team Manager Joseph Milimu declared in denying the STI claims.
Minnaert, who was replaced by Ezekiel Akwana in a care-taker role refused to go quietly, suing the club for the pre-mature termination of his contract.
On November 17, Leopards were ordered to compensate Minnaert with Ksh2.4 million for wrongful contract termination.
Three weeks after his unceremonious dismissal on September 1, Minnaert filed a complaint against Ingwe through the Football Kenya Federation Arbitration Tribunal with the ruling made in favour of the coach by its Chairman, Bernard Murunga.
Leopards had earlier agreed to reimburse Minnaert KSh60,000 but the Arbitration Tribunal ruled that the amount be revised to Ksh2.4 million, an equivalent of his six month salary as stated in his contract.
Akwana was later fired alongside the remaining members of the technical bench a week after former Sofapaka FC head coach; Briton Stewart Hall was brought in with a view of preparing the team for the 2017 campaign as head coach.
Hall- who led Azam to the Cecafa Kagame Cup glory in 2015-was forced to take charge of the last two games of the wretched KPL season when Ingwe were beaten 3-2 by relegation threatened Sofapaka in Machakos on October 28 to end Akwana’s brief spell in charge.
His first game in charge was in Nakuru where Leopards faced Tusker FC in a match where the latter needed to win to be crowned 2016 KPL champions. A draw or a loss would have opened the door for Gor to snatch the crown from under the noses of the table-topping Brewers.
Allegations of match-fixing ahead of the crucial game then surfaced with the club suspending four senior players, including top scorer Kepha Aswani with indiscipline and under-performance the other charges levelled against them by the club.
Club chairman Dan Mule said they took the decisive action ahead of their crunch encounter against log leaders Tusker after what officials believed was a deliberate attempt to sell the game to their title-chasing rivals.
Edwin Wafula, keeper Lucas Indeche, Yusuf Juma and Aswani- who had sunk 13 goals in the season were given 14 days to appeal the decision to the Disciplinary Committee of the club.
“We have removed the businessmen from the club. The remaining team can go on and beat Tusker, take my word. Indeche Lucas is a businessman, Aswani is the one who leads the training boycotts, Juma even sends messages to officials asking them what they are doing in the office if they cannot pay allowances.
“Those players were being bought. They same players were given money when we played Homeboyz in the GOtv Shield. As things stand today, we cannot win any game with those players in the line-up,” Lirumbi sensationally claimed at the team.
The following day after the allegations were made on November 2, Lirumbi and other senior executives strenuously denied match-fixing was among the reasons why the players were axed when the severity of the charges dawned on them.
Leopards went on to lose 1-0 with Ugandan Shaffique Batambuze netting a second half winner to hand Tusker a first title since 2012.
Muhoroni Youth then hammered the final nail in a miserable season when they beat Ingwe 2-1 to leave Hall still waiting for a first victory as the Leopards finished 13th on 30 points, having escaped being dragged to the relegation mix by the fast-fading Ushuru FC and City Stars who went down.
Hall is now preparing for another radical surgery at the close season at the Den after expressing disappointment with how low the 12 or 13-time league champions depending on whom you believe have sunk.
“We have to make radical changes in the team. They are the champions and the league table doesn’t lie, position 13 is not good for such a big club.
“Personally I have never finished in such a position in any team I have coached in any country; I am always in the top two,” the former Tanzania’s giants Azam FC tactician said after the defeat by Tusker.
The poor year saw no Leopards players nominated for any gong at the 2016 KPL Footballer of the Year Awards for the first time since they started in 2008.
Whilst most in the Den would be quick to jot down 2016 as a tiny blot in their history, it appears some of the management incompetencies that turned Leopards into a laughing stock have spilled into this year.
The Executive was accused of abandoning the Ingwe Cubs who bravely lost in the final of the December KPL Under 20 tournament on post-match penalties to Mathare United last weekend with their coach Boniface Ambani calling the club a ‘joke’ on online media.
His team was left stranded at Nairobi’s Camp Toyoyo after Saturday’s decider with Ambani conceding Ingwe were going through a steep financial crisis as the administration works to sort out the mess created by bickering and poor performance.
Amid the chaos, the club through a process mediated by the Sports Disputes Tribunal organised elections that saw Mule who was a Co-Chairman in the Interim Management Committee (IMC) ascend to the top seat.
Mule trounced his closest rival Maurice Amahwa with former Football Kenya Federation vice-president Robert Asembo and IMC Co-Chair Mathews Opwora deciding to withdraw from running on the eve of the hotly contested elections despite being on the ballot.
Mule garnered 1160 votes with Amahwa polling 822 as Asembo and Opwora rounded the tally for the chairmanship with 119 and eight.
The jury is still out on Mule, a former chairman of Leopards Embakasi Branch with 2017 a watershed year for the proud team as it embarks on returning to the top of the domestic pile and clinch a first title since 1998.
-Godfrey Ashiali contributed to this report