Phoenix rise of Nzoia United stirs Kenyan football
The remarkable return of National Super League (NSL) winners Nzoia United to top-flight football is the stuff of Hollywood stories with the former two-time domestic champions having fallen from grace to grass before rebounding back to grace again in spectacular fashion.
With 34 games of the second-tier played, Nzoia have won a staggering 26, drawn seven and only lost one to sit atop of the NSL log on 85 points, 14 clear of closest challengers Kariobangi Sharks to seal the title with four games to spare.
It was a matter of when, not if Nzoia would return to the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) following their show of crushing dominance especially in the second leg, with a yawning goal difference of +46, scoring 63 and only letting in 17.
Amazingly Nzoia were never relegated from the top flight in the first place.
Faced with a crippling cash crunch in the sugar crisis that gripped the nation in the early 2000s, Nzoia Sugar Company simply pulled the plug on the team in a blur once the 2004 season ended.
It would take another 12 years for the club that had won the 2002 and 03 league titles to return to the top table of domestic football where they feel they rightfully belong.
What followed were painstaking efforts to resurrect the moribund club that was stripped to its bare bones and together with Oserian another NSL club that fell on hard times, challenged the leading trio of Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards and Tusker FC for honours.
Nzoia followed the sad fate of neighbours and another sugar belt giant, Mumias Sugar that also folded under similar circumstances almost at the same time.
Like the proverbial Phoenix, the NSL champions who still spot the sponsor sugar company logo on their strip have risen from the ashes after climbing through the lower divisions to earn the right to play in the KPL next season.
A 1-0 victory over St. Joseph FC in round 33 of the 2016 NSL confirmed all what everyone knew since they set about their charge to the top- Nzoia were a KPL team playing in the second tier.
The company-sponsored team ran into trouble when Nzoia was forced to scale down operations with former player and now team manager, Evans Kadege saying the decision baffled them at the time since they had just won the league title twice in 2002 and 2003.
“The company’s board re-established the team in 2012 after accepting a plan from team management and the technical bench they assembled,” he added.
The team was re-branded to Nzoia United from its Nzoia Sugar FC name in April at the behest of the sponsors who wanted to connect with the surrounding community for the team that plays their home matches at the Kanduyi Stadium.
Club chairman, Yapets Mokua says the team’s management has out in place measures to ensure the side never crumbles again as they prepare for life in the top flight.
“Nzoia Sugar Company board chairman and former Cabinet Minister, Joash Wamangoli leads the team’s management and below him, we have a Football Management Committee appointed for four years, the technical bench and the players,” he outlined the current structure.
Mokua credits the rise of the former domestic champions to the input of former players who led them to glory in yesteryears including Kadenge and coach Bernard Mwalala.
“They have been so resourceful since they know how the team has been faring all along and it’s easier for them to adjust for a better performance,” Mokua added.
“We have been fair to all players by paying their dues without delay and avoiding dishonest dealings with them regarding their finances. That has helped boost their morale,” the chairman added.
On his part, Mwalala says their path to KPL promotion started as soon as he rejoined the side in 2015 where he found a management willing to co-operate with his ideas to restore them to the top division.
“We recruited young, energetic and committed players who were thirsty for excellence and this has propelled them to great heights,” he emphasised.
Having advanced to the GOtv Shield quarter finals after eliminating dethroned KPL champions and domestic giants Gor Mahia, Mwalala sees no difference in playing in the top flight as opposed to the bigger NSL.
“The NSL is even tougher than KPL and we don’t have to change much. Our team is equal to the task,” the former Harambee Stars international.
After sealing promotion, the club insisted they will play their KPL games in Bungoma- with Nzoia not losing at home this season- their only shock defeat coming on the road against Nakuru All Stars.
The coach says they intend to retain their royal fan-base by resisting shifting their home games to neighbouring Mumias, Kakamega or Kisumu hoping their promotion will spur even more supporters to root for the side.
“We don’t have powers to force fans to cheer; they will only support us if we show the best skills on the field,” he added.
The coach declared their target was to win the GOtv Shield title and represent Kenya in continental football for the first time since the 2003 CAF Champions League terming their defeat on penalties to eventual finalist, Ulinzi Stars in the semis as ‘bad luck’.
Following their resounding success, Nzoia’s stars have been the buzz of local football with big clubs circling like vultures to snap their top talent such as leading striker Masita Masuta who has been banging them in for fun.
“We cannot stop any player if they stumble on good fortune but the deal must be good for him and the club. We advise them before allowing them to move,” the coach underscored.
Mwalala exuded confidence they are upbeat and ready for the task ahead adding that they are equipping their players with new and necessary skills required to express themselves in the KPL.
“Sudi Stadium remains our number one home ground and Kanduyi Stadium is our second option,” Kadenge elaborated on their planned venue.
“Our main aim is see that all our home ground matches are played within Bungoma though we might consider using the Mumias Sports Complex in Kakamega County. The playing surface at Sudi Stadium is far much better as compared to Chemelil and Sony Sugar FC play grounds,” he added.
Kadenge appealed to the County Government of Bungoma and other well-wishers to aid in the erection of terraces at Sudi to make the facility complaint to KPL regulations.
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