On one cold evening exactly 50 years ago, a group of men converged on Kaloleni Social Hall off Doonholm Road (present day Jogoo Road), then a popular spot for revellers from Western Kenya.
They included one Israel Mtokaa, Benjamin Ashihundu, Benjamin Barua, one-time Kenyan ambassador to China, Joshua Odanga and Ben Amimo.
By the end of that March 12, 1964, evening, Abaluhya United FC had been born out of the amalgamation of several Nairobi-based clubs with roots from the Luhya community.
In the formative days, the club would literally survive on handouts from the founder members, fans and well-wishers. According to Siloba Buliro, who has written extensively on the club, well-wishers would offer their vehicles to ferry the players to and from match venues, pay for accommodation and meals.
With no player contracts, Ashihundu would invite talented Luhya players based in Uganda to come and play for the club during weekends.
Players like Moses Wabwayi would travel on Friday night from their base in Kampala using the OTC bus, arrive Saturday morning, play for Abaluhya, spend the night in Ashihundu’s house and travel back to Uganda Sunday night.
That is the level of commitment that defined Abaluhya in its early years. The club would later change its name to Abaluhya Football Club before eventually settling on All Footballers Confederation Leopards Sports Club or simply AFC Leopards following a presidential decree that all entities shed tribal tags.
MADE IN AFRICA
Among the first generation of Ingwe players were Shem Chimoto, the legendary Elijah Lidonde, Joe Kadenge, Hezekiah Ang’ana, Adala Maganga, Omar “Wembe” Okumu, Jonathan Niva, Wabwayi, John Nyawanga and George Situma. This is the generation that almost won the 1968 edition of the Africa Cup of Champions Club, bowing out in the semi-finals.
This team would later pave way for the ‘70s generation comprising Noah Wanyama, Vincent Mwenje, Timothy Madonye, Jairus Adams, Moses Okwaro, Edward Wamalwa, Nashon Bushuru, Daniel Anyanzwa, Aggrey Lukoye, Eliakim Ongoli, Jackson Masika among others.
It is this generation that paved the way for the all-conquering side of the 1980s assembled by arguably Leopards’ most successful coaching trio of Ugandan Robert Kiberu, Gerry Saurer and Kakamega High School teacher Christopher Makokha.
“It is Kiberu who invited Saurer as a motivator. He also brought in Makokha because the bulk of the team’s youthful talent were his products from Kakamega High School,” says former Leopards great Peter Lichungu.
Built around a core team comprising legendary goalkeeper Mahmoud Abbas, centre back Josephat Murila, playmaker Wilberforce Mulamba and striker Joe Masiga, the bulk of the team was nurtured at Kakamega High and MoW under Makokha’s tutelage.
The Kakamega products included Lichungu, Patrick Shilasi, the Musuku brothers Ben and Dan, Mike Amwayi, Peter Zimbo Owade and Peter Ouma. The team also had Tony Lidonde, Haggai Mirikau, Mickey Weche, Francis Kadenge, John Arieno ‘Papa” and Issa Suleiman.
Arguably the most successful generation, the team would go ahead to win both the Cecafa Club Championships three times in a row (1982, 1983, 1984) and the Kenya Premier League (1980, 1981, 1982).
It is this generation that first donned the famous blue and white “Rio Tinto” strip during the 1982 East and Central Club championship final against Zimbabwean side Rio Tinto captained by the legendary Japheth Mparutsa.
PICKING THE PIECES
The match ended 1-0 in favour of Leopards thanks to a Tony Lidonde strike. The team would go ahead to successfully defend the title in 1983 beating arch rivals Gor Mahia 2-1 in the final thanks to goals from Mike Amwayi and Joe Masiga.
Come 1984 and Leopards won the trophy for keeps after beating Malawi’s Admarc Tigers in the final. In 1985, Ingwe surrendered the title to Gor Mahia in one of the club’s most painful defeats, losing 0-2 in the final played in Khartoum.
The sight of team captain Joe Masiga disembarking from the plane, which also carried Gor players at the JKIA empty handed remains one of the most distressing in the club’s 50-year history.
The club soon picked up the pieces and took the continental soccer scene by storm, reaching the semi-finals of the Africa Club Championships before losing to Leventis United of Nigeria.
By this time, Kiberu and his team had handed the mantle to Englishman Graham Williams, who later paved the way for Ghanaian Charles Kumi Gyamfi. Nairobi tycoon Alfred Sambu had also taken over the chairmanship of the club from Walter Masiga and helped the team secure shirt sponsorship from British paint manufacturers Crown Paints – a first in Kenya’s history.
“We would ensure that during elections, we have representation from the three districts that formed Western province – Kakamega, Busia and Bungoma so that if the chairman came from Kakamega, the secretary-general would be from Bungoma while the treasurer would be sourced from Busia.
The vice-chairman’s position was reserved for committed members from outside Western Province as Nthenge, a senior civil servant who really supported AFC.
You remember James Mungai who also served as vice-chairman for many years,” says one time organising secretary Victor Okiya Dindi. “The idea was that each of the officials would be able to help the club scout for good players from their home districts so that when you looked at Leopards from the officials to the players, you would see the face of Western and Kenya at large,” he goes on.
The golden generation of the ‘90s would later pave way for a youthful side assembled by former Malawian international Reuben Malola from several clubs in Nairobi’s lower leagues. This generation comprised Musa Otieno, George Sunguti, Tom Juma, Wycliffe Jumba, Edward Karanja, Kevin Ateku, Fred Ambani and the late John Luchuku.
Also in the ‘90s generation were Reginald Asibwa, Joseph Atitwa, Tony Lwanga, Francis Oduor, Idd Abubakar, William Inganga, Tony Sejero, Washington Khamadi, Joseph Mwangale and many others.
In the late ‘90s, Leopards again went on a recruitment spree, bringing on board players such as Maurice Sunguti, Eric Ochieng ‘Cantona’, Philip Ouma, Omar Banza, Patrick Kayimba, Mathew Otamax among others.
Leopards’ fortunes would later dwindle to an extent that for the first time in its history, it was relegated from the Kenya Premier League in 2008 only to fight back and win promotion the following year.
The club initially struggled to find its footing in the country’s Premier League following its promotion, leading to the hiring and firing of over 10 coaches in quick succession.
It was not until the acquisition of dutch man Jan Koops that the club started posting positive results, eventually finishing a respectable third in the 2012 league. Koops will be credited with nurturing the present generation before paving way for Tom Olaba and later Belgian Luc Eymael. Eymael would later pave way for present coach James Nandwa.