While growing up in California Estate, Nairobi, all Sos Kisukwa Lukio wanted to become was a professional football player.
His mission was simple. Play in Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) tournaments in Nairobi’s Eastlands area, and hopefully, get spotted for the biggest youth tournament - the Norway Cup - and kick-start his career in Europe.
Well, that never worked out. As the old adage goes, ‘there are many ways to kill a cat’. That is exactly what he did. Lukio took a longer route and he is now living his dream as a youth coach at London-based clubs Chelsea and West Ham.
“I wasn’t good enough to make the teams that went for the Norway Cup. My sister had settled in Britain in the late 90s and I used to visit her very often. I fell in love with the country. I moved to the UK in 2008 to study MSc in Sports Management,” Lukio told Nation Sport.
“In 2012, I was in Dagenham, Essex, where a team known as Parsloes Boys met every Saturday and played for fun, nothing serious. At the time, the coach was overwhelmed and he asked me if I would like to volunteer and help out. Because of my passion for football, I saw an opportunity for me to give something back to the game that I loved so much,” he added.
Lukio handled the amateur team for two years and then decided to take his coaching more seriously. He started by pursuing coaching badges.
“At the time, I did not have any qualifications apart from a Criminal Records Check (CRC). In England, before you work with children below 18-years-old in any capacity, you must have a CRC. I turned up every Saturday and had sessions from 9am to 12pm. This was voluntary, I wasn’t getting paid for it,” he said.
“I did this for two years, and being an ambitious person, I decided to undertake my coaching badges in 2014. I didn’t want to remain a grassroots coach with no qualifications forever. So I did my Level 1 Certificate and I also moved from Parsloes Boys to Dagenham United.
“I moved because we wanted the boys to have a change and also for them to play in the league. Otherwise, what’s the point of training if you don’t get to play competitive football? It’s like going to school and never having to do exams,” Lukio said.
At Dagenham his star in coaching started shining, but it was not an easy sail.
“In our first season, we joined a junior league called Echo. It’s the most competitive league in the region. We played 18 matches and won only two games. That was a wake-up call. It wasn’t as if I was a bad coach; the boys just didn’t get it. They were not used to steep competition. Some parents did not believe in the project and they pulled out their children and took them to other teams, only a few boys remained consistent,” Lukio narrated.
“With the kind of work ethic that I learnt, I had to prepare for the following season before hand. I had to lay down my plans for the team. That included drafting a code of conduct for both the players and parents. In the previous season, parents tended to interfere during matches by giving mixed messages in contrast to how I told the boys to play. Part of the code of conduct stated that parents should only cheer the team and not give instructions,” he added.
“In our second season in the Echo League, the boys had improved a lot. We didn’t lose any game during the first half of the season and we were moved four divisions up mid-season to division two. The boys were still up for it and we only lost one game during the second half of that season. Effort, desire for results and fighting spirit were their driving force,” the coach said.
The team’s success increased Lukio’s hunger to become an even better coach. That is how his journey to West Ham Academy of Football started.
“The following season, my team was promoted to the first division and I decided to do my Level Two coaching badge. This helped me have an even deeper understanding of the game. In my third season with Dagenham, we used to get invitations from West Ham Academy for friendly matches. They usually invited grassroots teams to play with their academy teams every Friday.
“Word had gone round that I was running an organised and well-drilled team, so we became frequent visitors at the academy. Each time the team made the trip they gave a good show. My team's understanding of the game was next to none. The academy’s teams never lost to us. We received a lot praise from West Ham Academy coaches and parents, some who were first-team players.
“By the time I started volunteering as a coach, I did a million job applications for category one football clubs based in London such as Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham and so forth. I never got a single response, but I didn’t stop trying. Recruitment of coaches in England is a continuous process because clubs are always hiring. They just didn’t hire me. West Ham would have worked out perfectly for me since it’s a five-minute walk from my house,” Lukio said.
But he never gave up. He was so determined until one day Lady Luck smiled on him in an unexpected way through former West Ham United's Slaven Bilic who noticed his love for football, and more so for the club.
“I used to go to the entrance of West Ham training ground to see the players driving in, ask for autographs and stuff like that. There is one man who noticed and stopped his car to have a chat. It was West Ham’s manager at the time, Slaven Bilic. He had seen me a few times at the academy when I took my team over and he wanted to know me. I was star-struck. We had a really good conversation,” Lukio said.
“Next time we were invited at the academy, I was asked whether I was interested in joining West Ham. I was so excited. I got an interview letter the following week from the West Ham human resources department and I was offered a two-year contract. It has been five years and I am very happy with how everything has worked out for me,” he added.
Lukio works with boys from the age of 13 at West Ham Academy. From last year he also undertook a new challenge as a football scout for another London-based club, Chelsea.
What lessons has picked from working at the two English Premier League sides?
“The attention to detail and the amount of work and effort they put in to make their clubs successful is absolutely incredible. These clubs have also invested heavily in their facilities, academies, coaches, sports science and nutrition. Everything is top-notch and I feel proud that I am associated with them,” he said.
Lukio is not keen on scaling up the ladder by venturing into coaching at a senior level in England. However, he is setting up a players’ agency.
“Venturing into coaching at the senior level in England is something I have thought about but I’m not really keen about it main reason being lack of representation of black and ethnic minority coaches in England. There are so many avenues in football and starting up an agency is something I’m considering in the next few years.
“Sourcing raw talent from Africa and Kenya to be precise and getting players opportunities in Europe is what I want to do. Being a coach, a scout and having made connections with different players in this industry, I believe that will be my next career move.
“Together with a few like-minded friends, we have created what will be the most vibrant and robust football agency in Africa with ties all over Europe, America, Africa and Scandinavia called Knuckleball Sports Management based in the UK with branches in Kenya. Everything has been set in motion and it’s just a matter of when to kick off,” he said.
Lukio still follows Kenyan football closely but says the whole ecosystem needs a reboot.
“I follow Kenyan football and let’s call a spade a spade, Kenyan football is on its death bed. Everything needs to change from top-down. I have had this conversation with friends and colleagues and we are all in agreement that the mentality has to change and this starts from the boardroom all the way down.
“Corruption is killing this game. We have personnel who lack a clear understanding of how to run football. Football has evolved so much and we need to move with the times. Funds allocated for football development should be used for that purpose. We need to invest in sports facilities. Can we find sponsors who are willing to inject money into the game? Of course, we can, but investors are scared they won’t get their money’s worth due to corruption,” Lukio said.
He opined that the best way to develop football in Kenya is to start from the grassroots. It sounds like a cliché, but according to him, more seriousness and commitment to this is necessary.
“We need to have a structure starting from the grassroots to the top. By that, I mean getting children involved in football from as young as five-years-old. We need to have local football clubs in different regions of the country, create development centres for young players to strive to join elite centres run by specific clubs, set up football academies and have teams from Under-13s to the Under-18s. This way we are creating a path into professional football. All these structures could be self-sustainable with very little help from the football federation,” Lukio said.
Another area that needs to be looked into is training of coaches, he said.
“We need to invest in coaches’ education. If we are to go to the next level as a country, we need to make accessible training for the coaches at all levels starting from the grassroots. We have to nurture the talent. Currently, you can spot a promising player in an Under-13 tournament who fizzles out once he goes to high school. That happens a lot. These players need to go into a database and their progress should be monitored. This, among other areas, needs to change,” the coach said.
Lukio said that with his knowledge, experience and exposure, he looks forward to coaching in Kenya either in the Kenyan Premier League or the national football team Harambee Stars.
“I have had conversations some teams in Kenya, but nothing concrete has come out probably because we don’t share the same philosophy. I believe I have what it takes to coach the national team, but a lot will have to change for that to happen. I have a blueprint on how we can make the national team and other Kenyan teams successful. I’m willing to share this knowledge with the national team, so it’s not something I will rule out entirely.
“My purpose in life is to try and elevate children and adults to play football at the highest level and leave behind a lasting legacy. I believe there is so much ability and quality out there so I provide a platform for that talent to be seen. I was born into this world with nothing and I want to leave behind something positive in my lifetime,” he concluded.