Since he burst into the national team scene as the long-sought successor to JJ Masiga, Dennis Oliech has been both a purveyor and recipient of direct language.
He has been accused of arrogance when dealing with his peers and managers, of being a poor role model arising from his nocturnal misadventures and even at some time a necessary evil for Harambee Stars.
In turn, he has accused sponsors and managers of the national team of fleecing him and using his star image for their own gain. He has on occasion told authorities to pay up his dues or else he would catch the next flight out of Nairobi and leave them to look for an alternative striker.
‘Dennis the Menace’ has been a moniker applicable to him for news making equally on and off the pitch.
It must, therefore, have come as surprise all around earlier this month when Oliech and his erstwhile sparring mates turned diplomats. So polite was the language used that, for Oliech at least, decoding services might become necessary.
Oliech had, uncharacteristically, arrived early for a Harambee Stars camp preparing for a trip to Morocco. He told Daily Nation Sport that he still had a lot to offer the national team, especially experience.
But Bobby Williamson, the Stars coach, declined to accommodate him for the trip. He said: “I know that Oliech has done a lot for the country and that he still has better days ahead of him, but he is not in my plans for this match. He only asked to train with us to maintain fitness. We must find a new Oliech.”
Verbal uppercuts and hooks
Oliech must have known all this time that a country never stops looking for new players. How else did he himself find his way at the top? That was not new. But declining his entreaties to rejoin the team and the thanks and praise marked the turning of a page. In polite society, when the executioner must be put to work, it is not necessary to use tough language on his victim.
As matter of fact, the reverse is the norm; there is plenty of kindness at play. When therefore people with whom you have been engaged in too many verbal uppercuts and hooks suddenly start praising you, look at the wall – for the writing is all there. Decoded and translated into direct language, the affectionately expressed certainty of “better days ahead” simply means “get lost.”
I took note of Williamson’s willingness to let Oliech train with the national team even as he denied him a place in the trip. It reminded me of the tragedy of Willie Woodburn, one of two or three of the greatest centre halves to come out of Britain in the 1950s and a fellow countryman of Williamson’s. Woodburn was handed an indefinite suspension for aggravated foul play by the Scottish Football Association.
After serving several years, he was given a reprieve at age 34. In the book, Soccer: The Great Ones edited by John Arlott, Hugh McIllvaney writes: “Eighteen months after the suspension, the door was opened slightly when the SFA ruled that Woodburn could come back into football – as anything except a player. Understandably, he saw that meagre concession as the equivalent of handing sweets to a child and warning him that he must not eat any. For him re-entering the game meant pulling on a pair of boots.”
Just spare a moment and think of Oliech, desperate to rehabilitate his sagging career in its afternoon, asking Williamson to let him make the Morocco trip and being told, ‘No, son, you can train with us but sorry, the travelling party is full.” Then what, pray, is the purpose of the training more so when a new Oliech is being sought? How apt the imagery of the child being given sweets and being warned not to eat them!
FIRST INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL CELEBRITY
Oliech was Kenya’s first international football celebrity. He happened on the scene during the globalization era. He is not our finest striker ever and could certainly not hold a candle to William Chege Ouma and JJ Masiga. But there he was, a talent above his peers, and blazed his way first to Qatar and then to France.
After him came MacDonald Mariga and Victor Wanyama, his successor as Harambee Stars’ captain, and then so many others playing in second and third tier leagues in Europe.
His trail blazing brought him fame and some measure of prosperity, something that could enable him to speak his mind to power.
For his insistence on getting his refunds on air tickets before playing for the Stars and getting appropriate compensation for use of his images, only uncaring people could fault him. He was asking for his just right. The ruse of shouting patriotism as cover for incompetence and corruption must be exposed for what it is. But now he finds himself at a crossroads in his career.
He is not an old man at 29 but he is not young either. To suddenly discover that he is unwanted must cause him much grief when he turns off the lights for a tired man’s sleep. His once upon a time predecessor as captain at Harambee Stars, Mahmoud Abbas, once described to me the utter loneliness of being unwanted.
The goalkeeper innocently just wanted to take his career to the next level and opened discussions with the then Kenya Breweries FC. The discussions took long. But at great length, they were concluded and Abbas became a Breweries player, or so he thought. Meanwhile, his club, Mwenge of Mombasa, got wind of what was going on. They made no public move or statement; they just kept quiet.
“By not informing Mwenge of my plans to leave,” Abbas told me, “I made a terrible mistake. I just left. In the meantime, Mohammed Magogo, the Breweries goalkeeper, absconded and went to play in Abu Dhabi. Breweries management was furious. Finally, they decided that I was likely to follow in Magogo’s footsteps and take flight to the Middle East. They refused to sign me.
“All of a sudden, I found myself club-less. One day, I approached Mwenge officials and pleaded with them to take me back. They said nothing. The following day, the club released a statement to the media saying that it does not deal with rolling stones which gather no moss. They called me a rolling stone! When I read that statement, I was utterly devastated.”
Before AFC Leopards signed him on, he was almost a broken man. He had repeatedly sworn never to have anything with football again but, of course, his heart was deep inside it.
And on donning the Ingwe shirt, he bloomed. He became the legendary Kenya One whose praises are still sung to this day.
Quite often, players make themselves unwanted, even before they have exhausted the gas in them. In his book, Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography, Manchester United’s legendary coach, tells of the difficult relations he had with David Beckham whom he described as the only player that he coached who never believed that he could do any wrong. No amount of correction or advice could move him. He believed in his infallibility and seemed to have a dim view of the coach.
Ferguson tolerated him – because he loved and admired him. He looked at him as a father would a son and became increasingly dejected as Beckham seemed to turn his back on football for celebrity status as a media pawn. But everything has its limits and Ferguson soon drew the line.
“In his final season with us, we were aware that David’s work-rate was dropping and we heard rumours of a flirtation between Real Madrid and David’s camp. The main issue was that the application level had dropped from its traditionally stratospheric level. It was in those days that I told the board David had to go. My message would have been familiar to board members who knew me.
“The moment a Manchester United player thought he was bigger than the manager, he had to go. I used to say, ‘The moment the manager loses his authority, you don’t have a club. The players will be running it, and then you’re in trouble.’
“David thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson. There is no doubt about that in my mind. It doesn’t matter if it’s Alex Ferguson or Pete the Plumber. The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts. You cannot have a player taking over the dressing room. Many tried. The focus of authority at Manchester United is the manager’s office. That was the death knell for him.”
MILLA WAS AN EXCEPTION
In order of longevity, goalkeepers are at the top of the pile as football careers go. They are followed by defenders. Forwards come last – and don’t mention Roger Milla; to every rule, there’s an exception. As a striker, Oliech has at best only about three years of active playing left. If I were him, I would by now be extremely busy working on my post-playing career.
It could be on anything from business to coaching to punditry. The certainly is that the various seasons of life must end and give way to others in accordance with age and time. Oliech’s career is largely behind him and there isn’t much he can do now that he hasn’t done over the decade or so that he has been with us. What he has is my profound sympathy and always at a time like this, gratitude and those other sentiments that head in the direction of forgiveness.
It is premature, of course, to write his epitaph. But at his thought, at his arresting plea to be allowed in again, I keep thinking about Brian Glanville’s The Dying of the Light, that superb novel about the declining years of a footballer star.
Unless it was through the unfortunate route of a crippling injury, there is a heartrending gradualness to the ending of a career. It ends like the voyage of a stricken ship, which sinks slowly, giving time to all those around to absorb its relentlessly approaching death. The goodbye is long, sad and painful.