Oktay: Intense teacher of football schooled in Turkey’s tough streets

Wednesday March 18 2020

Gor Mahia head coach Hassan Oktay explains a point during an interview with Nation Sport on April 9, 2019 in Nairobi. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO |


Ever wondered why Gor coach Hassan Oktay is so animated when on the touchline? Why he always cuts a figure of a man on the brink of combustion? Like one possessed?

Well, apparently it has got everything to do with where he grew up.

Oktay, a Turkish-Cypriot, was born 46 years ago in Limassol, the second largest urban area in Cyprus which lies on the southern coast of the country. He came to this world in the heat of an uprising in Turkey that forced his parents to move north.

He understands all of Arabic, but speaks very little of it. He was raised a Muslim, but dropped the religion a long time ago, and says that he is as comfortable inside a cathedral as he is inside a mosque. And for the record, he worships in both places, depending on his moods.

“Then there were political problems there so we moved from south Turkey to north Turkey just after I was born. So I was raised up in a beautiful place just near the seaside. It has the best hotels and the best beaches and the best casinos. But it is a very populous town, and there are people of all kinds there.

“That neighbourhood was very, very rough. Until now many people were scared of going there. But that place shaped my character. I get my passion from there. The people are passionate. Too passionate. I need to control myself,” he told this scribe during an interview at a hotel in Nairobi.

“I was a problematic kid. Very naughty. Unbelievably naughty. I was difficult to control,” he said, and added that there are several things he did during his youth that were not just unacceptable, but shameful too.

“I really don’t want to remember those days but it was all about my friends. We used to go to bars and casinos and cause a lot of trouble.

“Football took me from bad things. Football corrected me. My coaches taught me to lead by example and stop doing bad things,” he said.

In 1993, at the age of 20, Oktay met his future wife, an English woman whose name we are not publishing because the two separated late last year and he does not want to name her.


Together they have three sons, the first born is 24 and twin boys are 17. But to Oktay’s utmost regret, none of his children are even remotely interested in a football career.

His profile on LinkedIn says: “I am a professional and experienced Uefa A coach, I am very passionate about football, and love football to be played the right way, I have worked around the world managing teams in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Thailand, England.”

Looking at it you would imagine that he started out wanting to become a coach.

But the truth is that Oktay’s love for coaching was borne only after his football playing career was cut short at the age of 21.

“I was playing for Colchester United when I got an injury and had to undergo surgery on my spinal cord. After that I wasn’t able to play again,” he says his face turning momentarily sad. Oktay says that the period that followed his surgical procedure was one of utter sadness, exacerbated by the fact that he was on the brink of making a lucrative move to Charlton Athletic, which was by then a top flight club.

“I was so sad. I started asking myself what can I do, because all my life I had looked forward to having a football career. And I had studied physical education in university, so I really didn’t know anything besides sports. So I opted for coaching.”

His face lights up again: “And it is funny now because I find that I have enjoyed coaching more than I enjoyed my days as a footballer.” He chuckles seemingly at peace with the way his fate has turned out so far.

Oktay was appointed Gor coach on December 10, replacing the showboating Englishman Dylan Kerr who had fallen out with the club management.

So how did her learn about Gor?

“I had never heard about Gor Mahia until one December afternoon when I was in England and one of my agent friends called me from South Africa. He told me to send him my CV because someone from Kenya wanted to see it.

“The moment they mentioned Kenya I remembered I had a Kenyan friend whom I had known for 15 years. So I called him.

“At that time I had had several offers from Malta, South Africa, Turkey and Cyprus. But after speaking with my agent I realised that the Gor job would be the right challenge. And so I decided to take it,” he said.

That decision, he says, turned out to be a very good one indeed, one that he is yet to regret in the five months he has been around.

Of all the good things about Kenya, Oktay loves the weather — the fact that the sun shines all year. And he loves the friendly nature of the people, and the way they shout “Sirkal!” whenever they see him walking on the streets. And the food, particularly fish and ugali.

He has learnt a few Kiswahili words, his favourite being “wacha kusengenya” which he says every time people next to him switch from speaking in English to Kiswahili.

At the end of every tiring day, after he has studied a few Kiswahili words and has meticulously prepared for a game, Oktay allows himself some joys. He is fond of horse riding. And he plans to buy a horse in Kenya. Or reading, although he is not reading anything at the moment.

He says he has developed a priceless relationship with both his players and the management, and that he cannot imagine coaching any other Kenyan team other than Gor Mahia.

“I am told sirkal means government. So there was one time our bus was stopped by the police and I asked them, how can the government stop the government? And they just laughed and let us go on our way,” he says.

And almost in cue, a patron at the establishment, clearly a Gor fans, recognises Oktay and shouts “sirkal!” He is rewarded with a wave and a smile.

The interview continues. “What I like about the fans is that they know football. They know right and wrong. They have passion. They support their team very well,” says Oktay.

“But on social media they can be intense. I found out that the boys are sometimes under a lot of pressure because of the fans on social media. So I took it upon myself to help them relax. I even give them days off when things are too hot just to cool off.”

Gor’s uncharacteristic collapse against Moroccan side RS Berkane in their Caf Confederation Cup quarter-finals recently - a story for another day - does not disguise the fact that Oktay has built a devastatingly fluent team, and established an unrivalled superiority atop the SPL table.

All this, he says, is as a result of his secret ingredients that have made K’Ogalo such a mixture of ruthless efficiency, unrivalled elegance and unwavering precision.

Gor has had several professional coaches. But according to Oktay, he brings in a rare experience: the coaching of a footballing visionary.

It is under his watch that Gor reached the quarter-finals of the Confederation Cup after two decades, and none of that has happened because he is a magician.

He did not achieve that with a sprinkle of stardust. It is all the result of unstinting, unending work, a quest for perfection, a determination that everything should be just right.

So does the Confederation Cup quarter-final berth make Oktay proud? “No. We were going to win the Confederation Cup. That was my target. But we messed things up ourselves. And that is behind us now.”

Many people go on sabbaticals. Few earn them. At the end of this season, now that Oktay has more than proved himself, he is planning to take some time off and enjoy some of life’s finer offerings.

He will cross the Atlantic and spend a year in England, a place he loves so much. And he will exhale, living in anonymity, recharging his engines and striking up a friendship with the new.

But what does he think of Kenya’s chances at the Africa Cup of Nations?

“Hopefully, they can shine. I have three players there. I am proud of them. Philemon (Otieno), (Francis) Kahata, Joash (Onyango). I know the flag is very important and I wish that more of my players could play for the national team,” he said.

And legendary striker Dennis Oliech?

“Fantastic human being. Good personality. We speak the same language because he has played in Europe. But I wish I had known Oliech when he was 28 years old. At his prime. I would have no trouble lifting the Caf Confederation Cup. It is not a surprise that he is the man who took Kenya to their last Afcon final in 2004,” he said.

And what does the future hold for him?

“Some big clubs have approached me. But I have told them that I have one year remaining at Gor and that I am happy here. But you never know what might happen tomorrow,” he said.

“What makes me proud as Gor coach is when I see television stations in Turkey speaking about Gor Mahia. It makes me proud. It is a global club now. I am sure some players will get to play there,” he said.