Paul Nkata: Self-named ‘double-double man’ delivers

Paul Nkata eases his disheveled body into the seat before me at the Tusker Football Club offices in Ruaraka. He has just finished an early morning training session, one of the team’s last this season.

He has a noticeable limp and as he sits, he lets his feet stretch out in front of him, as though he doesn’t want anything to do with them anymore. Behind him is a line of 15 beautiful, gleaming trophies, and two antique pictures of title winning Tusker FC teams placed either side of the wall.

He carries none of his exuberant, excitable touchline mannerisms. He is smiling and composed and looks quite happy. Paul Nkata is the man of the moment.

Winner of the Kenyan Premier League with a match in hand. Dethroner of boastful 15-time champions Gor Mahia. Galvanizer of the sometimes egotistic Tusker FC players.

Yet all he was before the start of the season was a nondescript 56-year old Ugandan with a little reputation and a Caf C coaching license.

“I knew it from the very beginning I was going to go places with Tusker. What did I say on my unveiling? I said that I was here to win trophies.

If I had players at Nairobi City Stars and at Muhoroni, and they were not good like these ones, yet I managed to make them perform well, why not these ones,” he said with the conviction of someone who knew what he was talking about.

I reminded him that two highly qualified coaches tried and failed with the team for three years before he took over.

“It is not my place to discuss the performance of other coaches,” he replied, giving a glimpse of the gentleman he is.

Nkata is one of those uncommon coaches who have managed to achieve instant success in the Kenyan top flight.

In just 11 months, he has delivered the league trophy to the brewers bringing their Kenyan championship count to a impressive 11.

When he arrived at Tusker it was put to him clearly that although his was on two-year contract, the club would have no qualms firing him if he did not deliver the KPL title.

On the afternoon of November 6 that his team beat AFC Leopards to confirm their position as league champions, the Ugandan tactician jumped up in sheer joy, consumed in the euphoria of winning not just the most coveted club football title in the country, but a second trophy in just three weeks.

Yes, Tusker had earlier won the knock-out GOtv Shield, for the first time in almost two decades.

Hearing him speak you get the sense that he was indeed prepared for his football career: First as a player for Express and SC Villa in his native Uganda where he was also capped several times, and then for Kenya’s first full professional side Volcano United in the late mid 1980s before hanging his boots in 1986 to pursue full time coaching. 

But it was all colourless until this season when he burst into the limelight with the brewers as they went ahead and upset popular club Gor Mahia’s dreams of an unprecedented 16th title.

“Gor Mahia were always coming at us. The game against AFC Leopards was for me the most difficult game because I knew that if we lost that one, the trophy was gone.

I remember telling my players that the game would be easy, just to play with their psychology. But in my quiet moments I knew that it was a very, very difficult team” he said.

Speaking about this transports Nkata to a time in history where he was on the opposite side of the touchline.

Nkata was born and bred in Buganda, and the first time he set foot in Kenya was in 1986 when he signed for Volcano United as a defensive midfielder.

In his words, he hung up his boots a year afterwards “due to old age”, and encouraged his two sons to play football. One of them, Fred Nkata, took the advice seriously, and was among the nine new signings unveiled at Tusker at the beginning of the season.

The junior Nkata would however not last the season, as he was ostracized by his own father shortly after the beginning of the second leg when he violated club policy by leaving the team’s camp without permission.

“Fred is in Kampala right now. He misbehaved somehow. He left the camp without notifying the team manager and when he returned he had to step aside for a while,” he said.

After his retirement, Nkata returned to Uganda and took up small non-paying coaching jobs, first at SC Villa where he had been a player, and later at Kiira Young and URA, with whom he won the Ugandan domestic cup (Kakungu Cup) in 2013.

Like the many Ugandan footballers who cross over to Kenya in search of greener pastures, Nkata returned to Kenya and started small at Nairobi City Stars, then advancing to Muhoroni Youth, staying at each of the two clubs for less than six months in 2015.

“I have never asked for a job in my life. Tusker officials contacted me when I was in Muhoroni. They had seen the good job I was doing there and I said, why not?”

He took up the challenge and the naysayers started talking immediately after his unveiling.

“Poor Nkata”, they teased him. “He’s just a trier” they said.

Truth be told, he was an unknown Ugandan tactician, how could he succeed where the technically thorough Francis Kimanzi and the no nonsense Robert Matano failed miserably?

What everyone didn’t know about Nkata, and what has just recently been revealed to local football enthusiasts as his unique selling point, was his bond with the players.

His closeness with his players showed in the way they enthusiastically carried him shoulder high and the drenched him in water on the day they confirmed their status as 2016 league champions.

Given, he was shy at first, being courteous and polite to all his critics, never answering back even when television pundits thrust the mic before his face and asked him to make absurd concessions.

This was until an interesting incident in June when Gor Mahia, their closest title rivals, went top of the table for the first time in the season.

That same day, a ruling from the league’s disciplinary committee came through indicating that K’Ogalo had been deducted three points as punishment for the crowd trouble that marred their game against Tusker.

The brewers, who were lying second on the log at the half time break, became the biggest beneficiaries of that directive, moving top of the table and never looking back.

The Gor-Tusker exchange was indeed played out on many fronts.

The transfer window opened in June and second placed K’Ogalo, hungry for history, planned a swoop on Tusker’s influential midfielder and captain Humphrey Mieno.

Some newspaper articles even hinted that Gor Mahia had acquired the lanky attacking midfielder who had scored two goals so far, and Nkata admits that he was a little disturbed.

“For me I can never stand in a player’s way. In fact, I don’t like to meddle in issues of transfer of players, I usually let the management handle that.

“I think, however, that Gor were not serious. I think they just wanted to confuse him because if they were serious there was nothing stopping them from signing him,” he said.

When the league reconvened for the second leg, Nkata appeared a changed man.

He became bolder and more confident during pre and post-match interviews and in no time, he started going after his opponents in public. 

By the 25th weekend of the league, Nkata had declared publicly that he was gunning for not one, but two silverware.

And when he achieved one half of this goal by winning the GOtv Shield on October 20, he promptly declare himself “the double-double man”, a bold declaration that he was aiming for a second trophy.

It turned out he was merely stating facts, and it came to pass on November 3 when the brewers brushed aside AFC Leopards with a 1-0 win to put both the title race and Nkata’s coaching credentials to rest.

Nkata reveals that he was happy with the culture he found at Ruaraka. Players being remunerated well and on time, tremendous and unconditional support from the club management, comfortable training venue with showers and toilet cisterns that actually worked…he was happy.

But what impact did staying away from his family have on the Ugandan’s magical season?

“As I told you, I am 56 years old. My children are all grown up. My first child is over 30 years and the youngest is nine years.

“Where there is a job, and money to be made, they can even say don’t come back, because everything is about money. They tell me if there is no money the there is no need to come back here” he says with a slight chuckle.

Suddenly it is time to call a taxi and head back to Nation Centre. I switch off my recorder and as I prepare to leave after the interview, I throw at him that has just come to my mind.

Is he going to remain at Tusker for next season that has the enticing Caf Champions League?

“My contract doesn’t run out until December next year and I am sure I shall be here until then,” he says, before throwing in a weighty disclaimer:  “Unless otherwise.”

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