Monday, September 26, 2011

Snakes and Ladders

AS LEOPARDS continue the walk into a new era under Jan Koops and a returning legend Mickey Weche coupled with a very decent playing unit there will be times when doubts are expressed about the remnants of the previous era. Any remnants that symbolise the depressing side of that era should have already been moved on and Leopards should be working hard to be the feared side of old. The club, and ultimately the fans, have been hurt by the incompetence that had made the team a laughing stock and whipping boys in the league. Time heals wounds but every wound is different and some injured parties take longer to heal than others.

Power struggles have gone on throughout the club for much of the last few years and power isn’t always used to the best effect – as anyone remembering Demonde Selenga’s wayward shots towards the end of his Leopards career will testify. Power struggles usually lead to people takings sides and leaving common sense behind; at Leopards it meant individuals were judged not on their abilities in the positions they were elected to (as officials) or jobs they were given (as the technical bench and playing unit) but on their (often inaccurately) rumoured actions away from the pitch.

This situation was at its height when the 2011 season was commencing. The season before it was already there, in the shadows, as the Executive Committee (EC) of Directors than run the club fought each other with some suspensions being handed out to some officials. At times, you got the feeling that the wars were more important to the Executive Committee and the team had a bad run in at the end of the season with players complaining of lack of pay.

Every so often, the EC would interrupt their own fight to turn on fans, staff or players but even without their daft antics the fans, staff and players were capable of having their own little bun fights. This continued even after the change of guard at the helm of the team as the succeeding EC also took the centre stage in waging their fights. Coaches were fired for not producing results; players were fired for sabotaging the team; and at times the fans turned against themselves blaming even issues like the dressing of fellow fans for some bad results on the pitch.

Somehow, and it seems incredulous and amazing to think back to it now, how this off-field turmoil could have been better utilized to make the club serious contenders for that which the club was formed for: playing football.

Leopards had finished the last two seasons in the new Kenya Premier League with a measly 34 points in both seasons and hanging around the twelfth position in the sixteen team league. With the end of the last season, there was many a smile on every Leopards fan’s face. The difficulties in paying players salaries seemed to have been thrown to the dustbin as Mumias Sugar were announced to be the new sponsors of the club. 

Rather than bring stability, the announcement that sponsors were on board seemed to be the reason that led to one of the fiercest contests over the control of the club with court battles ensuing to determine which Directors were rightfully in office. Alliances shifted within the protagonists; but it was remarkable that the team continued to be assembled during what a local daily called catfights.

With a new EC in place on 7th March, there were other developments that came fast and furious. The club had lost its first match of the season but it went on a three match winning streak. It looked like the good times were back! But that seemed a false dawn as some discouraging results crept in. That is when coaches came in and went out on a merry-go-round as other changes came in on the technical bench. By the June transfer window, a tsunami like wave left some key players jobless too. At some point, the CEO left and signs of trouble within the EC were starting to really break out into the open; truly the long rope was running out and the noises weren’t exactly encouraging.

One of the things that brought about a positive buzz was when a group of supporters who’d come together at the end of the previous year decided to go out of their way and form a supporters trust that would attempt to unite the fans and make them speak as one voice as they engaged the EC. CLAWS Trust which stands for Club of Leopards Active & Wise Supporters Trust worked hard to motivate players by introducing a player reward kitty; it also worked hard to improve the image of the team that had been worn out with the constant fights which image was now replaced with the Community Social Responsibility programs; the Trust also saw the partnering up of one of its social media outlets, the Face Book Branch that visited other branches, playing football with them and generally bonding with a view to bringing hostilities between fans to a minimum; the Trust also took over a popular blog Ingwe Fan and supplemented it with a quarterly fanzine by the same name that featured articles on the club, the players, the fans, the coaches and so on; the trust also partnered with the club by encouraging its members to buy the club’s merchandise especially the replica jerseys.

As these feel-good times went on, it was apparent that the fans had found their voices again. The EC had upped its game too and some well-loved players had been recruited. A new TV deal was also announced by the EC making the club one of the few that had such a deal on the continent.

And once the good ship of Leopards started sailing once again, there was happiness all over with some decent results coming our way. But as anything that glitters, sometimes the truth only gets revealed by waiting until time wears down the paint that was hastily coated over the cracks.

The resignation of some EC members was a rude reminder to the club that the ship of Leopards still needs careful steering even when the waters are calm. Despite the smiles, there was a feeling that the ship was being torn apart by those who had their own ideas on where they wanted it to go and how they wanted to get it there. And making it worse was the way the people who didn’t want to save the ship, people who just wanted to make sure they got as much salvage as possible, were turning the people who did care about the ship against each other. Some fans took it upon themselves to label anyone who disagreed with them as spanner boys and other derogatory language was used against sections of the fans.

The blame game is never constructive and mistakes were pounced on, such as the draw away to Bandari, and put under the microscope in an attempt to show how ugly the situation at leopards was – but the ugliness was in the methods employed and the ease with which some supporters seemed to take the line of the club’s sworn rivals. It is one thing for a fan to be criticized by a Gor Mahia fan but to hear some of the same vitriol from fellow Leopards fans must have been a heart-breaker for the lily livered.

But when Leopards wins, as they did against Sony Sugar, it appears that football is football again. 

For most of us there’s no longer a nagging doubt that some decisions off the field were political in some way, as admitted by the EC as it let go of the players accused of sabotage; however it is important that the buying and firing of players be governed by rules that are fair if any club genuinely wants success. We as fans might not always all agree on every decision that’s made by the EC but we should not feel any need whatsoever to question the motives of the decision makers.

Attention must be drawn, however, to the words “for most of us”.

There are clearly still some pockets of the fan base of Leopards that haven’t “gotten over it” when the dust has settled on the playing pitch which had been the biggest threat to the club’s future.  Yes, the results on the pitch if they go wrong are a greater threat to the leopards future than the structures that we seek, be it a new constitution, a new secretariat, a new members register and a new set of the EC.

It is important to give credit where it is due. The EC hasn’t always gotten it right – but at the end of the day we are a football team whose principal objective has to be to play football matches and win those football matches. In the last six matches, Leopards haven’t lost any match and have won four. You would think that this is automatically translated to ‘the good times are back’ but it isn’t translated to that.

CLAWS Trust still has a lot of work cut out for it. Any criticism that it voices on the other issues and the warnings it sounds over building a house-of-cards is inevitably met with suspicion by others including the EC and some other sections of fans. 

Fans have to be united. After all, the motto of our club was decided by our forefathers to be OBULALA NA AMANI, meaning unity is strength. Even the issue of the motto isn’t agreed upon with modernity seeing another motto OURS FOREVER infused to the club. But the message is the same. The OURS in OURS FOREVER refers to the fans. For they are the ones that remain as time goes past. Sponsors come and go, players come and go, coaches come and go, EC officials are elected and their terms ends, but the supporters remain, forever!

So if fans have to be united, then terms like “us and them” are quite misplaced. To see sections of fans celebrating rumours that the Face Book Branch is not recognized by the EC as if it wasn’t in support of Leopards but some other team, is the height of the sabotage of fan unity. And in any event, fans who care about the team would go about their duties well knowing that as long as their agenda is pure, then it matters not if they don’t get mere recognition. 

Any brilliant mind on the EC would want to have on its side a group of fans such as CLAWS Trust and the Face Book Branch, who not only travel to support the team, but rallies its troops to be fanatical about the Leopards. The trust through its fanzine Ingwe Fan have taught sections of the fans the history of the crest of leopards; and given out the list of persons who have served as Chairmen of the EC thus preserving the history of the club. 

Any brilliant mind on the EC would be telling people that during its tenure in office, they created an environment that was conducive and led to the formation of a supporter’s trust, the first in the country and one that is a valuable partner for the EC.

But if the EC makes the mistake of isolating any sections of fans, or openly engages in shadow boxing any fans, they play into the hands of the enemies of the teams. Some sections of the press will be enjoying it, at least the bits of the press that don’t particularly care about Leopards, and will add more and more poison to the mixture, in the form of reporting conflicts at the club and making it a laughing stock once again.

We live in interesting times when green snakes amongst the EC, amongst the fans, amongst the press, amongst the technical bench and other sections that affect our club will take advantage of friction at the club. This is why the leadership of CLAWS Trust should be lauded for recently cautioning that the constitutional amendment process at the club should go ahead but should be cautiously handled.

Times like this call for people of integrity and who believe in something to stand out and be counted. There is a story that is said about a certain Attorney General of our Republic who was gleeful as he moved a motion in Parliament to remove the security of tenure in the offices of the judges and the Attorney General. Whilst he thought he was handing the Executive the axe to remove judges, the same Attorney General was also removed from office as he had no security of tenure. If he complained about being fired, he would have been like the people who move with the wind instead of being guided by what they believe in.

To illustrate the point further, it means, too, that the fans who say that when Mike Baraza scores a goal for the Kenyan national team Harambee Stars, they are justified to celebrate the goal by shouting ‘AFC! AFC! AFC!’, they are in effect saying that if Collins Okoth scored a goal for Harambee Stars and our rivals Gor Mahia fans shouted, ‘Gor biro! Yawne Yo!’ such fans would have no problem with that! That is principled.

Principled persons will not hesitate to say something that is well thought out and which they can stand by.

In any organization there are actions that remind us of the game snakes and ladders. Snakes take you down or backwards, and ladders take you up or forwards. At Leopards, just like in that game, after you have experienced the exhilaration of a ladder, it is quite possible that you could bump into a snake. But on the flip-side, after experiencing the humbling emitted by an encounter with a snake, your next move could land you at the foot of a ladder.

This game teaches us that our future in the game of life is determined by one thing, and one thing only – movement. We have to just keep moving ever forward. We should not stop at the foot of a snake and throw away the dice. Just keep moving. Get up again, and keep moving. And hope that you meet as many ladders as possible along the way.

For me, I am glad I met the gentlemen at CLAWS Trust, a true ladder at the club. They hold their horses when it is necessary, or when it is helpful to the club that they keep quiet and they speak out when they need to.

Nowadays, in this barely hatched new era for Leopards, we should be able to pass comment on the EC, players, tactics, coaching staff and performances without anyone assuming that it’s being said with some other motive in mind. We all see things our own way, we even see differences between what we see live at the game and what we see on highlights later, either because we saw it from a new angle or because we’ve had time to reflect.

That’s  a big part of why Leopards is what it is – we’re passionate about it and all secretly think we could probably do better at times. But as long as we’re passionate about the right things – the football itself, not the politics – we can still enjoy the sport at the same as having arguments with each other about it.

When football is as it should be, fans whether they belong to different Branches will argue with each other, passionately, but they won’t fall out with each other. If they do fall out it’s because something other than football has got in the way. We’re capable of finding our own things to get in the way – if we’re workmates maybe work will get in the way, if we’re housemates maybe dirty dishes will get in the way – but we also need to be on guard for others trying to put those old Ochiel-Magelo control fights back in the way.

Suspicion has been so high though that it didn’t matter what the background of anyone commenting on the situation was. The most passionate Leopards or the bitterest Gor fans would be given praise or condemnation depending on which side they seemed to be on. That Leopards fans couldn’t see this is perhaps the biggest shame of that period of time – but those who still can’t see it probably have no shame, and they are the ones most likely to be carrying those old battles on.

If CLAWS Trust got support and united the fans, it would mean that people will be able to be critical of what goes on during a match because they weren’t happy with that thing that went on in that match. It doesn’t mean they are right – see above about arguments – but it means that they are making a judgement based on football, just football. Not insults, not innuendo, not to curry favour with the EC or with sections of fans.

Jan Koops has set the mood.  We have not heard Koops blame the fans for wearing short dresses and contributing to our draws in Mombasa. We have not heard Koops blame the former office for sabotaging the team. We have not heard Koops publicly blaming the current EC for being incompetent. We have not heard Koops moan about the sponsors.

He has gone about his business as a professional. He has concentrated on managing the playing unit. The team now has a bounce to it. The whole squad know that they are no longer certainties to start – but also know that they can get themselves close to being that way by putting in the performances. Every position, including the goalkeeping, has some healthy competition and that should serve as an incentive at a club where far too often in recent years certain players have failed to put a shift in. Those players have now left the club and the existing squad won’t want to follow them.

Koops has instilled teamwork to the playing unit. It is a challenge for the EC to instill teamwork to the EC. It is a challenge for CLAWS Trust to instill teamwork in the fans.
Inside the club, the atmosphere is good, with six games gone by without a defeat. The nig challenge comes when the team meets Gor Mahia over the weekend in the 70th League meeting between the two teams. It is time for the players to step up and bring a victory that the fans so desperately need.

Every player should know that just like Gor Mahia are the rivals of Leopards, the players of leopards within themselves are rivals for the positions for the privilege to represent this stories team. More importantly every player should know that they can and will be criticized by the fans for anything they don’t do right – such as not getting a victory against our bitter rivals. Any such criticism should be constructive, designed to help the club as well as that player, and won’t be prejudiced by what has gone on at the club when it was infested by snakes in the EC, in the fans, in the playing unit and in the technical unit.

A few green snakes in the grass are still hiding in dark corners, within and outside the club it has to said, and will continue to try and spread their poison in whatever way they can, be it looking to divide supporters again or spreading stupid false stories about the club. But they’re easy to spot, if you open your eyes, and are far less harmful if ignored. It’s a long walk back to where we were, back home at the top of the league table; at times we’ll be running and at times we might stumble. But we’ll get there far sooner and in far better condition if we head there as one team: AFC Leopards Sports Club.

(with additional help from an article by Jim Boardman)


  1. Having read this (not so short) post, I must say I applaud Claws Trust, a voice of reason and sobriety in a world full of snakes and ladders. Most fans want what is best for the team, which is ours forever. The EC should help the club achieve its goals rather than individual members' goals.