As the 55th season of the SportPesa Premier League winds to a close with Gor Mahia collecting their 17th title, we revisit an old story.
In my column of Saturday April 11, 2015, I wrote: “This is settled, Ingwe won the 1971 league title.”
That was incorrect and I apologise. In fact, the league was scrapped.
In the interest of accuracy and the historical record, this is the story of what happened in 1971:
Ben Ashihundu’s labours to organize the 1971 Kenya national football league resembled the career of Sisyphus, King of Ephyra in Greek mythology, who was cursed to push a rock up a hill with the goal of placing it at the summit.
But each time he drove it up some distance uphill, something would happen and it would roll all the way back to the bottom, and Sisyphus would be forced to repeat his effort each time.
Ashihundu was the fixtures secretary of the FA of Kenya. He was also the chairman of the League and Tours Committee.
In those days, many foreign countries and clubs toured Kenya and it was Ashihundu’s job to run a calendar that seamlessly integrated these matches with league, continental and other local competition fixtures.
He went about it with gusto, firing off a press release here, working the telephone with sports reporters there, addressing impromptu press conferences on the sidelines of matches at the City Stadium, sending cables to the then Africa Football Confederation, giving club officials a tongue-lashing and, generally, leaving no doubt about who was calling the shots at the FA.
And in 1971, he got plenty of it. He appeared in the sports pages a lot more than the football stars on the pitch as he juggled a plethora of administrative balls in the air.
Almost all of them had to do with fighting one fire or another.
It all began with the incomplete 1970 league. Some background here is in order.
On New Year’s Day in 1971, Joab Omino, the new secretary of the FA of Kenya, sent a hopeful message to the nation’s football fans.
He said: “1970 was a year of ups and downs but this year will be one of stability. There were a number of shortcomings in football organisation last year but this year we will seek to take Kenya to the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations competition.
“With the support of the public and the government, I am sure we can even make it to the final of the final rounds. We shall do our best to bring soccer back to its footing.”
He was referring to the wrangles that had characterized the 1970 league that was still in progress.
So bad had they become that the Government was forced to intervene and sack the FA committee headed by Martin Shikuku.
Remember him: he was the self-proclaimed People’s Watchman, who bought himself a coffin almost a decade before his death but whose order to ban political speeches during his funeral was casually disregarded by his kind.
The wrangles and the subsequent dismissal of Shikuku’s committee – which was alleged to have saddled its successors with a staggering debt of £10,000 – about Sh1.4 million today – brought the 1970 league a cropper.
A whopping 230 matches involving 20 clubs had to be completed between January and April if Kenya was to enter a team in what is today the Africa Champions League.
The Daily Nation of Saturday, January 16, 1971 captured the chaos engulfing football at that time with this report:
“The remaining national league fixtures, which resumes today, will be reminiscent of a traffic scene during the rush hour as the FA of Kenya work at full speed to complete the league by April and name the winners to represent the country in the Africa club championship. (My goodness, if they would know how traffic is today!)
All league matches ground to a complete standstill last October after the present FA of Kenya took over from the former administration – dissolved by the Ministry of Cooperatives and Social Services.
Abaluhya are in top spot, ahead of Breweries by a solitary point, a position that could easily change. Abaluhya have 15 points, Breweries one less. Both have played eight matches.”
Twenty teams were involved in this mayhem of a Premier League: 1. Abaluhya 2. Kenya Breweries 3. Gor Mahia 4. Kisumu Hot Stars 5. Nakuru 6. Western Stars 7. Kenya Prisons 8. Ramogi 9. Black Mamba 10. Western United 11. Eldoret 12. Lasco 13. Jogoo 14. Kisii 15. Maseno 16. Kenya Air Force 17. Mwenge 18. Mombasa United 19. Wanderers 20. Kitale.
On the weekend that the league resumed, Gor Mahia hammered Kenya Air Force 6-2, Western Stars thrashed Mwenge 6-4, Lasco pummelled Mombasa United 6-1, Kisumu Hot Stars saw off Maseno 4-1 and Abaluhya had their match against Kenya Prisons abandoned in the 60th minute with score deadlocked at 0-0.
From then on, however, the future AFC Leopards bared their claws for all to see, especially Kenya Breweries who were breathing hard on their necks.
With three matches to go, Abaluhya remained unbeaten. Kisii and Western United were expected to be easy for them but Ramogi was expected to be a tough nut to crack.
Well, they cracked it really hard, 4-0, to finally bring the long-delayed 1970 league to a close on March 6, 1971 – and beat the deadline for a place in that year’s Africa Cup of Champion clubs.
“Abaluhya are the champs”, proclaimed the Daily Nation of Monday, March 8, 1971.
Now Ashihundu could focus on the 1971 league. But he was neck-deep in problems.
The league was programmed to start on May 15, but the heavens opened up in a great deluge, rendering the stadium surfaces unusable in Nairobi, Nakuru and Mombasa.
In fact, rains in Nairobi prevented the Labour Day Cup match between Gor Mahia and Kenya Breweries from being played. And Gor Mahia asked their guests, Tanzania’s Sunderland FC, to postpone their trip to Kenya until the skies cleared.
The start of the league is postponed for 10 days, Ashihundu announced. It took longer but with much fanfare, the weekend of June 12 was finally announced as the new kick-off date.
In Nairobi, Black Mamba were going to play Mombasa’s Lasco, while Kisumu Hot Stars would host Maseno at home.
Kericho’s Chagaik Estate were to meet Limuru’s Bata Bullets in Nakuru, while in Mombasa, Mwenge and Western Stars would play a local derby at the Municipal Stadium.
It seemed the 1971 season was finally under way but at the last minute, Ashihundu announced yet another postponement.
“We are in a mess,” he told reporters. “On May 16, we agreed at our meeting no more friendly matches would be arranged to enable the national team’s training to continue unhampered. Now I see MMM will play Gor Mahia next week.”
MMM were Madagascar’s representatives in the Africa Cup of Champion Clubs that year. It was customary for clubs on continental assignments passing through a country to organise friendly matches.
But it seemed Ashihundu, the FA of Kenya Tours Committee chairman, wasn’t aware of this one.
Joab Omino, the FA secretary, said they needed to re-plan the league before restarting it. He gave “administrative problems involving clubs and the national team’s training schedule” as the reasons for the new postponement.
The national team was at that time preparing for the 1972 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match against Mauritius and national coach Eckhardt Krautzun had made it clear he wanted all the time with his players unencumbered by the league.
Krautzun wanted three days in a week, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for training. He was the first to hail the postponement of the league.
He was followed by Williams Ngaah, chairman of the Kenya Referees Association, who said his organisation still had a lot of issues to thrash out with the FA before his people could be ready to officiate the league matches.
The national team defeated Mauritius in July and duly qualified for its first Nations Cup tournament.
The league resumed in August – but without the top three clubs in the country: Abaluhya, Gor Mahia and Kenya Breweries. These were excluded at the request of Krautzun, who pointed out that together, they provided over 90 per cent of the national team players.
By the end of August, the teams left in the league had played two matches each, with Maseno topping the table with the maximum four points and Mwenge bringing up the rear with none.
Then the Cecafa Challenge Cup came up and with it, another postponement. Ashihundu announced the league would resume on December 19.
“From next week,” he said, “matches will go on non-stop till the completion of the league in March. To make this date, there will be no friendlies or fund raisers on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
“And Abaluhya, Gor Mahia and Kenya Breweries will have to turn out for their matches even when their players are with the national team.”
That order was made with a directive issued by Masinde Muliro, the minister responsible for sport, in mind. Muliro had decreed that once called to the national team, players belonged there, and clubs could only have them back when they were released by the national coach.
But on the due date, Ashihundu announced yet another postponement.
A mid-afternoon shower forced the abandonment of the Gor Mahia versus Black Mamba game at the City Stadium. Ashihundu declared the pitch “50 per cent water-logged.”
He promised to release a revised fixtures list, saying that no teams would be inconvenienced by being forced to play during the Christmas season.
That was the last of the postponements. It was time to throw in the towel. Ashihundu waited until the first day of 1972 to announce that the 1971 league had been scrapped.
The rock could never reach the top of the hill. He said: “We realise that this is a wrong message for our fans for the New Year, but it must be appreciated that the odds are against us and, therefore, some workable solution is most desirable.”
And with that, Ashihundu surrendered.