When he talks, he speaks one language – football. When he gives instructions, he does it with a mellow voice yet it still comes out as a command. When he identifies your talent, the sky becomes your lowest limit. When his product excels he is happy and almost immediately he unearths yet another amazing prodigy.
Meet Ernest Mukabana, the ever smiling Dandora Youth coach who has virtually moulded every youngster he has worked with into a national team star. For ages now, he has produced top talents for this country.
Kenya 1 Arnold Origi- recently voted the best player at Lillestrom- and Belgium based Johanna Omoll0 are some of the success stories of a project that has been powered by passion and selflessness for close to three decades now.
It all started in 1986 when he relocated to Nairobi from Kakamega where he had completed his ‘O’ levels. During one of his evening strolls in neighbouring Mathare, Ernest-son to former Eldoret KCC striker David Anzaya- spotted young boys training under the watchful eye of a “mzungu”- Bob Munro- and suddenly he fell in love with coaching.
That white man-Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) founder -would later shape his love for the game into a source of livelihood.
-I would watch the boys play every day at Mathare and I really enjoyed it. The following year I decided I will start training boys at Dandora since there was no football team in this area. I made a ball out of polythene bags but I still faced the challenge of getting a field, Ernest calmly recollects.
Armed with a slasher, Ernest spent a week clearing reeds at the ground where Dandora Stadium stands today and a fortnight later the journey began; full of ambition but short of personell. Every evening a team of 10-15 boys would assemble at the field where they would find Ernest patiently waiting and by 1600hrs it was all systems go.
Ernest, though unqualified, was a frenzy of instructions in the entire duration of the training and the session would only end whenever the sisal woven polythene balls would take no more kicks from the boys. With the turn out increasing, the ‘juala’ balls became a challenge but not until he approached Munro for help and the Canadian donated 5 leather balls to the newly formed club at Dandora.
-The number of children was growing at a very fast rate. I had to slash more reeds to make the field bigger and accommodate more boys .The 5 ‘juala’ balls I had could not support the team and I became frustrated. It reached a point I almost gave up and that is when I decided to approach Bob for help. He gave me 5 new balls and that is how my relationship with Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) started, notes the father of three.
A trip to Holland, sponsored by Munro’s MYSA, in 1992 would see him acquire his first KNVB coaching certificate. Suddenly despair turned into hope and motivated by the success of his “mentor” at Mathare; he started an age-group league in Dandora. It is from these leagues that he would slowly start actualizing his dream-that these youngsters would achieve what he did not achieve as a player after he suffered a career ending injury while turning out for Bata Bullets in 1997.
-Ernest is one of the original crew of young men who stepped forward to help get MYSA off the ground as we started with football leagues although we are a development project that uses football as a starting point. I am very proud to say that he was there at the beginning and he is still there doing a great job, asserts Munro.
-He has a got a big heart-a passion for football and a talent for coaching youth football-and that heart is in the right place. He is one of the most successful grassroot coaches. He has coached a lot of good players who have come from Dandora into the Kenya Premier League (KPL), added Munro.
Household names would later emerge from Espana, his youth team that electrified MYSA inter-zonal championships. Patrick Odipo, Arnold Origi, Pascal Ochieng’, Geoffrey Zangi Otieno began the chain that would later culminate in the historic Extreme Sports Super 8 tournament triumph where the next generation of stars were unveiled namely Jerry Santos, Christian Bwamy and Johanna Omollo under the umbrella of Dandora Youth Football Club.
-Personally he has done a lot for me and I owe my career to him. When I was selected to represent MYSA at the Norway Cup, my parents did not want me to go. He really persuaded my parents to allow me to go and that trip opened the doors for me. Those contacts that I made then have kept me in Norway up to date, explains Origi.
-He is a very demanding coach. His training sessions were very tough and in a way he shaped us to play in a demanding environment from a young age. It is not by chance that Espana was the best. He knew what he wanted from us right from training and he made us work hard towards that, notes the Lillestrom custodian.
-If Kenyan football was orgainised like in South Africa, I believe many players would be proud to pay tribute to coach Ernest and the good job he has done. Sincerely, he deserves to be recognized for what he has done for the youth, added the Kenyan international.
-He has produced a lot of talented players. Unfortunately some of us did not make it due to one reason or the other. Frustrations of Kenyan football, lack of luck and bad decisions have contributed to people pulling out of the game, regretted the former Mathare United goalie.
Painfully, Ernest mourns some of his top products who did not make it big. Robert Robi Mariera and John Fupi Kilonzo represent a growing list of some of his products who despite showing a lot of promise at a tender age ended up quiting football after representing MYSA at the Norway cup.
-When these boys go to Norway, they start living big and they become accustomed to it. When they come back to Kenya, they realize life is not that smooth and they begin to look for means of livelihood, pointed out Ernest.
-The biggest challenge is that at that age peer pressure starts creeping in. Since they cannot be under your watch all day, some of them start engaging in bad practices and end up as drug addicts or thieves. We have lost a lot of talents in this way, recalled the former Mathare Youth assistant coach.
– Robi was the number one goalkeeper of the team that represented MYSA in 1997 in Norway. He had all the ingredients of becoming a top goalkeeper. Unfortunately he became a drunkard and did not live up to his potential, said Ernest.
-Another one is Fupi who was a very good dribbler and he played just like Maradona. He made Dennis Oliech shine in Norway at the Under 16 level but he later became a thief and he lost his life after being shot by the police, recalls the KNVB diploma holder.
To stem this loss, MYSA formed the MYSA Talent Academy to offer a platform for players to develop before joining the senior team-Mathare United. Ernest, who manages the Under 13 team, works with two special people. His apprentice, Patrick Odipo, who is in charge of the Under 11 team, as well as his former boss at the now defunct Mathare Youth -Gabriel Kingi Njoroge.
-Ernest made me love coaching and I don’t think I would be here if not for his input since the days he coached me up to now where we coach kids together. I started my own academy called Maono academy and I am happy that just like Ernest I have groomed good players like Ovellah Ochieng’ and Luis Misiko, said Odipo.
For all his sheer determination, Ernest continues to live from hand to mouth. His worn out pair of multi-stitched sports shoes serve as evidence that he has not gained a penny from all the transfers involving his products and he reckons that he has learnt a lesson.
-Even though I have not gained much from my products I still feel they are part of me. My biggest motivation is that every year at least 2 0r 3 players who have passed through my hands play in the Kenya Premier League, revealed Ernest.
-The best way to say thank you is by supporting Espa academy. This academy will have Under 8 up to Under 14 level. I want to urge all my products to support my academy through balls, uniforms, boots and bibs so that these small children can benefit just like them, pleaded the 55 year old.
From Espana to Dandora Youth and now Espa Academy, Ernest has served football loyally for 28 years and as we part ways he reminds me of yet another achievement. He beat Ajax Amsterdam 2-0 in 2007 with the MYSA Under 16 team.
It is interesting to note yet another Harambee Stars player was part of that team-Anthony Teddy Akumu. With a firm and confident hand shake, he assures me that two players from the current Damdora Youth set up-Brian Mawejje Chege and Meshack Meya-will soon follow in the footsteps of Omollo, Origi, Bwamy and Akumu and make a mark in the national team.
While that remains be seen, it is undebatable that Ernest is a truly a legend not only at Dandora and MYSA but also in Kenya at large. As Futaa family, we take our hats off for Coach Ernest for a job well done!