What you need to know:
- It’s in 'Nigeria' that Akumu spent his entire childhood, living in a dilapidated iron-sheet single-room house alongside his two brothers with Onyango being the sole provider
- Akumu’s exploits at Gor caught the eye of junior national team selectors that year and as fate would have it he crowned a break-out campaign with an opportunity to try out with Danish top-flight side Randers FC
- This feat, becoming only the second Kenyan to win the PSL after the legendary Musa Otieno, would definitely leave an indelible memory that he will walk with all his life - unrivalled joy to erase a painful start to his Chiefs career
It started in pain, was played through discomfort but ended in unrivalled joy. Not the kind that comes with winning a cup final or a league title, but the kind of joy that delivers lessons and memories that a player walks with all his life.
For others it would pass as a mere friendly but this match, played 18 years ago at the famous Depot Grounds in the Nairobi slum of Mathare, remains etched in Anthony Akumu’s mind.
The Under-12 side of Heidi Sports were hosting neighbours Otto Bennecker but there was a problem…the hosts were nowhere to be seen at kick-off time yet the visitors were raring to go.
Both teams featured in the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) zonal leagues and this was a derby of sorts given their proximity and rivalry. Heidi Sports represented the general Mathare zone while Otto Bennecker was from Mathare North, only three kilometres away.
A livid Heidi Sports coach James ‘Odijo’ Omondi sent some boys to fetch his players from their homes as their opponents continued with their warm up.
“I used to work at a rehabilitation centre for street kids but my colleagues knew I also coached part time. On this day, one of my colleagues from Norway had donated kits to my team so I had organised the friendly for him to watch my team play in the new kit. I was angered by my players absence since I had informed them about the match the previous day,” recalls Omondi.
Akumu and his teammates started arriving at the match venue shortly afterwards but there was no time for niceties or the traditional pre-match team talk. As soon as they changed into the new blue kits, Omondi ordered them to prostrate on the ground and they received several strokes of the cane before taking to the pitch in tears.
At half time, Otto Bennecker were leading 1-0. Instead of talking tactics, Omondi repeated what he had done before kick-off, this time with more vigour and he sent his boys back to the pitch with a threat: a heavier dose of the cane would follow at full time if they lost.
Fortunately, Heidi Sports equalised and went ahead to win 2-1. At full time, Akumu – who was one of the best performers - was carried shoulder high by his elder brother and spectator Charles ‘Nyangi’ Onyango, as his teammates joined in the lap of honour around Depot to celebrate the bragging rights.
“Some of us couldn’t even run properly. Our bodies were in so much pain, we played while crying but we were determined to win. These are some of the values that Odijo taught us at a young age; that you have to be disciplined, hard-working and confident. They still apply in my life to date,” remembers Akumu whose career has been as rewarding as it has been challenging.
LIFE IN 'NIGERIA'
Growing up in Mathare, Kenya’s second biggest slum, is difficult but being brought up in the tiny village of ‘Nigeria’ deep inside the ghetto is a nightmare. While crime, insecurity, congestion, rape, poor sanitation constitutes the ‘normal’ in the wider Mathare, Nigeria is one of the most dreaded areas in this slum.
It is well known for hard drugs and illicit brews which are sold in broad daylight. In Nigeria, robbers don’t even spare the residents and crime is fashionable, with boys learning the trade at a tender age. It’s in Nigeria that Akumu spent his entire childhood, living in a dilapidated iron-sheet single-room house alongside his two brothers with Onyango being the sole provider.
“I had a difficult childhood because when my mother retired she decided to go back to the village. She wanted to take us (Akumu and his last born brother) with her but my elder brother Onyango refused and insisted that he will take care of us,” said Akumu, the fourth born in a family of five boys.
“In our neighbourhood we had dealers in cocaine, bhang, illicit brews while crime was the in thing among the youth. Onyango was the sole provider and he really struggled to raise us because he did not have a stable income. There was always the temptation to become a drug peddler or to engage in crime to lead a ‘good life’ like some of my friends but football was my way out,” added Akumu who credits his brother Onyango and coach James Omondi for his first trip abroad in 2004 with the MYSA Under-12 team.
“I was lucky to have two people who were very strict. My brother Onyango was very keen on my progress in school while Omondi ensured I never missed training. That’s why I became focused at a very young age,” said Akumu who lost his brother and guardian Onyango in 2013 after short illness.
So good was Akumu that he earned his nickname Teddy when he was barely 10 while playing for junior side Lacosto.
“Our coach at Lacosto, Dickens Omondi was a big Manchester United fan so he used to nickname us after the team’s stars. I used to wear jersey number 10 so he nicknamed me Teddy after Teddy Sheringham. The name has stuck to date,” reveals Akumu who later joined Heidi Sports from Lacosto.
Coach James knew he had a gem in Akumu whom he describes as a “passionate” and “hungry” player. In order to protect him from the negative peer pressure and polish him further, the tactician ensured that Akumu trained twice a day; in the morning with the U-12 team and in the evening with the U-14 team.
“I wanted him to make the trip to Norway with MYSA but there were some basics which I needed to work on. MYSA used to give only one leather ball per team so I had to improvise. Each player used to carry his own juala ball (a ball made from polythene bags woven together with sisal ropes) for dribbling and ball handling drills. The leather ball was reserved for game situations only,” recalls James.
“He was a versatile player who could play at full back, midfield and even as a striker. But his creativity really stood out so I decided to train him as a central midfielder. He was also tall so he could easily win aerial balls and initiate play from the back,” said the coach of Akumu who also represented MYSA Under-16 team in the Norway Cup and Holland Cup in 2007.
“Akumu knew what he wanted from a young age. I remember one day a reporter visited us in training at Depot grounds and asked Akumu which team he wanted to play for locally and he said Gor Mahia,” coach James said.
Indeed, Akumu’s dream came true in December 2009 when he joined Gor after a successful trial. In a bid to reclaim lost glory, Gor’s recruitment policy was hinged on youth, so Akumu, just fresh from completing his secondary school education, fit the bill.
“I was among those selected after a three-week trial. We then went on a tour of Nyanza for another week of further observation. When we came back I was given my first professional contract and I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t care about how much I was going to earn because my brother (Onyango) would still care for me,” said the Maina Wanjigi Secondary School alumnus.
Akumu was signed by K’Ogalo coach Gideon Ochieng. However, Ochieng was sacked by the club. Thereafter, Akumu flourished under new Gor coach Zedekiah Otieno in 2010, emerging as a regular for K’Ogalo who narrowly missed out on the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) title after finishing second behind Ulinzi Stars.
Akumu’s exploits at Gor caught the eye of junior national team selectors that year and as fate would have it he crowned a break-out campaign with an opportunity to try out with Danish top-flight side Randers FC.
Randers’ Chief Scout and Managing Director were in the country on a scouting mission having been tipped about Gor’s teenage sensation George “Blackberry” Odhiambo. The pair landed in Nairobi on Thursday, September 23, 2010 to watch Odhiambo play against Tusker in a league match that Sunday.
But with Kenya’s Under-20 side taking on Lesotho at Nyayo National Stadium on Saturday, the Randers bosses requested the game to be included in their itinerary. Kenya lost 1-0 courtesy of an early goal by Lebata Tsebang but Akumu stood out.
“They asked me if I knew the tall player in midfield because they were impressed by his vision and range of passing. They said they wanted to watch him closely and that’s how they invited him for a trial at the end of the season,” revealed Arnold Kanyang’onda whose agency had invited the Randers bosses to the country.
Akumu celebrated his 18th birthday with a trip to Denmark for his two-week trial from November 24 to December 8 amid tough winter conditions with temperatures averaging -9 degrees. Despite the club ultimately not signing him, the biting snowy cold of the midfielder’s first European winter didn’t freeze his potential.
“He could call me and tell me that he could not even feel his feet in training. They were numb and felt like dead wood. But my contact on the ground told me Akumu had done well and that’s why the club requested to have him back in summer to observe him further,” said Kanyang’onda.
Kanyang’onda travelled with Odhiambo, then KPL Player of the Year, to Denmark in January 2011 to put pen to paper. He was surprised when senior players from Randers, among them Mikkel Beckmann, who had represented Denmark in the 2010 World Cup, asked about Akumu who they thought had done enough during his trial to earn a contract.
“Akumu still had a locker in the changing room with his training kits intact. Most senior players asked about him because they thought he was coming back to sign. Randers had a problem in defensive midfield and the players thought Akumu was good enough. To date, I think Randers made a mistake since they never sorted their defensive problems and were eventually relegated that season,” said Kanyang’onda.
“Had they signed him then his career would have taken a different trajectory having moved to Europe at the right age. With his discipline, talent and commitment, he would have probably made it to the top five European leagues much quicker. His journey to the top would have been smoother,” opined Kanyang’onda.
Akumu never returned to Randers in the summer with the club having had a fractious relationship with Odhiambo that severed their ties with Kenya. But a decade later, on January 15 this year, Akumu signed a three-year deal with South African giants Kaizer Chiefs without a trial - a big approval for his talent and evidence of growth. His journey to one of the biggest clubs in Africa featured a memorable league title with Gor in 2013 – their first in 18 years - as well as stints at Sudanese side Al Khartoum and Zambia’s Zesco United where he won three league titles.
“Turning professional has changed my mentality because you stop thinking as an amateur. I have played for top clubs and this helps you to grow both as a person and a player. You find different players thinking differently so you have to adjust to be at the same level with them,” said the 2012 KPL midfielder of the year.
“It’s a dream come true, to play for one of the best and (most) organised teams in Africa. At Kaizer Chiefs, everything is organised from training, dressing room to match days. Kaizer Chiefs is at a different level, it’s up there with top clubs in Europe. They treat their players like true professionals,” revealed Akumu.
“It’s a privilege to be here, I’m grateful to everyone who played a part for me to be here. It’s up to me to show what I can give,” he added.
Akumu’s start to life at Amakhosi has been slow having put pen to paper while still nursing a knock on his knee. He played only four minutes as a substitute on his debut against Royal Eagles on February 8. His first start came against Highlands Park on February 22 in a cup game but he was withdrawn at half time. In total, he had made five appearances for the Glamour Boys before the Premier Soccer League (PSL) was suspended indefinitely in March due to the novel coronavirus.
“I started very slow but I’m hopeful I’ll pick up when we resume. I get my strength from God. I’m a prayerful man and all my life I’ve been very spiritual. Where I am today it’s because of God. My background also motivates me a lot because many people are looking up to me back home,” asserts the father of one.
Akumu’s route to the first 11 has been complicated by the presence of veterans George Maluleka and Willard Katsande as well as Kearyn Baccus who has emerged as a key player this season.
“Everywhere I have played there has been competition especially in midfield. I believe in healthy competition, if someone is good it will be seen by everyone. It’s about supporting the person who is playing as you work hard and wait for your time.
“I believe everyone in life has got a chance. It’s not about breaking into the first team but using the minutes that you get. You can start a match and perform poorly but you can also come in as a substitute and end up being the hero,” said Akumu who made a substitute appearance in the 1-0 win over eternal rivals Orlando Pirates on February 29.
Legendary Ghanaian James Kwesi Appiah, who coached Akumu at Al Khartoum, believes that with the right guidance the Kenyan international can be up there with great Black Stars midfielders he has worked with like Michael Essien, Mubarak Wakaso and Thomas Partey.
“Anthony is a hard working player and very disciplined. He tries to adapt to any tactical play and needs to be psyched and tactically briefed before a match. He has good physical strength to play the defensive midfield role. He is lovely to deal with on and off the pitch and I will always love to have him in my team,” Appiah told Nation Sport before pointing out what he requires to be the finished product.
“He needs to perfect his passes and support in- attack. He should be trained psychologically and practically to score goals through set pieces. He has all the attributes to be a much better player but needs good coaching,” asserted Appiah who guided Ghana to the 2014 World Cup.
In Ernst Middendorp, Akumu is in the right hands to conquer South African football with the German having coached in the PSL for over a decade. Together with his assistant Bafana Bafana legend Shaun Bartlett, Middendorp has steered Kaizer Chiefs to the top of the PSL with 48 points from 22 matches. With eight rounds to go, Akumu believes the title is theirs to lose.
It’s still uncertain when the PSL will resume due to the coronavirus pandemic which has hit South Africa hard claiming over 500 lives infecting more than 25, 000 others. South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa has hinted at easing lockdown measures from June 1 but there is no assurance on when sports activities will restart. Akumu will probably have settled in by then and play a leading role in securing a record-extending 13th league title for the Soweto giants – a perfect gift for the club’s 50th birthday.
“Winning the PSL with Kaizer Chiefs would mean a lot to me because it will be my fifth league title. I hope we can continue our good run in the remaining matches and emerge champions,” said the Kaizer Chiefs number 5.
This feat, becoming only the second Kenyan to win the PSL after the legendary Musa Otieno, would definitely leave an indelible memory that he will walk with all his life - unrivalled joy to erase a painful start to his Chiefs career.