What you need to know:
- Anthony “Vieira” Akhulia is a son of a religious man, and has taken his father’s teachings into his young coaching career. Shaped by his sometimes difficult path, Akhulia’s reputation as a tactical genius is slowly coming to fore.
Football in real life. A sport that requires a lot of hard work, dedication, discipline and a bit of luck. Anthony “Vieira” Akhulia is a son of a religious man, and has taken his father’s teachings into his young coaching career. Shaped by his sometimes difficult path, Akhulia’s reputation as a tactical genius is slowly coming to fore.
When he left his father’s house in early 2004 to visit an uncle in Nakuru, he had no idea what the future had in store for him.
After all, he was just a 20-year-old young man with big dreams and aspirations which needed some luck and destiny to be harnessed.
“My uncle was in the informal sector in Nakuru and when he learnt that I had cleared high school and I was just at home, he asked I join him so that he can help me start out,” Akhulia says as we settle for the interview at Kihumburo Primary School grounds, deep in the Del Monte Kenya Limited plantation in Thika, where he is taking his charges through their paces in their last training session on Tuesday before they head to Nakuru for a Football Kenya Federation Premier League match against Nzoia Sugar on Thursday. They lost the match 1-0.
In Nakuru, he did a few odd jobs before a cousin, who was working with Bidco Africa, the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company based in Thika town, showed up and told him that there was a team at Bidco that he could join and realise his dream.
The dream his cousin was talking about was one that Akhulia held while still growing up in Emahondo Village, Lurambi Constituency in the present-day Kakamega County. The dream that earned him the nickname Vieira, after France and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira.
“Our home is just by the road, so every time buses taking AFC Leopards and Mumias Sugar FC players to the stadium for matches passed by, I ran after them. It was a special feeling. The day I met Tony Lwanga (AFC Leopards and Harambee Stars legend) is when I decided that one day, I must be like him.”
It, therefore, didn’t take a lot of convincing for him to hop into the next bus to Nairobi and then Thika with his cousin because he saw the opportunity to emulate his mentor.
“Bidco United didn’t hire players who were not part of the company at the time. You had to be employed by the company to earn a salary for playing for the team. That’s how I started out here. I was a casual labourer for close to three years, training with the team by the day, then doing the other jobs at night,” he says with a light chuckle before adding: “Most people don’t understand the path some coaches have walked through to be where they are today.”
Fate would have it that Lwanga, the man Akhulia adored as a child, would hand him his first contract at Bidco in 2007, two years after joining the company.
From there, his ascendancy to the top was just a matter of time.
His ability to transmit his energy and influence to those around him made the leap from playing to the technical bench with consummate ease. He had begun his coaching education immediately after joining Bidco and by his admission, he would stay up late and think about matches they had played and ways he could do better in the next fixture.
After struggling with knee injuries early on at the club, he saw an opportunity when the club’s kit manager quit. The team was at the time playing in the lower divisions of Kenyan football.
By the time Michael Amenga joined the club as head coach in 2012, Akhulia had established himself as a reliable figure in the team having served as the team manager and kit manager.
“I have a lot of respect for Mike because he gave me the chance to go into proper coaching.”
But this not where his coaching journey began, after clearing his O level at Eshisiru Secondary in Kakamega, he tried coaching in schools in Bungoma. Akhulia, the last born in a family of 11, knew this is where his future belonged, even though his football career had not yet begun.
Like many of his peers, he started with the KNVB Basic Coaching Certificate in 2013, before acquiring the KNVB Advance Coaching Certificate the following year. The Confederation of African Football Basic Coaching certificate “D” would follow then the CAF “C” in 2016.
“I would have loved to advance but CAF B and Caf A courses haven’t been rolled out yet. I want to go to the highest level with time,” the Emurumba Primary School alumnus says with conviction.
When Akhulia was appointed head coach at Bidco, he had served under six coaches in different capacities at the club. The team had never tasted top-flight football in 18 years and was struggling for form in mid-table. Amenga, James Omondi, Abdalla Juma, Sammy “Pamzo” Omollo, Leonard Saleh and Robert Matano had all been there.
“I try to pick positive things from every person I work with. I like Matano’s will to win at whatever cost. I’m a winner, I want to win big things. The big trophies and I know you only win trophies by winning matches and that’s exactly what we have to try to do here.”
“I also liked Saleh’s calmness, although I don’t know how he manages to remain calm even under pressure. Pamzo’s defensive organisation is out there for everyone to see. You can see the way Gor Mahia’s defence is solid since he joined the team.”
After overseeing a 96-minute workout, Akhulia pulls his other members of the technical bench aside to discuss who has made the travelling party for the Nzoia encounter in Nakuru.
“There is no “I” in "team" and that’s why we have to put our heads together because we all are part of this project. We fail and succeed as a team,” he says in regards to their togetherness.
Interestingly, the other members of the technical bench – Simon Ng’ang’a (assistant coach) and Martin Mage (trainer) have walked the journey with Akhulia. Ng’ang’a has been at Bidco for 19 years, while Mage just hanged his boots at the end of last season and took up the trainer’s role after over a decade of service to the company.
“There are no sacred cows in my team. I change the team depending on how the players have trained and their reactions in all sessions. I believe in every member of my squad, that’s why I have no problem changing my team in every match day.”
"Some of my players are upset because they want to play every day but this is not possible without putting in the work.”
In just half a season, Akhulia has earned the giant killer tag. A brave coach who is never shy of experimenting with his team, he keeps his players guessing. No one is safe, everyone stays on toes. You blink, you miss out.
He has already beaten league leaders Tusker when they were on a 12-game unbeaten run, humiliated his childhood team AFC Leopards, drew away to Bandari and took Gor Mahia to penalties in the semi-finals of the Betway Cup.
Bidco finished third after beating Equity Bank 1-0 in the cup’s third place playoff on Sunday at Nyayo Stadium, a match he made wholesale changes to the starting line-up that drew 1-1 with Kakamega Homeboyz three days earlier in the league.
He didn’t really remain conservative because there was Sh750,000 to be won, he trusted the players he picked to do the job.
Commitment is a non-negotiable attribute in his team, something he clearly picked from his parents, Christopher Onyango and Elizabeth Onyango.
“I grew up in a religious set up where we were taught that discipline transcends everything in life. We were never spared for wrongdoing.”
During the training session, forward Alex Sunga was put through on goal but he fumbled and failed to beat Zamu Adisa when it was easier to score.
“Nipe tatu, hiyo ni mchezo!” Akhulia shouts as he observes the fast-paced session. Keke obliges and goes down 1, 2, 3… push-ups. And training continues punctuated by occasional thumps up signs, “good job” and “pass it, faster, focus, no foul, shoot!” calls.
The intensity of the training is as competitive as their match days. Bidco United players are fighters, it is in them, it is drilled into their system right from training.
As the youngest coach in the league, Akhulia tries to learn every day. He knows that his players will make mistakes in training and matches, but although some actions annoy him big time, he is quick to move on.
“Footballers are also human and you need to understand them.”
In his first training session when he was formally appointed head coach in mid-2018 following Matano’s move to AFC Leopards, he made it clear that his sights were trained on the Premier League.
His insatiable appetite for improving those around him and learning took him to fifth place in the following season before he gained promotion after being second on the standings by the time Covid-19 ended the second tier prematurely in March 2020.
“I look up to Pitso Mosimane and Pep Guardiola but I want to become the best version of Akhulia I can be. The two are always winning trophies and are relentless in their pursuit of greatness.”
“We have won some big matches but we are still not where we want to be. You have to understand that every coach thinks about winning because it supersedes everything. It’s what makes us wake up every day and come train the boys. It is what keep us employed,” Akhulia, who turns 38 on September 3, then breaks into a prolonged laughter. “You are good as the last match you managed, you know.”
There is talk of the bigger clubs in the league already taking note of his exploits at Bidco in his first year, after helping the side gain promotion after 20 years in the lower divisions of Kenyan football. He does harbour ambitions of coaching the big boys in the league and the national team one day but he is cautious to this approach.
“I see Bidco as my baby. It is a project that I want to grow and win trophies with. But that takes time,” the father of twins, six-year-old Reagan and Ryan, adds.
Akhulia has already won the hearts and minds of his players and opponents but knows the journey is just beginning.
His dreams of one-day coaching in the top flight league have come to pass, his eyes are now fixated on guiding his team into a perennial title contender. Will he manage?
Only time will tell.