A tribute to Kenya’s greatest, Dennis Oliech, through the eyes of his former coach, Ghost Mulei
The greatest misfortune of being a professional athlete is how your failures are inevitably caught on camera. The ubiquity of the media is it can capture the essence of triumph or immortalise the depths of despair. They valorise or vilify in equal measure, yet when the story of Kenyan football will finally be documented, Dennis ‘The Menace’ Oliech will hold a special place in the hearts of Kenyan soccer lovers for years.
The chants of Oliech, Odinga Obama still echoe in the ears and hearts of soccer lovers, a striker with a love-hate relationship, a genius misunderstood and almost forgotten by a few but who has left an indelible mark in the hearts of many.
It was only fair that the Nyayo National Stadium would be the venue of his last game, and to a standing ovation, Dennis Oliech came off for Allan Wanga and we all knew that this was his last game for the national team. During the game, a long ball from the left-back into the danger area aimed at Oliech -- with the Zambian defence running after him -- saw Oliech run across the goal to pull away the defence and leave Michael Olunga to lob the ball against advancing Zambian custodian for Stars only goal in their 2-1 defeat. The master had handed over the reigns to his heir apparent, Olunga, as his curtains would draw with the substitution in the 2nd half.
The introvert who expressed himself with the ball
When Reinhard Fabisch was fired as Harambee Stars coach, his assistant Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulei took over the reigns and he would end up not only giving Oliech a chance but oversee to it the maturity and development of this Kenya prodigy, a boy he personally saw much potential in. One whose name would feature in The Guardian newspaper later as one of the best young talents in the world alongside Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney.
Described as a boy with guts, pace and power, Oliech was full of street mentality. It was now upon Ghost Mulei, as coach, to mentor and help him maximise his potential or forever be another wasted talent. A task he undertook masterfully and years later we can all sit back and celebrate a true Kenyan great of his generation.
One of Oliech’s first games under Ghost Mulei was against Togo in Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in 2002 at Moi Sports Centre Kasarani when he came on as a substitute alongside John Baraza and both scored as Kenya went on to win the game 3-1. This would be a trademark Oliech story, always coming on as a substitute and leaving an indelible impression.
When Harambee Stars travelled to Nigeria to face the Super Eagles in the same year, despite their 3-0 defeat, Ghost Mulei, spoke of how before kickoff Oliech had pestered him wanting to know whether then iconic Nigerian defender Taribo West would play. Oliech wanted to take him on, this clearly illustrated that despite his young age and raw ability, he was a young man never fazed by big occasions or names. In fact, these were the big games he lived for, one that would define his legacy as Kenya’s most reliable striker who delivered when the nation had their hopes pinned on him.
When Harambee Stars needed a win to beat Togo to top spot and qualify for the 2004 Nations Cup, Oliech scored the solo goal from a thunderbolt outside the penalty area to give Stars the all needed win at Nyayo National Stadium against Cape Verde Islands and send the packed stadium to delirium.
To prevent him from burning out and also considering that he was still raw despite huge potential, he needed to be slowly assimilated into the team. Ghost ensured that he always came on as a substitute. He would exploit his pace and power against opposing defences who would tend to fatigue as the match went on.
The player and person many never got to see
To the public and more so the media, a lot has been said about his off-field life, yet, Ghost Mulei gives invaluable insights. When he turned professional and first went to Oman, he came back to the country with affluence. Ghost, understanding how young he was, would give him a 2 day off just to go and show off to his friends the fruits of turning professional on strict instruction that once back in camp he expected nothing short of total commitment.
This ‘showing it’ would later be a catalyst for many Kenyan soccer players as they were able to believe that if they simply worked hard on the pitch they too could make it as professional footballers and live off the beautiful game.
Many fail to understand how at times young players get thrust into the limelight, making huge sums of money, clearly, a lifestyle change that they might not have been prepared for. Media scrutiny here destroys them but Dennis was lucky to have coaches Mulei and Francis Kimanzi to guide him. They were tough parents and not just coaches, people who enabled him to keep his feet on the ground and always remember that it was football and not the fame that mattered.
This approach paid off, as Oliech is described a winner in training. He is known to hate losing even if it were a training session. He believed that the intensity one gave during training sessions was the same he had to give during games, be a winner. It is no surprise that Oliech did play some of the best football under local coaches Kimanzi and Ghost as opposed to foreign coaches like Lama who failed to grasp the culture and life this prodigy had grown up in.
During meals, he would discourage his teammates against certain diets as he had already seen in Europe after turning professional, the importance of good nutrition to an athlete. This, he did to bring them to a level of functioning that was optimum. He is also known to have encouraged the federation to deduct from his allowances so he could ensure that his teammates were well equipped in training gear especially at a time that the local football federation was not very supportive.
It is these minute details that showed the leadership qualities that would later earn him the captaincy of the national team. He might never have been your vocal player, but his management and influence and the respect he commanded from his teammates thrust him as one who could be trusted to guide his mates.
He is also credited with encouraging and facilitating the moves of several Kenyans to turn pro while he was in France. He would buy them boots and even help them with accommodation in a foreign land. Despite being young and looked upon by many, he shouldered the burden and was a fatherly figure to his compatriots.
Memorable footballing moments
Most Kenyan soccer lovers have their specific moments of his brilliance. Be it as a teenager coming on for Mathare United at Nyayo National Stadium when they trailed AFC Leopards 1-0 to score a brace and silence the Ingwe faithful, or his late strike against Mauritania at Nyayo National Stadium that took Harambee Stars to the 2004 Nations Cup and setting up a goal for John Baraza before scoring himself at the African soccer showpiece as Stars won 3-0 against Burkina Faso in Tunisia.
He can be remembered for his time in France when he led Auxerre in the Champions League rounds to a famous 2-0 win bagging both goals over then European powerhouse Olympique Marseille.
Or when Stars camped in Britain for a month as they prepared for the nations cup. Here they were to play Bolton Wanderers that boasted the likes of French World Cup midfielder Youri Djorkaeff and Austin J.J. Okocha as well as former England manager Sam Allardyce who before the game had belittled ‘little’ known Kenya as worthless of a friendly against his side, only for them to be three goals down by halftime.
In the second half, as Harambee’s Ghost Mulee had warned, Bolton rallied to a 3-3 only for their bubble to be burst by Dennis Oliech who received a ball from fellow teammate Karanja before he destroyed the Bolton defence with pace and guile to score the winner. In his trademark way, Oliech had saved the best for last, showcasing his unquestioned talent when called upon and attracting European suitors in equal measure.
Yet, CECAFA 2002 would remain as the most famous tournament that Dennis Oliech would participate in. Despite still coming on as a substitute, he went on to be top scorer with five goals and led Harambee Stars to the title against hosts Tanzania whom they beat in the final with a comeback after trailing 2-1.
From a defensive corner, the Kenyan defence cleared the ball for Oliech to receive it almost midway on the pitch, he beat seasoned Tanzania players Pawasa and Juma Kasega to score the winning goal as Harambee Stars lifted the cup on enemy territory. A trophy that had eluded Kenya for close to 2 decades. It was only fitting that Dennis would break this duck. Even though he was just a teenager, Oliech was never fazed by the occasion.
Dennis Oliech starts a new chapter in his sports life as betting firm Betway ambassador and where he takes up his coaching badges. He truly is a footballer whose boots may take longer to be filled considering how consistent he delivered goals and most importantly when it mattered for the national team.
Dennis was never a flat track bully, the bigger the occasion the more motivated he was. He may have never have given the classiest of soccer interviews for journalists, but the pitch, and rightly so, is where he established himself. Banging goals at will and making opposition defenders hate his presence.
There is no standard way of paying a player any tribute or quantifying the achievements. Some might base it on the number of trophies won, others on how one played a certain position on the pitch but for the case of Dennis, we can all agree that never in the history of our soccer was there a player who would encourage fans to turn up to support the national team promising that he would score then went ahead to score.
As his coach Ghost Mulei puts it, "All we had to do as a team was make sure we conceded no goal and then trust that once Dennis was on the pitch he would score and we would win." This was just how reliable he was and it's fitting that his name remains in the history of Kenyan football as a striker worthy and a player who played for his country with pride and distinction. I can only wish him the best in his new phase at Betway as, hopefully, he mentors other young strikers. Thank you, Dennis.
The article was first published here