That Gor Mahia clinched an unprecedented 17th SportPesa Premier League (SPL) title in a match against their eternal rivals AFC Leopards with six matches to spare will go down in record as one of the memorable events in the ending year.
It is common for the two teams, with 30 domestic league titles between them, to start the season as title favourites and when the unexpected happens, fans are left heartbroken as happened on August 25 at Kasarani Stadium in a chaotic match between the two teams.
A second-string K’Ogalo outfit retained the title with six games to spare, thanks to goals from Boniface Omondi and Bernard Ondiek.
The action-packed clash had to be stopped for 10 minutes after a section of AFC Leopards fans literally uprooted seats and threw them onto the pitch in protest at centre referee Felix Ekai’s failure to book Gor’s Samuel Onyango for a reckless tackle on Leopards winger Baker Lukooya in the build-up to Gor’s second goal.
Leopards had a chance to reduce the deficit through Whyvonne Isuza’s penalty but the midfielder blasted wide. Gor turned the game into a training session enjoying ball possession as thousands of their fans cheered every touch and tackle by their players before storming to the pitch in celebration after the final whistle.
Gor won 2-0 and went on to finish the season on 75 points, 13 ahead of second-placed Bandari while Leopards finished a disappointing seventh on 51 points.
The 17-time Kenyan champions extended their success in the year, beating Leopards in both meetings, 2-1 win in the first leg on July 22, followed by a 2-0 result in the second meeting.
The first leg of the ‘Mashemeji derby’ provided the stage for a show of might between the Football Kenya Federation (FKF) and the Kenya Premier League (KPL) over whether or not the fixture would be postponed.
Initially, the match had been scheduled to be staged at Bukhungu Stadium in Kakamega County on May 26 but FKF through president Nick Mwendwa asked for a postponement on grounds that Bukhungu could not host such a high-octane encounter.
“There’s no need to risk playing such a match elsewhere therefore we’ve asked KPL to reschedule it to a later date when Kasarani will be available and we can arrange everything for it to be played safely,” Mwendwa said at the time and true to his word, the match was moved to Kasarani, much to the chagrin of Leopards officials who had made all preparations to welcome Gor in Kakamega.
Despite their league success, Gor’s 22-match unbeaten run in the league was brought to a halt on August 7 after a 2-1 loss away to 10-man Bandari at Mbaraki Sports Club in Mombasa.
Two first-half goals from Dan Guya and Yema Mwana gave the hosts a 2-0 lead at half-time, and K’Ogalo pulled one back late on through Jacques Tuyisenge.
The Dockers were reduced to 10 men when left back Fred Nkata received a second yellow card with five minutes to play as the visitors piled the pressure. Before that, the last time Gor had lost a league match was in October 2017 when they went down 1-0 to Mathare United at Thika Sub County Stadium.
After a five-match winless run, Gor halted the skid with a 4-1 win over Zoo Kericho at Kenyatta Stadium in Machakos County, offering a big reprieve for Gor coach Dylan Kerr.
Gor’s poor run was occasioned by go-slows and protests at the club, with players protesting unpaid salary for the month of August and winning bonuses from six league matches and two Caf matches.
Leopards, Nakumatt, Chemelil Sugar and Thika United are some of the clubs whose players went on strikes to demand payment.
The 2018 season, that commenced on February 3 and ended on October 7, was also highlighted by the firing and resignation of coaches.
Robert Matano was the first to be sacked from his position as head coach at AFC Leopards in March. The veteran tactician was later unveiled at Tusker in April, replacing Ugandan Sam Timbe, who had been shown the door earlier.
In the same month of April, Sam Ssimbwa, another Ugandan, resigned as Sofapaka coach following a 2-1 defeat to Thika United on April 8.
“He (Ssimbwa) claims players are sabotaging him and opted out despite the management’s commitment to fully support him,” a frustrated Sofapaka president Elly Kalekwa said at the time. John Baraza was appointed on an interim basis and led the team to the SportPesa Shield final but dramatically lost 3-2 to Kariobangi Sharks on October 20 at Kasarani stadium.
This was Baraza’s final match as interim coach despite leading the team to a fifth place finish with 53 points. He was demoted to an assistant role under Egyptian-born American Medo Melis who arrived from Nakumatt in November.
Francis Baraza and Nicholas Muyoti are other coaches who left their jobs at Tusker and Thika United respectively. Baraza rejoined Chemelil Sugar while Muyoti took up Nzoia Sugar’s coaching role after Bernard Mwalala moved to Bandari.
Bandari’s coaching position had fallen vacant following the resignation of Ken Odhiambo who opted out to link up with former Harambee Stars coach Adel Amrouche in Libya as assistant coach. Amrouche later quit the North African country.
Argentine Rodolfo Zapata also lost his job at AFC Leopards in October, to be shortly replaced by Serbian Nikola Kavazovic. The Serbian however lasted on the job for a week and took up coaching role at Free State Stars in South Africa, leaving the coaching position to his assistant, 25-year-old Marko Vasiljevic early this month.
Briton Kerr resigned from his position as Gor coach on November 15, ending a fruitful 16-month spell where he won back-to-back titles.
The 51-year-old Kerr was in charge of the club for 79 matches where he managed 51 wins, 16 draws and 12 losses.
He took charge of 34 premier league matches in 2018, recording 23 wins, six draws and five losses.
Once again, the closure of Nyayo stadium for a year posed a threat to premier league teams which had settled on the venue for their home matches.
Teams were forced to make long trips to Machakos and or Thika United and Narok County Stadium, two hours drive from the capital city of Nairobi to honour fixtures.
Kasarani reopened in May, thanks to betting firm SportPesa who had worked round the clock to prepare the playing surface for Gor Mahia’s friendly match against English championship side Hull City on May 13.
In terms of revenue, Gor and Leopards were the worst hit by the closure of the two venues.
After a season-long battle against relegation, Thika United were chopped from the topflight for the first time since their promotion in 2003 after finishing bottom of the 18-team log with 23 points from 34 round of matches. The Thika-based outfit eventually lost Brookside Dairies as their shirt sponsors.
Wazito was also relegated to the second-tier league after a season in the top-flight league.
Nakumatt, currently Mount Kenya United, successfully retained their top slight status after beating Ushuru 3-0 on aggregate in the promotion/relegation playoff.
Nakumatt had beat Ushuru 1-0 in the first leg at Camp Toyoyo grounds a week before posting a 2-0 score line in the reverse fixture on October 28 at Kasarani stadium.