Robert Matano’s journey in the game

Loved and loathed in equal measure, outspoken and one never afraid of new challenges, Robert Matano opens up on his journey in football

Consistency is among the biggest rarities in Kenyan football but there are a few names that can be mentioned in high regard when we talk of longevity in the game and considerable success. One such names is Robert Matano. The man fondly referred to as The Lion has been around; has seen it all and conquered Kenyan football.

A man who fears no challenge and has taken some of the most intimidating jobs, Matano has carved a niche for himself, and he proudly notes as we get to sit down for a chat, that he has never been approached by a team enjoying a good run. A two time Kenyan Premier League (KPL) winner, Matano can comfortably decide to rest on his laurels, but that is not an option he is looking at.

No rest

Two days after the end of the 2018 KPL season, he has just guided Tusker to a third place finish, having picked the Brewers in 15th place, with just 10 points from 11 matches. He is at his residence in Eastleigh, Nairobi, with his assistant coach, busily preparing the season’s reports while drawing plans for the following season.

Tusker coach Robert Matano issues instructions during a past game
Tusker coach Robert Matano issues instructions during a past game

The two, with their heads buried in the paperwork, depict a cordial working relationship, which explains Tusker FC’s rise in the season.

His second stint at Tusker is just a tip of the success Matano has had as a coach, The Lion has aided seven of the teams he has coached gain promotion while there is no accolade he hasn’t won in the country.

All the success has not been accidental. Matano started from the bottom, as a player, player – coach before finally settling as coach and putting all his eggs in that basket.

“Like any ambitious footballer, I started playing the game as a very young boy in the 70s. There were no youth systems that today’s footballers enjoy so we would mostly play in the streets but in 1976 I got the first taste of career football in Nakuru with Abeingo B then I moved to Nakuru Youth Olympic,” he says.

All the success has not been accidental. Matano started from the bottom, as a player, player – coach before finally settling as coach and putting all his eggs in that basket.

Orphaned very early in his life, Matano’s football career would be affected by the fact he had to constantly move as he stayed with relatives. His longevity at a team would rely not on football but on the duration the relative housing him stays in that particular place.

Like situations would dictate, Matano was soon on the move, leaving Nakuru for Nairobi to stay with a cousin and with that move, he joined Makadara based Hakati FC then. A fine spell in the following few years would see Matano, the defender seal a move to Kenatco FC before the big move to AFC Leopards.

Robert Matano has served a number of stints at AFC Leopards
Robert Matano has served a number of stints at AFC Leopards

A playing career spanning 10 years would end in 1986 with AFC Leopards as his last team. It was not Matano’s wish but a niggling injury had the man, who would play anywhere in defence and also in defensive midfield, review his options before finally hanging boots and settling on coaching.

The first taste of coaching came in April 1986 with Pumwani Sportiff and lacking papers as a coach, he only had his passion for guidance and a knowledge of the game from a player’s perspective.

Struggle with injury

“I struggled a bit with injury before I decided to quit playing and focus on coaching. At this point, I only had the passion, and inspiration from my coaches, including (the late) Jonathan Niva, Sammy Nyongesa and Robert Kiberu,” he notes.

A key figure from whom Matano also drew inspiration is the late Ghanaian coach Charles Kumi Gyamfi, the former AFC Leopards, Ashanti Gold SC and Ghana national team head coach who in his playing days became the first African to play in Germany.

At Pumwani, he was just passing by and saw a group of youngsters playing without a coach and after watching them for a few hours, requested for the chance to coach them and that was granted, but at that point only because he was a household name – a former AFC Leopards and Kenya Youth team defender.

“It was on a Wednesday, around Easter, and I was just passing by then I saw the team training without guidance and I asked if I could help them. In the team there was Charles Korea Omondi, Daniel Ogada, Washington Khamadi; they were young boys then,” he reveals.

At Pumwani, he was just passing by and saw a group of youngsters playing without a coach

The volunteer coach would then be asked to take up the job by the team’s management and he was very much okay with it, juggling with his then job at Kenya Railways and he would only be given a small stipend to cater for his transport and a few other logistics.

A disciplinarian par excellence, Robert Matana has made a name for himself as one of the most successful locale coaches we have
A disciplinarian par excellence, Robert Matana has made a name for himself as one of the most successful locale coaches we have

His first coaching badge, the Kenya National Preliminary Coaching Course, was obtained in 1990 as he started seriously considering going into coaching as full time job and upon completion he took the same course but then at CAF level.

Through his prowess, he managed to guide Pumwani to promotion from Division 2 of Nairobi Zone and having spotted his success at the team, Pipeline FC, then in Division 2 offered him a deal which he took at the start of 1987.

Matano went on to coach Shamako Babes FC, Bayer East Africa FCSafari Park FC, Timsales FC, Kimbo FC, Green Berets FC and also had a second stint at Pipeline.

World Hope stint

In 2005, Matano had cleaned his hands and was ready to dine with the elders. He would take up World Hope FC (currently City Stars FC) and in the same year guided the team to win the Moi Golden Cup (currently known as Shield) and the following year he was appointed the Kenya national team, Harambee Stars assistant coach.

It was through Matano that World Hope would get a first taste of continental football, in 2006, but that would end at the preliminary stage as the team fell to Uganda’s URA FC following a 1 – 1 draw at home and a 0 – 1 loss away in Kampala.

Robert Matano during his days as Ulinzi Stars head coach
Robert Matano during his days as Ulinzi Stars head coach

The gospel of his success spread like wildfire and in 2008, he was approached by Sofapaka president Elly Kalekwa, and asked to help the team rise to the premier league after six years of trying. He took up the challenge and at the end of that year, the team had secured promotion.

For most coaches, aiding the team secure promotion to the Kenyan Premier League would have been the highest point of achievement. Not for Matano. He still wanted more; he had been in the top flight before and knew there was a lot to be covered, and gained.

The gospel of his success spread like wildfire and in 2008, he was approached by Sofapaka president Elly Kalekwa

“It is never in my DNA to rest,” he quips. “I think those who have worked with me know there is no such thing as the highest point of success. I helped Sofapaka get to the premier league and when I said we are going there to compete, some people said we should just target to avoid relegation.”

The coach would make his point 10 months into the team’s first season in the top flight, when his charges went all the way to win the title, in their first ever season in the league.

“Apart from winning a the three CECAFA titles with AFC Leopards as a player back in the 80s, I think I’d say winning the premier league title with Sofapaka was my other biggest moment of my life. When I got there they were almost disbanding the team but I told the president I’d take the team to the premier league and I did that. To win the league the same year was just great and I also pride in being the first coach to lead Sofapaka to play outside Kenya,” the 2009 KPL Coach of the Year notes.

AFC Leopards return

From Sofapaka, the next stop in 2010 was at AFC Leopards, first as Technical Director then as coach. He couldn’t however replicate his success at Sofapaka, a matter he blames on politicking at Leopards.

“At Leopards, it was very different from Sofapaka. There was a lot of infighting and most people there were not happy that I had a job at Kenya Railways and at the same time handling Leopards and I decided to quit.”

Matano’s love for Leopards would manifest itself once more when he was approached to take up the coaching job, during Julius Ochiel’s period as chairman in 2011 but with the club elections that saw Alex Ole Magelo ascend to the helm, he was branded a mole and was hounded out again.

“When the new management came in, everyone who had served under the previous office was branded an Ochiel person and we were fought from the top there and I had to leave,” he notes with his trademark bullish laugh.

Matano would leave for Tusker, and win the 2012 KPL title after replacing Sammy Pamzo Omollo midway through the season. He also won with the team the KPL Top 8 title in 2013. He would then leave for Ulinzi Stars in 2014, taking up the team when in 13th place and drove them to fourth place at the end of the season.

The coach then guided Ulinzi Stars to second position and third in the following two seasons as well as getting the team to the GOtv Shield final, where they lost to Tusker in 2016.

Third stint

Still there was a third stint at Leopards for Matano, in mid 2017 when the club was grappling with disciplinary issues among players as well as the hunger for silverware. Matano obliged, and went on to stabilize the side, guiding it to win the GOtv Shield in 2017 October.

A few months into the 2018 season, the club was a pale shadow of the team that had won the Shield, it was struggling in the premier league and a poor show in the CAF Confederations Cup didn’t help matters as the team was eliminated in the preliminaries by Madagascar’s Fosa Juniors.

“I didn’t get a good team at Leopards in 2017; there were disciplinary issues and the team was disjointed. It was not operating as a unit and players used to come to training when they wish but I managed to deal with that and we rose from 16th to eighth place and won the GOtv Shield.”

With silverware in tow, Leopards offered Matano a two year deal but frustrations checked in just when the coach felt he should be strengthening his team. Preparations for the new season, 2018, were not up to scratch and the coach failed to get the players he wanted.

I didn’t get a good team at Leopards in 2017; there were disciplinary issues and the team was disjointed

“We had a very poor preseason, and I also did not get the players I wanted. I was told there was no money for the players I wanted and the players we got came for free. A team that wants to perform must invest in players; you can’t get free agents and expect them to perform.

“Because of my influence I worked very hard to get these players and set out a very strong foundation for the team but because of these petty politics they suspended me after just three matches in the league. You can’t judge Matano as a coach by three games; they saw that I was not an easy person to influence because I know what I want and I have a name to protect,” he notes.

He has advice for Leopards as well; “Leopards management don’t use their minds to make decisions. They use their hearts and that is why they fail all the time; their decisions are made through anger. They don’t have passion to run the club and they don’t have money. All of them are young. They have not been in football long enough to understand the value of that team,” he adds.

Football is a big business in the world today and Matano’s advice to teams in the top flight, the caliber of Leopards is that they invest well in order to see any form of success and growth as a business.

A number of top players in the country today went through Matano’s care in their formative years and the coach prides in their growth over time.

Tom Juma, Victor Wanyama, McDonald Mariga, Michael Olunga, Cliff Kasuti, David Cheche Ochieng, Washington Khamadi, Edward Karanja, John Lichuku, Victor Waweru, Bonaventure Maruti, Kevin Ateku, Zablon Amanaka, John Baresi Odhiambo, Eric Cantona Ochieng, Musa Otieno, Dennis Oliech and more recently Michael Olunga were all Matano’s players as young boys.

“All these are players I have molded at early stages of their careers; those are my players. I am a teacher and as a teacher your happiness is derived from a player progressing and prospering. I helped them and I am glad most of them made good moves and have done well with themselves.

“Musa Otieno and Dennis Oliech would always look for me when they came from their clubs abroad and bring me equipment for coaching,” he adds.

I am a teacher and as a teacher your happiness is derived from a player progressing and prospering

A strict disciplinarian, Matano has had a brand about him; that he doesn’t relate well with his players, which leaves him at a loss when his achievements come to the fore. His style has always been strictly following the laid down rules and regulations, he says, and any player who goes against that finds himself on the wrong end of the coach’s stick.

In his time at AFC Leopards, he rubbed a number of players the wrong way; one outstanding example was when he substituted Ugandan forward Allan Kateregga just after introducing him as a second half substitute.

“As a player, your job is to work under the instruction of the coach. When the coach sends you to the field, there is something he wants you to do and if you don’t do as he wishes, definitely you will be pulled out.

“If you recall, I never had exchange of words with Kateregga; I controlled myself but after that I told him that I never want to see him in my team again.

“The reason they say I am strict, is I am a performer. I want players to take this as a job and do it with a passion; it shouldn’t be just about football but work, and to achieve you must be serious about your work. I am a very accomodative person but you need to know you’re working for the team and not the coach,” he points out.

Robert Matano had his high moments at AFC Leopards; here he heads to the technical area ahead of the 2017 GOtv Shield final match, against Kariobangi Sharks, which Leopards won.

The only team in the premier league that the coach has handled in recent times and left without winning silverware with, is Ulinzi Stars, but he carries fond memories of the four – time KPL winners, having spent three years there.

“My stint with Ulinzi Stars was good and the management was very supportive, the problem by then was that they did not have very good players and we had to start afresh and I promised them that in three years that team would be good.

“If I were at Ulinzi Stars today, the team would be competing with Gor Mahia up there but I appreciate the chance they gave me; the then chairman Juma Mwinyikai was a very good and open man with top notch management skills and I can say I really enjoyed working with him,” he reveals.

In his successful coaching stint, Matano has attracted both commendation and condemnation and a lot of talk has been that he is operating with the aid of the supernatural.

If I were at Ulinzi Stars today, the team would be competing with Gor Mahia up there

“That is the most irresponsible thing I have been associated with. I have very many people I work with and the end product is success. Today I am with my assistant assessing reports for last season and preparing for next season. We can as well choose to go for vacation now that the season is over but we are denying ourselves that comfort. It is because we want to succeed next season. Meanwhile there is someone somewhere thinking Matano is using juju.”

Throughout his coaching journey in the top flight, Robert Matano has had to deal with claims that he uses black magic to attain success
Throughout his coaching journey in the top flight, Robert Matano has had to deal with claims that he uses black magic to attain success

For all his travels and travails, the coach considers his first job, at Pumwani Sportiff, his toughest ever in the coaching journey.

There is someone somewhere thinking Matano is using juju

“My coaching journey has had a lot of challenges but the one I can say was the toughest was with Pumwani, because here I was dealing with young boys, who needed to be talked to constantly because most of them were orphaned or had one parent only and they were going through really hard times.

“They were teenagers and were in school as well so you see they had a lot of psychological and social issues to deal with. Still, I managed to mentor them to love and like football. I told them all the time that in football they had a future and truly, most of them got promoted to bigger teams, the national team and others got good jobs in banks and big companies just because of their talent,” he notes.

His second stint at Pipeline was also not so rosy, as he was brought in 2000 to revive a team that had been disbanded years back and to start from scratch was never a walk in the park even though he managed to get the team promoted from Division one to the Premier League in three years.\

Focus on end product

The man fondly known as The Lion in Kenyan football circles never misses the opportunity to instill his style in whatever team he handles. The first thing he deals with is the mentality and that has caused some friction with his players across the teams he has coached but he only chooses to focus on the end product.

In his second stint at Tusker, he picked the team low on the table but managed to piece together a string of wins that saw the team finish third with a big chunk of the players who served under Sam Timbe, his predecessor.

A lion goes out there to hunt, and gets what he wants, unlike a hyena that only waits for scraps. I am a lion.

His nickname, The Lion, came as he made a surprise exit at Sofapaka, for his firmness against ideas by the club management, which contradicted his philosophy. He did the unthinkable, standing up to the club president, Elly Kalekwa to defend his stance.

“That nickname came during my time at Sofapaka, as I was leaving I refused to be bullied by the president. A lion goes out there to hunt, and gets what he wants, unlike a hyena that only waits for scraps after other have hunted and eaten to their fill. So I told them I am a lion, not a scavenger,” he says amid a big laugh.

National team

One would imagine that with all his accolades and profile as a coach, Matano is ripe for the national team. Apart from the stint he had as Tom Olaba’s assistant at the national team he has not been considered for the top job, but that is the least of his concerns.

Matano says he is comfortable working under an establishment that appreciates him and trusts him to bring a positive change.

“It is very easy to see that locally now, and going by the number of trophies won by clubs I have handled, I am the best. However, I am not concerned that I am not being considered for the head coach’s job because they know my capability, they know what I can do but you know I am not a pushover. The people in charge of that like friends, and the people they can influence to field certain players. That can never happen with me because I like an environment where I am given space, time and freedom then watch me deliver.”

Next season

The first season of his second stint at Tusker ended on a high, going by where he found the team, and he was even nominated for the Coach of the Year Award at the 2018 KPL Awards gala. But there is still a question of how far The Lion wants to go with Tusker.

Robert Matano says his job is all about getting silverware and not just coaching for the sake
Robert Matano says his job is all about getting silverware and not just coaching for the sake

The winner that he is, the coach definitely is eyeing silverware, but he doesn’t mince his words, he says that is dependent on the support he will get at the club in the coming season.

“Matano is not Tusker; there are people ahead of me who should make things happen. I will only do my job on the field but there are recommendations I make to improve the team then the people up there know what is done to get to the targets that they have set. For a team to perform you must be ready to spend; for players to perform, you must be ready to buy good players.

“I have placed my recommendation and it is now upon the management to take charge of how we will prepare. So far the support has been good and now we have to go a notch higher because we need to compete and not just participate,” he concludes.

Robert Matano’s profile

Playing career:

1976: Abeingo B

1977: Nakuru Youth Olympic

1978: Hakati FC

1979 – 1980: Hakati Sportiff FC

1981 – 1985: AFC Leopards

Coaching career

1986 – 1987: Pumwani Sportiff

1987: Pipeline FC

1990: Shamako Babes

1991: Bayer East Africa FC

1993: Safari Park FC

1995: Timsales FC

1996: Kimbo FC

1997: Green Berets FC

1998: Re – Union FC

2000: Pipeline FC

2005: World Hope FC

2006: Harambee Stars (assistant coach)

2008: Sofapaka

2010: AFC Leopards (Technical Director)

2011: AFC Leopards

2012: Tusker

2014: Ulinzi Stars

2017: AFC Leopards

2018: Tusker FC

NOTE: THIS PIECE APPEARED IN THE 15TH EDITION OF THE SOKA MAGAZINE