James Gachago: Star on the Rise

After captaining the Kenya U13 side in 2017, Gachago hopes that this forms the blueprint of his ambitions of featuring for Harambee Stars in the 2026 World Cup

For every young kid born after the turn of the millennium Zinedine Zidane’s playing career is a story they only read but 14-year old James Gachago Murage list’s the former Real Madrid coach as his best ever player and biggest inspiration to his budding career.

Born in the outskirts of Kiambu on January 8 2004, Gachago came to prominence in August last year when he led the Kenya U13 national team win the inaugural Southampton Cup U14 Shield Tournament after edging Ormer Academy in the final in England.

The win presented the first ever piece of silverware for a Kenya national junior side in Europe but the youngster isn’t getting carried away just yet.

Nice feeling

“It was a nice feeling to lead a team to such a feat considering the teams that were on show. The teams there had been together for long, unlike us. It was a good experience for every player in the team and we picked vital lessons too,” says Gachagua whose eloquence and understanding of the game is way above his age.

Three months before the trip to Southampton, Gachago who has been in the ranks of Ligi Ndogo Football Academy since he was five, had led the Nairobi U13 side to the first ever National title with a win over Nyanza on post-match penalties in Nakuru in the FKF Junior League playoffs.

In April of 2018 Gachago was part of the Kenya U15 side that scooped the Elite U15 tournament that attracted Vapor Sports U15, Acakoro U15 and Ligi Ndogo U15.

Wasn’t tough

“I believe everyone who made the Kenyan team had a special feature that earned them a position in the team. Playing with them wasn’t the hardest thing going by the time we took to blend. I was lucky to have some of my team mates in the national side and it made it even easier,” Gachago opines.

Ligi Ndogo is the second home for the attacking midfielder; he has been there for most of his brief association with football. This could soon change though, as he has been invited to feature for academies in Europe in his football development and gives a nous about the difference that puts his age mates in Europe ahead of players back in Kenya.

“I have been very fortunate to play for European teams in my young career and this normally comes when schools are closed. I have featured for teams in Italy, Sweden and now I’m in the United Kingdom. I don’t think we are that far in terms talents but the difference come in the sense that they manage their young talents better than we do in Kenya.

Moorland International School

“For instance, after winning tournaments in which they feature regularly unlike here, they go back and put in more work while here we take a lot of time to rest after tournaments and we only assemble on countable occasions. Also, in Europe, they don’t allow anyone who is below the age of 16 to do weight lifting as this will curtail vertical growth which they consider an important aspect of the game. There is just a lot of things they do for their young players that we rarely get here,” Gachago opines.

Currently the midfielder is in the ranks of Moorland International School in UK, having joined in September 2018 and hopes to earn a professional contract when he turns 16, the required age in UK for any player to sign a professional deal.

At Moorland, Gachago has the luxury of being trained by some of the best tacticians in the world. Their shooting practice tactician, for example, is an employee of Manchester City.

Situated in the outskirts of Manchester, Moorland has a big link with Blackburn Rovers with the academy being one of the club’s major feeders to its youth teams. Apart from Blackburn, Moorland has close links with Burnley FC, the two Manchester clubs and Accrington Stanley and proximity to such established football powerhouses to some extent fuels Gachago’s hopes of one day ascending to professional football.

It’s a different experience and I enjoy every bit of it. My coaches there are very supportive and they have been giving me good ratings

“We have the best trainers there and the chance of being spotted by the youth team coaches from the big clubs around is very high, this pushes me every day. There are a lot of exchange programmes here with the big teams and our shooting coach tunes the Manchester City Youth team. Apart from him we normally have coaching sessions from coaches from the clubs around. It’s a different experience and I enjoy every bit of it. My coaches there are very supportive and they have been giving me good ratings. There is a lot of talent as well, and I have no option but to put the work in training,” Gachago who is the last born in a family of three says.

His mother, Susan Gachago has been a pillar in his football career having been encouraged to take this route by his elder brother too, Gachago has the right support any boy his age would have dreamt of. All this is in spite of his school having a variety of sports to choose from.

Support system

“I can say that I am lucky because I have a strong support system back at home in whatever I am doing. The trips to teams abroad are funded by my mother and I don’t take it for granted. She is the best I have without a doubt. My elder brother is the one who convinced me to take football seriously. He is one guy who walks me around these pitches for the kick-abouts. I owe them a lot. They’ve placed me in the right path since I started my football journey and taught me the virtue of patience and hard work. Without them I couldn’t have made these steps,” Gachago notes.

And while he draws a lot of inspiration from Zidane, he also has icons closer home. Harambee Stars skipper Victor Wanyama’s style is what he emulates most and the great heights the Tottenham Hotspur man has reached forms the basis of Gachago’s ambitions.

He admits to not watching a lot of Kenyan Premier League matches but notes that with good investment in youth coaches, more and more Wanyamas can come out of Kenya. Unlike here, Gachago says that in England it is easier for coaches to get their badges and it is rare to find coaches who don’t have badges handling top academies.

“In our tournament with the best academies around the country I saw even better players than me and I think the coaches are doing the right things wherever they are. It is now up to the federation to help them get their UEFA coaching badges. We have a lot of young talented players but they vanish very early because they don’t have proper coaches to handle them. There should be some slow integration just as they do in the UK. It is hard to find a coach there without badges handling the junior teams,” he says.

We are on the verge of making it to the African Cup of Nations and that means we are on the right track. If we continue this way we can make it to the World Cup; I’m very optimistic

On his aspirations with the national team, the midfielder is confident that he will be part of the national team that will represent Kenya in the 2026 World Cup but also believes 2022 World Cup is a possibility.

“We are on the verge of making it to the African Cup of Nations and that means we are on the right track. If we continue this way we can make it to the World Cup; I’m very optimistic. I want to be part of the 2026 team to the World Cup but I’m working hard to be part of the 2022 one too. I believe in myself and what I am doing and I know nothing is impossible,” Gachago adds.

Mental strength

Having enjoyed the experience of playing both in Kenya and Europe, Gachago’s advice to his age mates is that they must have a change of mentality. He is lucky to have it as an aspect of the game that is taught in the UK as one of the compulsory classes. The tacticians are aware that players come from different backgrounds and it is important that they have the right mentality heading into games.

That, and discipline, he admits, are key aspects of the game.

“I’ll be happy if I had everyone I have played with right beside me but circumstances make this impossible. The young players in the UK attend the mentality class where you are taken through what should be done when you think the odds are against you. You must have the right mentality to succeed because everything won’t go your way every day. A strong mentality is particularly very important on your bad days in the field.

We went to see Wanyama with the national team when we won the cup but at around 9pm, he told our bosses that he wanted to get some rest in preparation for the next day; that’s the discipline I’m talking about

“Another aspect is discipline. These ranges from how you eat, what you eat, when to rest and when to play. We had a player in our team who had signed for the Burnley Youth team but when he came back to say his goodbyes he was very rude to fellow players and tackled every one of us causing injuries to some players. Our coach called the Burnley team and his contract was cancelled. There are a lot of players we started with at Ligi Ndogo but they aren’t with us here now because of one reason or the other. Discipline entails a lot. We went to see Wanyama with the national team when we won the cup but at around 9pm, he told our bosses that he wanted to get some rest in preparation for the next day; that’s the discipline I’m talking about,” Gachago points out.

Ahead of our interview, Gachago is the first to arrive in training and one of his coaches at Ligi Ndogo Ms Florence Adhiambo who has worked with the youngster for four years, believes the player has the right mentality to make it in football. His background gives him an advantage over his mates both materially and psychologically but he remains humble and down to earth.

Down to earth

“He never shows it here in training,” Adhiambo says. “A stranger here wouldn’t know the difference between him and the rest. He respects his team mates, comes early to training and gives his all when called upon and the good thing is he’s doing what he likes most. He is in love with football and his family has given him the needed support which you rarely find with today’s parents, more so from able backgrounds,” Adhiambo says.

Susan knows her son is on the right track but acknowledges he is still a work in progress despite the rave reviews from his age mates. She opts to take each step at a time in his son’s development.

“I know he is a good player but he isn’t a big star yet,” she says amid a confident laugh. “What we can do now is help him with everything he needs in his progress at this age. I know he will be big one day but as at now it’s a step at a time.”

FACTFILE

Name: James Gachago Murage

D.O.B: 8 January 2004

Schools

St Mary’s International Academy (Year 1-6)

Hillcrest School (Year 7-9)

Moorland International School (UK)-September 2018 to date

Clubs:

Ligi Ndogo (From when he was Five Years Old)

Vasalunds IF Academy (Sweden)

NOTE: This piece originally appeared in the 15th Edition of the Soka Magazine