Dennis Onyango on Building a Football Career

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Dennis Onyango (DO) on Building a Football Career

RK: Welcome to #360Mentor Dennis!

DO:  It’s my pleasure to be here Robert, thanks for the invite.

RK: Dennis we are completely proud of you as a country. We are utterly privileged to host you here as a mentor.

DO: Thank you.

RK: Denis there is a question I ask every guest on this show: were you born with a ball in your hand?

DO: Definitely not. I grew and fell in love with football and that is how it started.

RK: In Uganda, where is home?

DO: I was born and raised in Nsambya in the Capital of Kampala. But, I am originally from Busia next to the border of Uganda and Kenya.

RK: I hope the Kenyans don’t claim you. They claimed Cherop and Cheptegei.

DO: No. I am not Kenyan they tried to claim me but failed. We may as well claim some people.

RK: Growing up in Nsambya, where did you go to school?

DO:  I grew up in the railway quarters which are no more. It is where the current Mestil Hotel sits. I went to Railway Primary School. The school is still there. I was there from P1 to P6. But of course I went to a nursery school which is next to the Villa Park, I don’t know whether it is still there anymore. From there I joined Greenland Islamic School in Nateete for my P7 which took me on as a footballer. They had seen the talent in me and that’s how the journey started.

RK: At what point did you start kicking around the ball and realised you had this talent?

DO: Around P4. Football is one activity that brought children together. Football at that time was really buzzing. There were not so many sports save for athletics and boxing. But they were not any close to football.

RK: That’s what you did for entertainment and extra curricular, right?

DO: Yes.

RK: So were your parents working in the railways?

DO: Yes. My dad worked there. He used to travel with the train from Kampala to Kasese all the time. I didn’t  have enough time to see my dad. He would travel for almost four days a week and he would come home like once a week. But our mum was always there.

RK: Then you moved to Greenland. Were you a goalkeeper then?

DO: Yes. I grew up wanting to be a goalkeeper. It’s one position I thought I would be recognised as soon as possible because growing up. We had a radio and there was the famous goalkeeper called Sadic Wasswa who was always winning goals for Uganda.

RK: He was a very tall man that one.

DO: True. We have met a number of times. He has trained me a couple of times on the national team. He is one guy who inspired me to become a goalkeeper at a young age.

RK: When do you start playing football at the club level?

DO: Like I said, I grew up in an environment where football was the biggest thing ever. There is a place called Nsambya Sharing Hall where we used to gather because there were a variety of sports activities. They allowed us to play football from morning till late. And it was the best thing ever. As a child, all you want is to be allowed to play. And I was a goalkeeper. I once played as a striker in Sports Club Villa.

RK: We didn’t know that.

DO: I scored a number of goals for the team. It was Sharing Hall which gave me the first opportunity to play. It is called amateur football or what in Uganda is called the 1st Division.

My dad didn’t like it at first. He wanted me to become a doctor or something. There was no money in sports. But for me football was my passion. Even when he beat me, I went back and played.

RK: After the amateur stage, which club took you first?

DO: I joined Nsambya Old Timers which was also in the first division. We played until the super mini league. When you win it, you go to the premier league where Micho Sillodovich saw me. He was coaching Sports Club Villa by then. Together with the late Lukwago who was a goalkeeper coach, they saw talent in me and reached out. They took me to play for Villa at a very young age.

Remember I was still in school and I had to pay attention to the studies as well. One thing is that football is a short career. You must have a plan of what happens later.

RK: How old were you when you started playing with Villa?

DO: I started playing for Villa when I was 17.

RK: When did you get your first calling as a Cranes goalkeeper?

DO: My first calling was in 2004. I was still playing for Villa. I was still playing for the under 23. I remember a game we played at Nakivubo stadium which is no longer there. I made a huge blunder and Uganda conceded a goal. I thought of quitting football. The whole country was after my head. But thank God I had Micho around and he knew that football is a game of mistakes. He came and comforted me. Villa had signed me up.

Around that time, there was still the war in the north and there was a match to be played on the border of Uganda and South Sudan. The senior players did not want to go since you had to drive through Gulu. Eventually I went. I was young and all I wanted was to play. Most of us who went were young, all we cared about was football not the war. And we won the game. I never looked back. Micho saw a brave player in me and that was a good thing.

I started playing regularly for Villa and ended up joining the main team.

RK: When was your game for the Cranes?

DO: My first game for the Uganda Cranes, we were playing away against Ghana for world cup qualifiers. It was the first time Ghana qualified for the world cup. We were playing in Kumasi and there was Coach Abbas. It was a hot rubber game and he gave me the chance to play with this young man. I didn’t play well. We lost 1:0. That is how I started playing for the  national senior team and I never looked back.

RK: How long were you with Villa?

DO: I was with Villa for almost three seasons because for the first season I never played that much football. I was competing with the likes of Omonyi, Kalyesubula and Mukasa.  I played  a few games under Mitcho. When he left, there came Sam Nsimbe who gave me the opportunity. The club was not financially stable but I was a young man and playing for one of the big teams in the country is what I cared about. For me that was enough motivation.

RK: So what was really driving you at that moment was passion for the game?

DO: Yes. Passion and the inspiration from Sadiq Wasswa to become one of the best in the country. I didn’t see so much value in money. I didn’t have family to look after. I was just alone. Having gone to school under the Villa sponsorship, I did not want a lot from them. My wish was to grow into professional football so that one someone could see me and open me to the big teams. It happened at the end of the day.

RK: Apart from passion, what was it at this stage that made you stick to football?

DO: My main target was never to be a failure because I knew I had a bit of education but I believed in sports changing my life. My main target was to make it to the big stage. To become a professional. I wanted to make it in life as a professional footballer. I had the hunger to go further and make my family proud.

RK: How did you move from Villa straight into professional football? How was that journey?

DO: It’s a very funny story because playing for Villa gave me the platform to play the CECAFA Championships. There is one for the national teemas and the one for clubs. I got an opportunity to play for Villa in CECAFA. We went to play in Mwanza and there was Mitcho with St George. And we went on to win the tournament without conceding any goal. When we came back to Kampala with a chartered flight and $100 after winning.

Then Mitcho sent me an email asking me whether I was interested in joining St. George of Ethiopia. I said yes. But I had also attracted a number of other clubs that had participated in the tournament. Young Africans had also reached out. I was excited to leave Villa not that I didn’t like the club but because the club had its own struggles. The guys at Young Africans were the first to send me an air ticket and I was very excited. I reached the airport the andt there were all these many people all waiting for Denis Onynago.

RK: Really?

DO: Yeah. I think at the time Young Africans was bigger in terms of support than Simba. I was taken to Shauriako market to buy any green and yellow outfit that I wanted. Eventually I had to fly back to uganda.

Then Mitcho also called out. Mitcho had looked after me when he was in Uganda. He had revived my career when I was having issues with the national team. So I went to Ethiopia for another contract. The main thing was for me to stay focused and take a risk. Now I had to make a decision on where I was going with my career other than sitting back to feel sorry for myself and the people around me.

All I wanted was to play professional football and Mitcho convinced me on how far I could go. He spoke to Young Africans and they let me play for St George.

RK: How long were you there?

DO: I stayed in Ethiopia for one year. I played for St. George for one season. It was very challenging. In Ethiopia, in a group of 10 people, you would only find two who could speak English. When I was there, Mitcho would take me out and gradually I started picking up on the language slightly.

I was really motivated. I didn’t want to disappoint Mitcho in Ethiopia. We played a number of games. Then there came an Egyptian team that wanted to sign me. My career was moving at a very fast speed in a space of about three years. This is what I wanted. When I saw a club coming for me from Egypt, I knew I was getting closer to Europe.

RK: You’re seeing yourself going to Arsenal?

DO: Hahaha. Every young football player wants to see themselves playing in Europe. But of course I was too smart along the way. There are some decisions I made that I regret. But at the same time they put me in a better place. I went to Egypt and got signed up by a big team there called Ismaili, I didn’t even tell Mitcho. I just escaped from the camp and went to Egypt.

RK: Wait a minute, you man, you just escaped without telling Mitcho?

DO: Yes. All players were staying in the camp. I jumped over the fence and left. My ticket was already booked for a night flight and I ran away. Then Mitcho started looking for me. It was his duty to make sure I was safe. He is the one who took me to Ethiopia.

RK: Dennis. Dennis. Dennis.

DO: It was dramatic but because I was so hungry for success. I really wanted to make it in life. I wanted to make it as a professional footballer. I was willing to do anything to make it in life. But of course, when I reached Egypt, I called Mitcho and he found out that I was not from Ethiopia. He had to tell the guys at Ismail that what they were doing was illegal. I had to go back to Ethiopia.

When I got back, Mitcho sat me down and talked to me. He promised to link me up to a team in South Africa.

RK: So do you get there?

DO: When we were playing CECAFA, Mitcho invited the coach Pits Msomani who is now. The head coach at Al Athlete came and saw me play. He saw a big brave boy whose aerial tactics were very good. I wasn’t as tall as I am right now but I wasn’t afraid of jumping to the skies to get the ball.

Pitso came with the spotting Director of SuperSport United and they took me to join their team in 2006.

RK: How long were you there?

DO: For 4 seasons. And I won 3 league titles in a row. In the first season I won the club footballer of the season but the next season I won the league.

RK: When do you go to Sundowners?

DO: Things were not going as well as I wanted at Super Sport United in my last season. I was not getting enough game time. I strongly believed I could be playing and being a regular and Super Sport but it was not happening. I spoke to the club and I really wanted to move away. The club sold me to a team called Mpumalanga where I played for a season. I got relegated to the national first division.

The Sundowner was watching. Someone saw me and they called me to play for them. It was my dream to play for one of the big clubs in the country.

RK: Tell me, have you ever won games against the Chiefs or the Pirates?

DO: Of course. Those are some of the interesting games in South Africa. Before covid, they could allow supporters to come to the stadium and support. It would be like a rival. They say they are the biggest clubs in South Africa and of course they have a huge support and fanbase but I have won a number of games against Orlando  Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. Actually, I like playing against Kaizer Chiefs. They motivate me a lot.

RK: Which brings me to the question that has been burning me, how do you develop instinct as a goalkeeper?

DO: Goalkeepers are not made like the other players. They are born goalkeepers. It’s hard to find one who is made. There are things that we do that the other players too do.

RK: What are those things?

DO: We are always shouting and making noise by ourselves. You become a leader even from a young age. But these are things which drive me. Not all players are comfortable with diving and falling. In a week I fall down 200 – 300 times because of my training. We train for these things. We do mind games. We train instinct, bravery, leadership. It’s a lot of things that we do as goalkeeper that make us who we are.

RK: How do you train for instinct and bravery? What are the things you do that develop these skills?

DO: We train them just like people train for other things. We sit down with our goalkeeper coaches who tell you how to respond in a given scenario. As a goalkeeper you have to be brave. I can tell you that I can play with a broken finger without anyone knowing. It’s bravery. We learn and absorb these things. In football, there is no game that can go on without a goalkeeper. They would rather get a random person.

Unfortunately we are looked at when things don’t go well. We become victims. That’s what makes us special but we train all these things.

RK: When you are in the goal post, I’d think you are bored, how do you keep in touch with the game?

DO: Back in the day, goalkeeping would be about standing in your net and waiting for the ball to come to you. In modern football, goalkeepers do more than that. They have to be part of the playing team. They have to follow up, guide and lead.

A goalkeeper now must be able to play with his feet more than his hands. When you play with your feet, it means you are reading the game. You become the 11th player on the pitch rather than just standing by. The game is changing and you need to educate yourself on the new trends short of that you don’t become a better goalkeeper. You must watch the game all the time.

RK: How do you read danger?

DO: As you said, those are the instincts. The moment we don’t have the ball, that is danger time. For you to concede the ball, you must go past you. You must read the situation very well. The moment you don’t have the ball, you must position yourself very well and you start commanding the catch. You start putting yourself in a clear position where you are not easily exposed. The more you talk, the more the other players stay proactive.

RK: Now I must ask you; I have watched you make those spectacular saves in Capetown time and time again, what did you see?

DO: Before we went into the finals, we were doing very well. As a club we had not conceded up to now. And as I said earlier on, it’s the hunger, the courage and determination that pushed me to play football. I am one of the senior players on the team, I have to lead by example. I must protect the players. Going into the penalties, I knew it was show time. we must lift the trophy. I always want to have the best feeling and to be able to have that feeling, you must be able to work extremely hard. You can never find someone who is extremely well who never worked hard.

I am a big boy, I come with intimidation as well.

But of course before we play with any team, we study them and watch them play and then plan our game. We watch their game and their penalty skills. I had to intimidate them. I carried the ball to the penalty spot and kept on bouncing it before them and looking straight in  their eyes and shouting and moving across the line.

RK: So you had a strategy of how to go about these penalties, something that had worked out before?

DO: Definitely, in life you must have a strategy. We kicked first and missed. So it was my turn and responsibility to rescue the team and lift the players’ spirit. When I had their goalkeeper saying they shouldn’t allow me to hold the ball before it was kicked, I knew it was now all about the mind game. Like in school, if you don’t do your revision, you will not pass your exams.

RK: I want to take you back, what has enabled you to feed this hunger? What are the principles?

DO: Firstly,  for me I think it was about not not letting it go. I believe that I never wanted to be on the losing side. Losing was never an option when I was starting my career.

When you work hard, things fall for you. Someone might say I am lucky but luck favours a hard working person. You can’t say luck found you in the house. No. It has to find you out there. For me, my hard work and dedication have led me here. On the pitch, I am a beast. I don’t have friends when it comes to work. The willingness to take risks is what has led me here. There are people who want to play a 50 – 50 game but when you risk you either lose it all or win it all. I want to win it all. That is what has helped me to grow.

RK: Tell me, how does it feel wearing the Uganda Cranes jersey?

DO: Any athlete’s dream in the world is to play for the national team. The feeling you get wearing a cranes jersey is the best feeling ever. Personally, when I am wearing it, I know that out of the 46 million Ugnadans out there, I am the chosen one. I must do my best.

The pride and joy we get is what drives us. We are not going to build mansions out of Uganda Cranes but the skill that we leave on the pitch is what drives us.

RK: Talk to parents and the young people, how important is it to support your child’s dream? First of all, what do your parents think of you now?

DO: First of all, I want to thank my mum because she was very supportive of me when I was playing football. Even when I was very young. My dad did not want to pay my fees because I was that boy who was always on the pitch playing football at midday instead of being in class. But my mother was very supportive.

Eventually, my dad came on board and allowed me to play football. When I was having my fights with Villa he put up a fight for me and that was how I was able to leave. But at first it was too hard for him. He was hustling so much in the trains to see that we went to school. He wanted the best for me but football was my plan.

Parents out there should support their children in the things they do. We cannot choose for the children what they want. It’s only God who can direct us to where we want to be. We can’t all work in the offices. One has to entertain the other. I have got four boys at home, they play football on Monday and Wednesday. As a parent, I just support them. I don’t know what they will become but role is to expose them to the world. Parents should endeavour to support their children.

RK: What would you say to young people who have dreams but are doubtful of themselves. How can they have this hunger that can never die?

DO: Young people must set their targets. My target was to become one of the best in the country. Having listened to Saddiq Wasswa, I wanted to be like him. Young people should find time and dedicate themselves to doing what they want. Take a risk for what you want. When you feel sorry for yourself, no one is going to feel sorry for you. The world is a jungle, either you eat or you are eaten. The more you look forward to becoming a better person, you must be ready to face these challenges. Our coaches often say; when you ask for the rain, you should always be ready to deal with the mud. If you want to be the light out there, you must fight with this darkness. You will never see the moon or the stars during the day, you will only see them at night. Fight hard and keep going. There’s nothing easy. Stay focused and things will fall your way.

RK: You’ve been on  the world stage, tell me, what do you think are the mistakes that people make often, especially that they end up regretting?

DO: People worry a lot about what other people say. They forget to look at themselves. Sometimes we want to look at the negative things that someone is saying but the world is always negative about anything. When you focus on yourself, you will win. When you focus on yourself, you are ahead. When the sprinters are running, they don’t look back to see what’s happening behind them, they keep going. What keeps people in trouble is looking around. For me, I am always looking at the positive side, it doesn’t matter what I may say, I look forward and keep going.

RK: Do you still have hunger?

DO: Yes. I am just starting. Someone can look at this 36 year old and wonder how it can be that I am just starting. I feel I still have a lot to offer. I still have a lot of knowledge about the game. To be honest, lately, youngsters don’t want the hard things. They want the easy things. I have kids and they drive me. I must open up opportunities for them. I must teach them that life is never easy. The moment you stop wanting to win more, that’s the end of you. It’s the end of your career. You lose the love for the game. And it becomes obvious that you must retire.

Comrade Otoa: You’ve done all these amazing things, how do you stay humble?

DO: Of course winners move on. I learnt that when I joined Mamelodi Sundowns. I was surrounded by high achievers who were very humble. You need to be humble and humane. People make us who we are. At one stage, I will leave football and I want people to treat me the way I have treated them. I need to do this to the kids as well. When you stay humble, big things fall for you. I believe that when I won the cup final on Saturday, I knew I had another game on Wednesday. I had to focus on that. I cannot stay in celebratory mode for something that is finished. The more you win, the more you want to win. I heard someone say: heavy is the head that carries the crown. The more I lift trophies, I must stay humble and grounded and know that anytime I must fall down. Whatever goes up, must come down. So let me stay up there but with calmness. At the end of the day the praises come from people. I should be able to listen to them.

Mugabi Ivan: What came to your mind after that last penalty? 

DO:  For me it was all about celebration. The last time Sundown had won that trophy was 14 years back. All I wanted was to make history. I had to believe that it was my moment.

Lydia: As a sportmans what are you doing to prepare yourself for the time after the limelight?

DO: I have seen a number of sportsmen struggle after the limelight. Not a lot of footballers earn good money in our country. You may find a footballer going for 6 months without pay. As footballers, we are a little bit extravagant. We want to have the most expensive things in life forgetting that football is a short term career that we must maximise to our best when still playing. It is not easy to save on the side. Personally I am a farmer. The world will never stop eating. We must invest the little money we get. Andy Mwesigwa built a school. Another person has built apartments. We can’t wait for the federation.

We must also attract companies to come on board for endorsement deals. If we have a helping hand from such companies. Clubs should also advise players on financial literacy. But as an individual, you have to look after yourself. No one will feel sorry for you.

Moses Rutahigwa: Can you advise on how to stay for the long run?

DO: For me it was about resilience. Our players give up easily. The moment they are in the papers today, they don’t want to train the next day. That’s how you lose focus. We forget that you are only as good as your last game. When you are the employee of the year and you don’t want to work anymore they will fire you. It’s like people are scared of greatness. You must dig deep. When you score 10 goals today, tomorrow you must score 12. Have the right mentality to play and become better.

Joan Atim: How do you balance success and humility?

DO: You must be patient and committed likeNan Arsenal supporter. You must know that it’s never gonna be dark all the time. Sometimes it’s going to rain and sometimes it’s going to shine. That is how I was raised. No matter how big you are, you must respect everyone. When I become big headed, no one is going to be friendly to me. At the end of the day, I am human like everyone else.

Jackie Oloya: Looking at Ugandan footballers, many don’t end with a successful ending in their later lives, is there something you are doing for each other?

DO: We have not created such platforms but I think that’s what the federation should do. This thing of car wash is really embarrassing. We must create opportunities ourselves. Also football belongs to the federation.

RK: What’s your last word of advice this evening?

DO: Especially to the younger generation, keep believing in what you are doing. Have resilience. Work hard. When we were growing up, we had the nokias where you had to press hard. And be humble. Remember where you come from. If we have that, and believe in one another and take risks, we shall be able to make it.

RK: Thank you for your time and wisdom.

DO: It’s my great pleasure.

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