Nashon Oluoch, the feinting master, used to run at great speed along the touchline with a ball that mysteriously didn’t roll over for the linesman’s flag to go up.
It is defenders who went out, sometimes to the running track, victims of his deceptive body movements.
John ‘Bobby’ Ogolla stood in the middle of defence, sweat from his dark face shimmering in the sun, reading and thwarting move after move from frustrated forwards, in the air and on the ground.
He was a defensive colossus whose presence alone signified rearguard safety.
Allan Thigo, the schemer they called the 90-Minute Man, was conductor of the orchestra. “Onyango!” You could hear him bark from your seat in the touchline, “Faster!”
He read the game like you read a book and altered its tempo to suit his designs.
Sammy Owino Kempes was art in motion. Crisp, delicate passes made from the tightest of spaces and an excellent ball control with both feet that made you imagine that even the grass was enjoying, not enduring, his moves.
One moment he is facing a packed defence, next moment is running through it with space to spare.
These players, and the teammates that I write about today, conquered the African continent. At the height of their powers, they were feared and respected in all corners of Africa, from Nigeria to Zambia to Egypt.
Their successors have now won the Kenya Premier League a record 14th time, putting them on course to take on other African champions next year.
If it was during the era that I covered, we would be placing our bets about semi-finals and finals and winning the Cup.
We would be assessing El Ahly and Zamalek of Egypt, Esperance of Tunisia, Ibadan Shooting Stars and Bendel Insurance of Nigeria, Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak of Ghana, Hafia and Horoya of Guinea, TP Mazembe and Motema Pembe of DR Congo and we would be dismissive of opponents from almost anywhere else.
Those were taken as already beaten. This is what we did in the late 70s and 80s.
Taken as a group, the best 11 that Gor Mahia football club has ever assembled is the 1979 team that crashed to the ground like a banana tree against Cannon Yaoundé of Cameroon in that year’s final of the Cup Winners Cup.
That’s my opinion. The leader of that team, Allan Thigo, agrees with me but we sort of differ on the reasons for the massive 8-0 aggregate loss.
Thigo tells me that once they eliminated Guinea’s Horoya, the defending champions, the boys took it that they were unbeatable and engaged in an orgy of non-stop partying.
“We drank ourselves silly for the two weeks preceding the Canon match while our opponents took us very seriously,” he says.
“They had a scout to spy on us but I suppose his job was to count the number of beers each player was guzzling in one sitting. We didn’t train. If we had, we would have been champions way back in 1979.
We were better than our 1987 champions, although, needless to say, they were also a very good team.”
The binge drinking aside, I personally think that Canon were in a class of their own and academic though it is, I doubt Gor Mahia at their best would have felled them. That team was the bedrock of the Indomitable Lions.
It provided eight out of 11 players for the 1982 World Cup squad. The Indomitable Lions went out of the World Cup unbeaten, even drawing with eventual champions Italy.
Thigo and I are agreed on one point: the 2014 champions will have a tall order in trying to repeat the exploits of their predecessors. This is the sad truth that must be said without taking anything away from their historic achievement.
Times have changed; Africa moved on while Kenya maintained a steady gaze on the rear view mirror while engaged on the gear that goes with it.
We must now approach with reasonable terror the first club that we shall be drawn against, regardless of the country it represents.
Those who think this as extreme pessimism should just remember against whom Harambee Stars came to grief in their quest for a place in next year’s Africa Nations Cup. Lesotho.
In another time, a club representing that mountain kingdom would have elicited derisive laughter from officers, servicemen and women of the Green Army.
Now the boot is in the other foot.
“The standards of football in this country have become very, very low,” Thigo says.
“None of the players in the current Gor Mahia squad can find a place in the teams of the 70s and 80s. None! Okay, maybe Jerim Onyango, the goalkeeper.
He could get a place in the bench but against Dan Odhiambo or even George Ayuka, no. But he has some good qualities, like leadership in addition to his goalkeeper’s body.”
What went wrong? “I think it is a question of talent and after that managing it. Today there is money in football; there was none in our time.
Today, a parent can confidently encourage his or her son to take up football, if the boy shows talent. In our time that was a great risk – academics were everything.
Today, a successful footballer, with sound advice, can employ a whole lot of professionals. If you transplanted today’s circumstances to the 70s and 80s, Kenya would be a net exporter of footballers to Europe.
“But here we are. Gor Mahia took part in the Cecafa Club Cup this year. How many goals did they score? What stage of the competition did they get? And we are excited about next year’s Champions Cup?
No, it doesn’t add up. There is a helluva lot of work to be done. Huge, huge work.”
I told Thigo: to mark the occasion of Gor Mahia winning the 2014 KPL title, I have compiled a list of the 11 greatest players to have donned the green shirt since 1968. Compile yours and we compare.
Thigo said, fine, I will tell mine right now. This was my list:
1. Best Goalkeeper – Dan Odhiambo
2. Best Right Back – Paul Oduwo
3. Best Left Back – Peter Bassanga Otieno
4. Best Stopper – Bobby Ogolla
5. Best Centre Half – Austin Oduor
6. Best Linkman – Abbas Khamis Magongo
7. Best Right Winger – Sammy Onyango
8. Best Inside Right – Allan Thigo
9. Best Striker – William Chege Ouma
10. Best Inside Left – Sammy Owino Kempes
11. Best Left Winger – Nashon Oluoch
Thigo’s list was exactly the same save for the left back position where he preferred Tobias Ocholla to Bassanga.
We asked ourselves why we had both preferred Dan Odhiambo to James Siang’a who had played for Harambee Stars for 11 years.
Thigo said: “He played for Gor Mahia for a very short time – not long enough to make an impact on the psyche and history of the club. And you?” he asked.
My reason was lame: “I didn’t see him play, but I followed him through radio. If I did, maybe I’d change my mind.”
Thigo said: “Dan was extraordinary in terms of reaction in one-on-one situations.” But he had problems with long range balls, didn’t he, I said. Yes, but every footballer, as indeed every sportsman, has his Achilles’ heel.
Austin Oduor, 1987’s winning captain, once remembered for me the save that had Benin City in Nigeria talking. “It is a great pity that there are no video recordings of the matches of the time,” he said.
“People would see unbelievable things. A shot from about thirty yards was heading Dan’s way and he dived to make the same. But the ball grazed another player on its way, changing its course.
To everybody, it was a goal. But Dan twisted mid-air and changed direction and just managed to deflect the ball over the bar.
“I have never seen a save such as that one. I believe I will never see such a save again. I don’t know how he did it but it is unimaginable that somebody could change direction while in mid-air. That save was the talk of town in Benin city for a long time.”
The late Abdalla Bekah, Gor Mahia’s long term treasurer under the authoritarian chairman Zack Mbori, was a Green Army true believer who jumped ship and went to play golf when standards steadily deteriorated and the possibility of the great club developing an infrastructure similar to say that of Al Ahly, disappeared apparently for good.
Desperately in love with the boys that he helped nature but disillusioned by the retail politics that held down football in the club and country, he decided not to attend any further matches.
But you couldn’t tell this by his reaction when you walked him down memory lane.
“My greatest moment as a football administrator,” he told me, “ironically came when I had left Gor Mahia.
It was in 1987 when they won the Nelson Mandela Cup. I was overcome with emotion when the final whistle blew.
I stood in the stands looking at the stadium for a long time after the match ended and I said to myself: ‘Maybe I abandoned those boys at their time of need.’
Those players were my boys and I cared for them deeply. I had natured them over the years and now they were the champions!
My house used to be their transit point; they used to stay there between their travels. Another great moment for me was when Gor Mahia played Norwich City of England here in 1975.
I think that was the greatest game that Gor Mahia ever played in their life. I also think the goal Jackson Aluko scored then was the best I ever saw.
It was one of those rare moments when you are proud to belong to the losing team.”
Bekah’s angst is shared by many of Gor’s believers, especially the older generation of fans who saw for themselves what magic in the pitch is all about.
Gor Mahia produced the original diva in Eunice Adhiambo, who was fondly called Mama Gor. She was utterly beloved of the players.
“We took her as our mother,” Zedekiah Zico Otieno, their last winning captain before a 19 year-hiatus and former Harambee Stars coach, told me.
“Her voice was a great motivation for the players. We could pick it up from the pitch. And she treated us so sweetly, giving us words of encouragement in off the pitch and small presents that the players appreciated very much.
She must be, like many other supporters, be disillusioned with what Gor Mahia became after its great highs of the 70s and 80s.”
Once politics rocked Gor Mahia and threatened to rip the club apart. Even the players had been sucked in. As a reporter, I was everywhere interviewing the protagonists.
I phoned Mama Gor. She told me she was utterly depressed and she was dealing with the heartache by listening to a tape recording of Gor Mahia’s victorious East and Central African Club Cup match against AFC Leopards which was played in Malawi about six months earlier.
It had never occurred to me that fans taped Leonard Mambo and Mohammed Juma Njuguna.
The hordes of female fans that follow Gor Mahia today may not even have heard of Mama Gor. But she is doubtless the orginal female football fan in Kenya. Back to Allan Thigo.
They are rightfully praising their Ugandan stars – Dan Sserenkuma and Geoffrey Kizito. I have to remind them two of the greatest Gor Mahia stars of all time were Ugandans – Abbey Nasur and Timothy Ayieko.
If I left them in my list of 11, it’s just because of talent overflow. But they would be in the bench, along with Mike Ogolla Machine, George Yoga, Fundi Onyango and Charles Otieno, of course.
So there you have it – Gor Mahia 2014 and Gor Mahia’s Best of All Time. If you like it, raise a glass to it; if you don’t, write to the Editor.