The national men’s team Hockey Cranes returned yesterday from Nairobi with enhanced reputations after their triumph over Kenya in the bi-nation Federation of International Hockey (FIH) Series.
Coach Vincent Kasasa put together a squad that managed two wins (1-0 on Saturday and 2-0 on Sunday) and one draw (1-1 on Thursday) as Uganda kick-started preparations for the Africa Cup due January 2022 in Ghana.
From the get go, his players where tuned to the message that this was more than a team assignment.
Kasasa preached the gospel of “ending Kenya’s dominance” and “getting hockey appreciated at home.”
He was speaking to the converted. Majority of his players have been on the receiving end of this Kenyan dominance for years during the regional secondary schools games.
While others have been part of or watched national teams fail to make trips over various reasons like lack of funds, cancellation of tournaments, player bans.
So the hunger to re-write history has been brewing for a while.
Uganda’s squad could even have been better if you consider the number of players that could not make the trip. Kasasa spoke of missing five good players in Innocent Mbabali, Emmanuel Baguma, Colline Batusa – who are all in Italy plus Peter Elolu and Samuel Mwesigwa, who could not travel for work-related issues.
The pressure was therefore on younger players like Jordan Mpiima, Stuart Kavuma and Brian Bayule to prove they deserved the chance. And boy did they pass the test.
The Kenyans equally had a young squad as they are going through transition.
However, they still had 10 capped players compared to Uganda’s one. But Kasasa and his boys are no strangers to Kenyan hockey, having played them in schools games. Ugandan clubs also regularly travel to western Kenya for tournaments.
Weeks to the start of the Series, Kasasa was happy with the fitness levels of his players. He trained them to sustain 20-minute quarters even though standard games go for 15 minutes per quarter.
It allowed forwards like Brian Okodi, Innocent Raskara and Thomas Opio and at times Maxwell Mugisha press high with impressive intensity throughout the games.
The defensive block of Martin Okello, Peter Walusansa, Solomon Mutalya, Ashraf Tumwesigye and Timothy Ntumba also went through the three pulsating games without needing a break.
The coach and manager Byron Matovu had a young squad that believed and listened to them.
This was unlike the She Cranes that challenged the authority of their coach Sandra Namusoke at every opportunity; in training, match-day selection or during games.
Having experienced players like Opio, who was in the last national team that represented Uganda in 2007, was vital as he gave insights into how far the national team has come.
Also on the pitch, the tactical discipline told as experienced players like Raskara led the high press while young ones like Brian Bayule scored important goals.
Speaking of the high press, it made Kenya which is accustomed to building from the back through a trough really uncomfortable.
Kenya coach Fidelis Kimanzi, also admitted that his side struggled to defend Uganda’s high balls orchestrated with precision by Tumwesigye from the back and the quick penetration into the D every time the visitors got into the hosts 23.
Bosco Ochan (goalkeeper) 8/10
Stood out with aerial presence and acrobatics to keep Uganda in the games at the start of nearly every quarter of the Series.
Martin Okello 7/10
Panicky on Day One but settled into a reliable rock at the back.
Peter Walusansa 8/10
Stone wall throughout the Series and bailed out his fullbacks everytime they advanced forward
Solomon Mutalya 7.5/10
The only defender that had a license to charge forward. He was exceptionally calm on both fronts
Maxwell Mugisha 7/10
Arguably the fittest player on pitch. Ran endlessly with purpose. Could have been the player of the Series but for some erratic passing.
Ashraf Tumwesigye 9/10
If Mugisha wasn't the fittest, then it was Tumwesigye. His interceptions, range of passing and boldness in the middle of the pack set him apart. Man of the Series
Timothy Ntumba 7/10
He was efficient especially defensively. Showed he is a man you can rely on in the opposite D when he created Uganda's only goal from a short corner.
Moses Tushabe 5/10
Started two of three games as he was away on Thursday. Improvised cunningly to create Brian Bayule's goal on Day Three.
Brian Okodi 7.5/10
Okodi's story should inspire many. From school goalkeeper to club defender and now Cranes forward with boundless pressing energy. Scorer of the lone set-piece goal at the Series.
Thomas Opio 7/10
Scored Uganda's first goal in the Series and led with experience.
Missed a few sitters that could have made him top scorer.
Innocent Raskara 8/10
Rolled back the years by leading and instructing the press tirelessly. Consistently created chances.
Stuart Kavuma 6/10
His level fluctuated from very good to basic. Had little impact in the final match.
Jordan Mpiima 6/10
Probably the most used player from the bench. Versatile but struggled in Game Two.
Charles Ekapolon (keeper) 5/10
Played less than 10 minutes when Ochan needed a medical breather in Game Two. But was never tested.
Topher Kyamanywa 5/10
A real threat on the wings but did not get enough minutes to show that he could put out the performance consistently
Alfred Agaba 7/10
Grew game by game and took his goal in the final match well. Arguably the only reserve player that got closer to pushing for a starting berth.
Brian Bayule 6/10
Not played much on Thursday and Saturday then thrown into a starting role ahead of Opio on Sunday. Played without pressure and repaid the coach's faith with a fifth minute goal in a game Kenya started well.
Jerome Owori 5/10
He would challenge Ekapolon for less minutes played. In Game One, he was the calmest presence in a highly charged end to end affair.
Coach Vincent Kasasa 9/10
Outwitted the Kenyan gaffer Fidelis Kamanzi in every aspect.
Team manager Byron Matovu
Created a calm atmosphere in camp and ensured all the players and coach had to worry about were the games. He took responsibility of everything else even though, like the rest of us, he had to learn the minutest of details like how big (16-22cm) jersey numbers are supposed to be in FIH events. Uganda's labels were 14cm.
Kenya 1 - 1 Uganda
Kenya 0 - 1 Uganda
Kenya 0 - 2 Uganda
Uganda won series 2-0