A familiar pattern is happening at AFC Leopards, A good start to the league followed by a string of poor performances close to half-way the season... Only this time round, the club CEO assures that they won't be firing the playing staff and hiring new ones. It is for several reasons but ultimately an attempt to have some stability.
We sat down with AFC Leopards CEO, Mr. Ronald Namai, for an Intrinsic look into the state of AFC Leopards .
KS: Who is Ronald Namai?
I'm a Kenyan Citizen. I went to high school in Western Kenya, went to Egerton University. I graduated with a Bachelors in Arts and Economics and I've spent most of my life as a sales person after that. I've sold in the oil industry, I've worked at the bank, I've done insurance sales and so I'm more inclined towards sales management. I'm now managing AFC Leopards on a day to day basis. I'm married to one wife with two children .
KS: You happen to be a Chief Executive Officer of one of the biggest clubs in Kenyan soil... How has it been running AFC Leopards?
I've been here for six months. It has been enjoyable and tough. Enjoyable and tough are two combinations that are suitable for sales people so I think I like what I have seen and I like what we have done. It has been tough in the sense that we have had to make a lot of structural decisions and we continue to make them. Enjoyable because we are seeing some progress off the pitch and I'm hoping in the next few months we also see progress on the pitch.... So it has been a good time so far.
KS: Your appointment elicited mixed reactions across the fan base and membership, some saying that you forced your way into the job, some saying it was more of a political reward. What's the true position on your appointment?
I will leave that to the appointing authority. But you see towards the end of last year, I was asked to come and help the club. The office was about four months old and they needed to put things together at the secretariat. Most of the NEC members are professionals in their own fields so they didn't have time to come and put things together, especially considering that we were facing a deadline for club registration and licensing. So they asked me to come and help them put together the secretariat and handle the issue of club licensing to ensure that we are in a position to start 2017. It was a short term arrangement so I was asked to come in and handle that which was supposed to take only a month then hand over the report, which I did. We handed over the report on 16th December and we had managed to get the interim license and I put in my recommendation of where we need to move as a club. So based on that, The club offered to retain me for the time being and try to implement some of those recommendations from the secretariat which I'm currently doing. I don't know how you can force yourself to be a CEO of an institution so I will leave that to whoever makes such comments. I know AFC has a lot of political undertones but in my capacity as the CEO, I will leave that to the political side.
KS: Speaking of timelines, your job must surely have a timeline... What is your duration in your contract at Leopards as the CEO?
I don't think I would want to discuss the details of my contract in this forum...But it is time-bound with specific deliverables which are evaluated every six months then the NEC makes a decisions on what needs to be adjusted and what needs to be done. It is however open in such a way that if the NEC feels that we are not achieving what needs to be achieved, they are free to disengage. If I also feel that I am not getting the support I need, I am free to disengage.... So nobody has been imposed on another. I'm now not on an interim basis.
KS: Over the last ten years, Leopards have not been performing as the fans expect.....In your own opinion and as the CEO of the club, what has been ailing Leopards?
What has been ailing the club is marching the history with the fans expectations and with the resources available. As someone put it in a separate forum and if I may paraphrase, we as a club operate on a Manchester United history, with a Huddersfield budget and with Arsenal fans' expectations. In brief we have a huge history which gives us a big name, we have a very limited budget within which to operate and our fans' expectations is beyond description. So in the last years, each administration has been coming in and trying to deliver on the fans' expectations without addressing the fundamentals of the club in terms of resources, structuring and actually having a long-term plan, which is why we have failed every other year.
At the beginning when we started the season, we made it very clear to our members that we want to bring down the expectations first. Don't expect that we are going to win the league; that is not our target this year. We first want to address the foundations of the club, that will give us a strong position moving forward so that we can now be in a position to be winning titles continuously.
One of the biggest issues at Leopards has been legal issues, we have had more than ten cases in court running from fraud, legality of the office and so many things. We have managed to get licensing from the Federation, we have managed to get the registrar of sports recognize the office that was elected...that has helped us in solving some of those legal issues. We've managed to put together a team to review the constitution in line with the Sports Act and those recommendations are going to be put to the AGM of the members this month. We also revised the constitution to model it along a more corporate and sustainable nature...we moved the elections from annual to three years; that helps in planning. We allowed the office to have a mechanism of replacing those members who leave through cooption and those are the stepping stones that we started with. In the next six months, we should not have any more legal issues.
In the last six months, we have also managed to re-do the membership and have a verifiable register. We just made an announcement a week ago that we have about seven hundred registered members in twenty different branches and some of them have registered individually which is allowed in the constitution. We have issued those members with their membership cards and those branches with their branch certificates. That gives stability to the office to now plan for the future.
We made a decision to start the foundation of the club and have a young squad which we can mould over the next three years to be able to deliver trophies for us. We want players who will be with us for a longer time, work together as a team, grow with us and be part of the success story of the club. If you look at such a time a year ago when we had to let go of thirteen players, this time we might let go of only one player and sign utmost four players. That gives continuity and stability to the team.
We had asked Stewart Hall to be our coach for the next two years but he asked to leave earlier than expected and we have accepted his request. We are only going to replace Hall....the rest of the technical bench will remain the same to ensure stability and continuity of the team. We also plan to have a retreat before the beginning of the next leg and just try to engage our players.
KS: As a CEO, what key administrative strengths are you bringing on the table to make sure that these goals are achieved?
I've worked in environments like this before and I believe that has prepared me well for this role. Over the last six years, I have been able to interact with a variety of stakeholders of the club so I understand where they stand, I know which kind of people to tap into if there is something that needs to be done in the club.... that gives me a strong footing in trying to drive for the change that we want to. We have professionals who are willing to volunteer or work at a subsidized rates for the club and my interaction with them gives me an opportunity to engage them very fast.
KS: Six months in, What would you say are your key achievements?
For starters, We have managed to steer the club away from the corridors of justice. As we speak, we don't have an active court case unlike eight months ago where we had about six court cases.
We have also had very many conflicts with players during the transfer windows which have ended up in courts and so on. Over the January and this June window, we have not had a case of a player going to court for wrongful dismissal and we are not going to see it in June. we have had discussions, agreed and signed documentation that in June we are only releasing one player, which is by mutual consent.
Thirdly, we have tried having a harmonious working relationship between the NEC and the technical bench. We have had a lot of push and pull between these two in the past. I have tried acting as a shield between the two. Where decisions have to be made, they have to be made objectively and within the law so that we don't have those conflicts spreading into the playing unit.
We have also been able to go through the membership drive. As a person who has been in this club for a long time, I can confidently say that this is the first time that we have had a membership drive in a non-election year. That's a very good foundation to go forward.
KS: What about the main challenge?
The main challenge for us is revenue. Most of these things require a financial base. If you look at our audited accounts for 2015, we carried a debt of 32 million shillings. If you look at that debt and our 2016 sponsorship deal which was 45 million, it leaves you with thirteen million yet the club runs on a budget of approximately 4.5 million per month on the lower side. You can now see the hole that we are in as at 2016. Part of what the previous office did to ensure that they see off 2016 was to borrow money. So last year's borrowing amounted to 8.5 million and we got penalized in various court cases amounting to about 5 million. So it was a huge debt coming into 2017. One of the things we have agreed on is to stop creating more debts because it is going to catch up with us at some point. So this year, we have not borrowed any money and we have been penalized 177,000 for last year's Homeboyz match, which we have paid. We have also paid part of last year's debts.
KS: Can you take us through Vincent Oburu's case?
The issue was about communication and player management. Vincent signed with us in December 2016. We have policies with which we sign players. We have players who we sign from our junior team where he was playing and we have players who we sign from other clubs, locally and internationally. So we signed with him a three-year contract in December. However as a new player who has never played in the league, he was convinced by other people that the deal was not as good as it should be and that he can get a better deal elsewhere, and they led him to our noisy neighbours to do another contract in January, so we were told. In the normal manner, we took his documents for registration at the Federation and he was registered as our player. On the last day of January, the other team went to the Federation to claim that they wanted to register him yet we had already done that therefore that became a dispute and since the matter was still under dispute, we were not allowed to field him. The matter was eventually resolved in March where he was allowed to play for a team of his choice, but from June as a punishment for entertaining two spouses. So he came to us and said that the club of his choice is AFC Leopards and so we did for him a contract last week which we have handed over to the federation.
KS: Do you feel you were given a fair ruling in March?
From the bottom of my heart, we did not get a fair ruling given the facts that were laid on the table. In fact we have two rulings; we got a ruling in February clearing the player to play for us and the letter says that the other team did not provide any documentation to confirm that they had signed the player. Our disappointment with the ruling is that although they upheld that there was no documentation to prove that the boy signed for another team, they went ahead and gave him a punishment. But it is a decision that we didn't contest and we didn't want this case to keep dragging from one place to another. It doesn't work for us nor for the player.
KS: Having said that, Have you sued the federation?
I personally feel that it was not fair to the club but the better result for us is not engaging in disputes and court cases with the federation. Since we have an opportunity for the player to start playing for us, we would rather let that matter rest.
KS: You were quoted by the press saying that you wanted Gor Mahia to be punished over player-tapping. what informed your decision to say this or is it just a political statement?
As I've said, there was a court ruling which exonerated AFC Leopards and clearly put blame on Gor Mahia for the activities and things that they did which led to the player not playing in the first leg, and it is in writing from the federation. I made that statement after getting that ruling in writing from the federation so my concern was I didn't want the federation to just make a statement that we are going to make a follow up. We actually want to know and see the end of this thing if they have punished the culprits. We need to see that punishment being done so that in future, we don't have to engage in the same things. It is illegal, against football rules and regulations and if it allowed to go like that, others are going to do the same. The player and the club have suffered so we still insist to see what the punishment to the culprits is.
KS: Oburu's case is not the first one. We also previously had Diarra and several others. what are you doing in your capacity to make sure that this doesn't happen again?
The Diarra and Oburu cases are totally different. For local players, we have been very categorical that we are following the rules to make sure that if we are interested in a player, we engage his club and the federation to ensure that we have the proper documentation as we go to engage the player. The Diarra case was whereby the club engaged the player and the club legally but for one reason or the other, we did not conclude on our part in good time to ensure that the player can be released to us. So during that gap, the other club upped their offer for the player and the player decided not to move.
For foreign players, before we can announce that we have a player, we do our check to make sure that all documentation is in place before telling you that we have acquired a player.
KS: You have had probably the best coach in the country in Stewart Hall but less than a year, he is leaving. How and why did your marriage come to an end?
I don't dispute the qualification or abilities of Stewart Hall. He is a very good guy. As I said, we brought him in on a two-year contract and explained to him the nature of the club and what we wanted to achieve. To the best of our knowledge, he was happy with what was there and he agreed to the terms that we had negotiated. We have worked very hard to make sure that he has a conducive working environment. we even moved out training from Marist University to St. Paul's University, Limuru because of his recommendations and we've never had a major disagreement with him. He surprised us when he asked to disengage because we didn't understand the basis. He explained to us that he has family issues that he has to deal with back at home which would not allow him to continue being our coach. He explained that he will not leave Leopards to go and coach another club, locally, regionally or internationally so he wasn't leaving because he had a better offer from another club or because of bad working conditions. So we asked him to give us some time, thought about it and we went back, sat with him and told him that we still believe that he is the right man to be around. But he still gave as no as the answer and insisted that he has to leave in June. So to be very honest, we are still surprised by the turn of events. But this is a professional job so if somebody says they want to pursue a different line in their lives, we have no reason not to allow them and since he gave us notice, we have follow the contract as it obligates.
KS: How does his departure affect the ongoing development project?
The development should suffer zero consequences. This team is not being built around a coach or an individual. We are building the foundation for Leopards for the next fifty years. No coach is going to be here for the next ten or twenty years, so we want to shield the club from a change of policy because one person has left; be it the Chairman, CEO or anyone. We are still on the project, it is long term and we will sit down with the next coach and speak to him about the project.
KS: Was the project Hall's or NEC's idea?
This is a club's idea. I don't want it to be an individualized idea. So it is a collective thing that we are developing. The club should continue growing on the playing side, commercial side, social side and all areas. So it will not be molded around an individual.
KS: What informed the choice of Hall's successor? Was he recommended by Hall Himself?
I don't know where you get the impression that he was recommended by Stewart Hall. I will only talk about Marin in the context that we are having discussions with him to be the next coach. He is not confirmed until the paperwork is done. So for now, he is leading the pack but it is not yet done. We are now in the final stages where we are finalizing on the nitty gritties, which are very crucial. So we are making arrangements for him to come, we have a discussion, share with him the project and if he buys it then he will be confirmed as the coach.
KS: You have done a good job convincing the fans that Leopards are developing a squad for the future but still the current results have put Leopards way off target..... From your season projections of a top 5 finish, was this expected?
The fans are not happy and we are also not happy. But how far are we from our target? The first target was a top five finish. We are seven points away from top four so how do you rate that. In my rating, we are not where we want to be but we are off by about two or three matches. We never started the season saying we wanted to chase the leaders, but only top five and that is our target.
Our second target is to do all we can to be in the finals of GOTV cup, with an aim of winning it. GOTV is five matches and so it is the only target of a win that we have this year.
KS: What are the timelines for the `development project' and when can the fans expect the team to compete for trophies again?
We are balancing the two. There is the project which is long term but there is the fans' expectations which you have to address, which is why we have two targets for the year; one on the project and the other on winning the GOTV to show the fans that we are at least on the right track. So you satisfy the fans with some silverware but again you do not move away from the project.
KS: You are very early in the transfer market, unofficially you are seeking at least two strikers, two midfielders and one defender to strengthen the squad. Unofficially again you are seeking very high profile players in these positions. How does this fit into the development project?
Very early into signing, that's true... it is one of the policies we have that every time we go into signings, we should conclude fast and focus on developing the team. How do the high profiles fit into the development? Both Kitenge and Kizito, who you might be aware we are pursuing, fit very well into our two targets for this year... Both of them are twenty and below so they are young players, and this is their second club in their professional career . On the trophy side, these are national team players; Kizito has more than twenty caps for his country so he is the kind of player who you are not bringing into the club to try and mature him up. So the two guys are players who are going straight into the first eleven and that should help us deliver the trophy that we want to.
KS: Is it true that Leopards is in fact struggling to raise funds for its June transfer targets including the two you mentioned?
Very false. We do not engage if we don't have the capacity to do that... and the reason why we lost players last year was because we did not match the resources offered by other teams. This time, we have matched the resources and the appetite so the personal terms that we have agreed with players, we know we have the capacity to meet it. So there will be no issue about lack of money for payment.
KS: Have you put in mind the possibility of this project not maturing?
There is that possibility. What happens is we put measures in place to ensure that this vision remains intact beyond the CEO, NEC and others. One of the things as I have said is to de-link it from an individual and make it owned by all club stakeholders. I will be very happy to see candidates in the next elections campaigning on improving this vision. Second is to entrench it within the legal framework of the club and we are going to put measures including the proposal of some constitutional amendments in the next AGM. It is not going to have an easy time but we remain focused. We are not chasing away the coach, we are not having legal battles and we have now matured. I am also happy with the way our membership has understood the vision and if we keep that up, I don't think we will be comparable in this region.
KS: The club has previously been unable to pay players salaries... Should fans expect that to happen again this year?
There will be no salary delays this year. This is because our wage bill has been managed and contained to fit into our cash flow. So I can confirm today that no player will go without salary any month. It has not happened and I don't foresee it happening because we have contained our wage bill. For allowances, we had issues last year but this year and as I speak, we do not owe any allowances to any player for this season. We have ensured that the leakages that we had are not there anymore. So we are pleading with our membership to remain focused and show maturity, as they have done so far. We are also very pertinent about following the due process in everything that we do. Again most importantly is to live within our means. We know what we receive so we don't want to promise a player that we will give him two million signing fees if we can't.
KS: The club membership has dropped in one year from approximately 5000 members to just above 500... What do you attribute this to?
We have made a number of changes to membership to make it a bit more strict for someone to be a member. A year ago, the qualifications were very different from the current ones.... You would only need to pay five hundred shillings and you would be declared a member. Today, you need to fill in an application form, attach a copy of your ID, sign to the membership code of conduct, attach your photo and pay one thousand two hundred shillings before committing yourself to be a member for one year. I don't think the numbers have actually dropped because we started this exercise in February and by end of April, we were at seven hundred.... By the end of the year, I see us going back to around four or five thousand members. Given the stringent nature of requirements now, it informs us that people want to see an organized team and they will be members. We are looking to have a membership of ten thousand and above in the next two years.
KS: What efforts are in place to raise the club's membership numbers?
One was to put up a membership framework which is clearly understood. Another thing is to establish strong branches which will help reach out to more people in different areas. We now have twenty branches across the country and they have targets to grow numbers every year. If we can grow the number of branches to fifty with one branch having a hundred members, that will take us to five thousand. If each member can bring in one other member over the next two years, we'll hit our ten thousand target.
Another step we are now taking is to put together a membership value proposition which we are working together with the branches to do, which will entice people to come on board as members. That will distinguish a fan from a member. Right now that is more of sentimental value but we want to move it from sentimental to real value.
We also want merchandise to be discounted for members because it is one area which we know branch members have a proposal they want to bring to the AGM, and it is welcomed. We already have membership cards which we want to digitalize, which one should be able to put money in those cards going forward so that one will come and tap at the gate and enter into the stadium, without needing to purchase a ticket.
KS: The club has a kit partner, Right? How much is the club getting from this kit partner? While at it there have been issues of fake merchandise and the club seems to be silent about this matter...what steps are you taking to deal with it?
We do not have a kit partner. I don't know where you get that kind of information. We are in discussions with two kit manufacturers for purposes of securing a kit partner for 2018. For 2017, we do not have any. What we have is an arrangement where we buy. We have a supplier whom we have agreed on terms for supplying us with specified merchandise. Going forward, we should have a decision by the end of August on one that will be brought on board as a kit supplier for 2018.
KS: What is the club doing to increase the numbers in the stadium?
We have a very engaging arrangement with our branch network. Our branches have a target that they have given themselves in terms of ensuring that we grow match attendance and we engage with them on a weekly basis to try and see how to improve match attendance. Some of the things we are doing in the arrangement is organized transport to ensure that most people can afford and have a way of getting to the stadium. We are also developing a code of conduct for members of the club who travel mainly to ensure the safety of our fans and other people in the stadium is guaranteed. We want to have this safety discussion internally and punish those who are not abiding by it. So we are not going to compromise on the security of fans coming into the stadium. That should help us.
KS: In the last elections, you were in Dan's coalition and part of what you promised the fans was that at the end of your term, the fans should ask you about a stadium... Two years to go now, Will AFC Leopards have a stadium in two years?
It is true I was in Dan's team but we are not going to build that stadium. We have plans to build and develop a training ground for the club and we have a group of members who want to pursue the issue of building a stadium. We have given them the green light to put together a framework for achieving that so it is something that a section of the members want to pursue and we want to support them in whichever way possible. But for the office, we want to acquire and develop a training ground for the team.
How far have we gone with that? We have engaged one of the state corporations that has land to lease us some of the land at a reasonable rate on long term, to develop the training ground. So we have already had two meetings and the land that is being proposed is at a very strategic place and is a place where you can actually develop into a stadium. We hope that by the end of the year, we will have something tangible to put on the table so that going into next year, we move into the actual development of the facility. If that will not work, part of the revenues that will come from the new partners will be directed into acquisition of land to develop a training ground.
KS: How much have you suffered as a club since the exit of SuperSport?
We had already engaged KPL and SuperSport to give us space on the advertising boards to bring in partners who might not necessarily have huge financial muscles but they can pay in a certain amount of money to appear on those boards. We had already been given the go ahead to market seventeen boards in every match and we had now started engaging partners interested. So the exit of SuperSport put a stop in those discussions and it has had a negative impact on us. The live transmission of those matches enabled us to reach more fans than those who come into the stadium but the exit has now limited us. There are also revenues that come from broadcasting matches on SuperSport and the revenue has now disappeared, so it eats in to our revenues. I know the KPL and FKF are working on a new frame work, which we support and want to be actively involved in negotiating. We are not going to accept another SuperSport kind of deal in broadcasting our matches, where we are restricted and given the same amount of money like the rest. As AFC Leopards, we are going to put our foot down that we must get a share commensurate to the value that we give to the league. They cannot go and negotiate a deal worth 200 million based on the value of AFC Leopards and then come and tell us that the revenue we are going to get is the same revenue as Nairobi City Stars. We are not going to accept.
KS: What is the compliance status of the club with the Sports Act?
The compliance status is 90%. Our constitution has some gaps we need to align with the Sports Act. There are about five items that were identified, we have had discussions with the registrar of sports and those five items will be up for approval by the AGM so that we are now in line with the Sports Act. We expect that by July, we should be fully aligned and registered but for now, we have an interim certificate.
KS: What are your targets as the club goes to compete in the SportPesa Super Cup?
The target is to win. We really want that money so we want to win. But most important is to use it as an opportunity to re-invent our year, away from the pressure from fans. We want to get good results then come and build on those results in the league.
KS: It's an election year. What role do you think AFC Leopards plays in National elections?
We want to shield the club from politics, especially this year's. Leopards has a fanbase from across the country and we do not want the club to take sides or be seen to be taking sides. We are a football club, not a political entity. As the leaders of the club, we do not want to take our members into divisions of supporting sides. We are not going to take sides in the elections and every member is free to make his/her own decision in whatever way they want. So we are non-partisan and welcoming players from whichever political side to work with us.
KS: What is your parting shot to members and fans of AFC Leopards?
This is a very interesting and exciting time for the club, and I would encourage all those people who associate themselves with the club to come forward, engage and share their ideas with us. Our offices are at Vision Plaza on Mombasa Road, which are in third floor and is open from 8-5. We want as many diverse ideas as possible so as to move this club forward. We are on all social media platforms so let us use all these to interact with the club. Let us use this time to make the club bigger than we have ever seen and dreamt of, and it also an opportunity for us to chat a new direction for the club.
We should move away from just sitting, whining and complaining, and take up the responsibility of actively participating and shaping up the destiny of this club. As the CEO of the club, I promise that I will welcome all ideas and people, without fear of political or tribal affiliations. We want to be competing on the continental stage , so come and do your part. Come to the stadium, pay at the gate and support the club. We will win, draw, and lose matches but that does not mean the club is on the wrong footing.