Bobby Williamson; A Decade in African Football

In the final part of our interview with Bobby Williamson, having heard of the tales of his journey across football in the UK, we explore his unique experience across African football, while also exploring more into African football itself. 


Back in May, African football made the headlines after Mario Balotelli sent out a message on social media, in short, he challenged African footballers to follow him back to the continent and leave what he believed to be “Racist Europe” behind.


Obviously, Balotelli’s message is very deep and talks of an overwhelming frustration within the Black community throughout Europe with a message that has never been so prominent now. But within the post Mario also mentions the quality of African football ‘that is never appreciated abroad”, and maybe he has a point?


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In Africa, there are 63 stadiums with 40,000 plus capacity. Africa is also home to some of the biggest, most fierce rivalries in world football. Kaizer Chiefs vs TS Galaxy in South Africa once had an unofficial attendance of 173,850 people in an 80,000-capacity ground. And some of the best players in the world today come from the continent!


Mohamed Salah (Egypt), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon), Sadio Mane (Senegal), Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal), Riyad Mahrez (Algeria), Achraf Hakimi (Morocco) and many others who are undoubtedly world beaters and yet all play within Europe. There is clearly talent within Africa with unbelievably passionate supporters. Yet poverty and diseases put so many people off the continent. So why did Bobby Williamson decide to go?


“I never in my wildest dreams, throughout my whole career before that, had I ever conceived the possibility of going to Africa, it just never once crossed my mind, why would it? But after Plymouth, I was looking for a job and I saw that the position of national manager in Uganda was available.


Obviously, you consider how your life is going to change but as I’ve mentioned I’ve always wanted to push myself and try new things. So, my management got in touch, I had an interview, and we took it from there. A few days later I found out I had the job.”


Bobby took over as the national manager of Uganda in 2008 and began a trend for the nation where every permanent manager since has been from Europe. And Bobby was, and still is, the second longest-serving manager in the national team’s history bested only by Polly Omua between 1989-95.  The trend of European Managers in Africa isn’t just kept by Uganda either; of the 57 registered nations, 27 are run under European management, which doesn’t sound too shocking until you realise that only 27 other teams have African managers.


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Even Uganda today is managed by fellow African adventurer, Johnathan McKinstry of Northern Ireland who has also taken the helm at Sierra Leone and Rwanda. Maybe for many of these managers, they see Africa as a stepping stone, Johnathan McKinstry is a prime example of this when he became the youngest manager in world football when he took over Sierra Leone at only 27.  


The opportunity to manage on the continent can clearly to a great entry point into a managerial career, with high-level play and constant competition. But how high is the standard in Africa? Clearly, the continent has the ability to produce world-class players so could Africa hold a haul of unpolished Diamonds? We put this question to Bobby… 


“Honestly, you’d be amazed. Even now when you look at teams like Uganda, they have brilliant players who are scattered across the continents. Many of them playing in France but also there is a large contingency of African footballers in places like Japan and Asia. In terms of their actual footballing ability, some of these guys are top-quality players.


They can run with the ball, pass the ball and strike the ball as good as most professionals in the UK, but what they lack is that tactical awareness and footballing knowledge. So, when I went in my job was to help give them that. A lot of players in England and Scotland take for granted that they know where their players are making runs and when they are going to make them.


In African football, that awareness must be taught but once they have it, they do have the ability to do great things. Then above that the Africans are very passionate, they are so willing to learn and want to be the best player that they can be which sometimes in football is missing, more so in recent times.” 


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As mentioned before Bobby is the second longest-serving manager in Uganda’s history and this was down to relatively high success in the nation. In 2013 they very nearly qualified for the African Cup of Nations under Bobby which would have been an amazing achievement considering they hadn’t qualified since 1978 when they finished as runners-up. Bobby also helped Uganda reclaim its crown of the CECAFA Cup (Cup competition for central and east African countries) in 2011.  


Bobby was sacked in April 2013 and finished with a pretty impressive record 34 Wins 15 Draws and 11 losses. His two most impressive results came in the 2011-12 season. A 1-0 friendly win over Morocco who were 31 places higher than them in the World Rankings.


And then a 1-1 draw in World Cup qualifying against Senegal who were 47 places higher than them! For reference that’s like Scotland beating France today. At their height, Bobby took Uganda to 81st in the World Rankings back in January of 2013. So, to go through this and experience the colours of the African Cup of Nations and the passion of the fans what was that experience like? 


“It was all a really great experience. Not just being a part of the tournaments but see how much those games meant to the people of Uganda. As you will know Uganda is a country that is full of poverty and problems but like for so many people around the world football acts as a release and an escape and yet in Uganda and other African countries it can mean so much more and to be a part of that and to feel that responsibility is something special.


We played well and we got some good results but as we got closer to the World Cup, I could tell that the writing was on the wall. The country’s federation had been through some changes and I could tell that I wasn’t going to be on those plans.” 


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But Bobby didn’t just leave African football, at this point he was hooked. He moved to Kenya and took over club side Gor Mahia in the Capital Nairobi. Bobby took over in 2013 and in his first season helped the side to their league title in 18 years. This title win helped springboard Gor Mahia to where they are today as one of the most dominant forces in Kenyan football.


Since leading them to the title in 2013 they went on to win the title again in 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 18-19. Meaning they’ve only missed out on the title twice since Bobby left. A truly good legacy to leave behind. Bobby only left the club after being offered the national team role after his first season. He took over Kenya in 2014 and had mixed success for the two years which he was in charge. 


“I take a great fascination in African football; I began my journey into sports media because of the South African World Cup in 2012 and the African cup of nations back in 2013. I used to record blogs (Which you cannot find, thank God) talking about the tournament, watching the games, picking my favourite players. 


The whole thing just enveloped me, the passion of the fans, the passion of the players. Seeing these incredible players that no one had ever heard of and then eventually watching massive underdogs Zambia win the whole thing.


I loved every minute of it and still to this day find myself supporting the nations that make it to the World Cup. Maybe there are underlying reasons why European managers go to Africa, but for me the African love for the game is good enough. There really is a true passion, a dream that all the players there aspire to reach, it’s no wonder that Bobby spent eight years of his life there!


By: Callum McFadden / @Callum7McFadden

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Barrington Coombs – EMPICS / PA Images