Cranes captain sees green shoots, a work in progress

By Robert Madoi

Your columnist had a rich and stimulating conversation with Cranes captain Denis Onyango this past week. There was a lot to unpack especially since the goalkeeper is coming off another productive season with Mamelodi Sundowns that climaxed with a South African topflight league title. It was the 33-year-old’s fifth such title and pretty much sealed his place in the pantheon of Uganda all-time greats.

Onyango’s legend could of course grow that bit more if he captains Uganda to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals in Cameroon. The goalkeeper seemed more worried about the lack of experience in Uganda’s ranks than teething problems under Sebastien Desabre that have seen The Cranes drop eight places in the Fifa rankings. Shorn of the experience and know-how of veterans like Geoffrey Massa and Tonny Mawejje, The Cranes have limped to just the one win in four trial matches played under Desabre. Onyango told yours truly that there are certain intangibles veteran players bring to the table that fans usually fail to notice. These intangibles are the thin line that draws success from failure.

The goalkeeper nevertheless expects Uganda to finish in the top two echelons of a 2019 Afcon qualifying group that also has Cape Verde, Lesotho and Tanzania. After leaving the archipelago of Cape Verde with maximum points on matchday one, Onyango doesn’t envisage The Cranes dropping the ball. Stranger things, though, have happened and the 33-year-old knows this all too well to put a caveat.

After a lukewarm start under Desabre, Onyango perfectly understands why Cranes fans sound a bit fraught. There has been a school of thought that has attributed Desabre’s tepid start to the fact that the Frenchman doesn’t have enough time to replicate strategic plans involving positioning, passing patterns and pressing triggers. Onyango equivocated when I asked him if he subscribes to that school of thought. What he was unequivocal about was that Cranes defenders have to put in the hours in order to better grasp Desabre’s philosophy.

The Frenchman intends for his side to play out from the back. Ultimately, he wants The Cranes to be comfortable playing a high defensive line. For Onyango, this could mean having to play the false five role one too many times. It’s something that the 33-year-old finds himself frequently doing for his club.

Besides the sense of déjà vu, Onyango was pleased to see Charles Lukwago play as a sweeper-keeper when Al Ahly sought to exploit the space KCCA’s high line left during a recent Caf Champions League fixture. He may be pleased with the inroads Lukwago is making, but Onyango believes Ugandan goalkeepers are taking a proverbial step back for every two in front. This, Onyango adds, is largely because trained goalkeeping coaches are few and far between. So, in a nutshell, The Cranes captain believes there’s work to be done. Not all is lost though.

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