An achievement that looked ridiculously unfeasible barely nine months ago, Express StarTimes Uganda Premier League title win is a story that will be told for many years to come.
A classic story of going against all odds to triumph, one that has been only scripted in Hollywood movies, but certainly one that sport and in particular football can write.
The Uganda Premier League has for years been dominated by rivals KCCA FC and Vipers SC who have won each of the last eight league titles on offer. But Express’ triumph overshadowed every other team.
Police FC had their best finish since 2015, at one moment in the season topping the league standings. Bright Stars finished inside the top five for the first time since achieving promotion in 2013, while either KCCA and Vipers finished outside the top two for the first time in a decade.
Breaking barriers and the Leku legend
There is no hiding that Express has been to the lowest of the low in recent seasons. To understand how the Red Eagles were able to break the barriers and stand at the top of the podium, you have to go back to the end of the 2018 season.
The club was primed for relegation when a run of three wins and three draws in their final eight games saw them survive relegation courtesy of Alfred Leku’s solo goal against Masavu FC at Bugonga.
Perhaps a story that will be retold in folks to future generations, but incredibly, that was the moment that Express found the one ingredient that would inspire their rise to the top of Ugandan football again.
At that moment, it was unimaginable that Express could break the dominance of KCCA and Vipers within the next three years.
Back in 2018, Kiryowa Kiwanuka ‘KK’ did not have the slightest clue that he would be stepping into the shoes of his grandfather and guide the club to a league title. But beneath the embers at the Betway Muteesa II Stadium, a plan was being hatched to revive Express.
A new interim committee headed by Hassan Bulwadda was named in February 2018 to help bring a semblance of order at Wankulukuku first by ensuring survival.
Named interim Chief Executive, Hamza Junjju had a different plan of how the club would regather itself. First, amidst the financial troubles engulfing the club, the interim committee sought aid from a couple of wealthy Express fans through a campaign dubbed ‘Save Express FC’; Pastor Samuel Kakande the biggest financer by paying player wages.
Express turn to one of their own
However, the puzzle was not complete. For Express to ensure that they did not continue running in the same circle, they needed a leader; cunning, professional, determined and ruthless. So, they turned to Kiryowa Kiwanuka.
It took serious talks, conviction and of course a word with club patron Prince Kassim Nakibinge to revive the ‘Express spirit’ within Kiwanuka.
KK saw even more. The spirit shown during that run for survival he felt could be harnessed, combined with a deliberate professional approach in recruitment and administration and carry the team back to the top.
When he was confirmed as the club’s new chairman, Kiwanuka promised a complete revamp of the club that had become an embarrassment especially with the chaos that went with Florence Nakiwala’s reign. From having a sponsor in a vacuum to players going months without pay and empty promises.
With the club caught between scandals, Kiwanuka knew where to start; provide a stable administrative base, and with his corporate and legal background, KK drew a fresh board that included club legend Robert Aloro.
Efforts to resuscitate the club
But KK knew he did not have to make changes for the sake of it, and maintained Jjunju and his secretariat to continue the operations of the club, and by August, Express had settled for Kefa Kisala to lead a fresh start.
The new start coincided with the coming on board of major corporate partners Equity bank and then crucially, Betway Uganda. But even then, many did not rate their chances of struggling again.
And indeed, even with the milestones achieved off the pitch, on the pitch the club’s fortunes remained the same. Kisala intended fresh start did not quite take off and the club’s legend was sacked by February 2019.
Kisala was replaced by his former captain George Ssimwogerere, and while he talked a big game during his unveiling, it was clear that he was out of his depth months into the job.
Express continued to be an embarrassment, Ssimwogerere’s incredible metaphor of ‘the club being a Toyota Vitz that was set in a race against a Lamborghini’ after a hammering at Vipers completely telling the story of how far off the Red Eagles were off their rivals.
The club continued with their mid-table obscurity as Ssimwogerere clashed with Express fans on several occasions following disappointing results in the league.
But KK and his board religiously believed in the club legend, holding back the axe even when it looked like a 6-1 defeat to Police FC – the club’s heaviest league defeat – would all but end his uppity reign at Wankulukuku.
All that meanwhile provided the board with crucial information of what was required for the club to kick into the next gear and perhaps take flight. And when he thought they had learnt enough, Ssimwogerere was out, and it was time to try another former hero – Wasswa Bbosa.
Bbosa returns to make Express dream again
Bbosa returned with 10 games of the 2019/20 season to play. He started his second homecoming with a 1-0 win over Onduparaka, the club’s first victory in Arua. And that would set the pace as Express went on to finish 10th as the league was affected by the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.
The highest Express had finished since Bbosa last left the club in November 2016 was sixth in 2016/2017. The agenda at Wankulukuku then seemed like just staying in the top flight was good enough, but that was also about to change.
As the world ushered in a new decade, Express led by KK, new CEO Isaac Mwesigwa and Bbosa set their eyes on the holy grail – winning the league – and breaking the KCCA, Vipers’ stronghold on the trophy.
The last time a UPL champion was not either of the KCCA or Vipers was Express FC in 2012, before we even had a two-league season and club licensing. Express’ triumph was unimaginable even in November, weeks before the start of the new season.
But by the time they were declared, Express were worthy champions. They went pound for pound as they dethroned Vipers, who finished third, two points behind, while KCCA, who even promised a 100-goal season, finished fourth, 10 points behind.
Express opened the season with an unbeaten run of 12 games. The only blemish was the defeat to UPDF. However, that proved to be a blip as they again went on a seven-game winning streak which eventually ensured that they triumphed in the end.
Fuelling the surge was George Ssenkaaba, who scored in remarkable victories over SC Villa and URA FC, and Godfrey Lwesibawa. Ssenkaaba was a largely unknown entity from the second tier who previously had unconvincing stints in the UPL.
Lwesibawa, meanwhile, had been around but has always been suffering from bouts of inconsistency.
However, at the midway point, roles were changed. An injury to Ssenkaaba which kept him out for the rest of the season meant that Eric Kambale was handed the mantle. Crucially, Martin Kizza had completed his move to the club after paperwork issues were sorted.
The two made Express an implausible title contender and even when there was a predicted implosion at some point, that never happened as Express went on to even secure victories over rivals URA and Vipers.
Instead, it was URA who looked well placed to end their seven-year title drought that collapsed following a 3-2 defeat to relegated Kyetume FC, handing top spot to Express which they never relinquished until the season was again halted by COVID-19.
Bbosa settles for pragmatism over flair
Bbosa’s tactics this season placed pragmatism over flair, and with the addition of a strength and conditioning coach Hellen Buteme, whose previous roles were with rugby teams, Express had the ingredient to outrun any opponent.
Not the most flamboyant in possession, they adopted their style to swiftly pouncing and scoring on the counterattacks as they racked up 17 wins from 26 games.
The leaky defence also tightened up with the addition of Murushid Jjuuko, Isa Lumu and captain Enock Walusimbi. Goalkeeper Mathias Muwanga also incredibly came to the party and was not beaten in 16 of the 26 games this season.
Daniel Shabena and Mahad Yaya Kakooza have won admirers for their grit, fight, interceptions, tackles and work across the field.
Ridiculed for being too basic, too conserved and one dimensional, Bbosa will now go down in history as the mastermind of the great Express triumph, perhaps the most engrossing of the seven titles in the club’s history.
The challenge that lies ahead
The challenge now will be keeping the squad together and significantly strengthening to cope with a continental expedition in the CAF Champions League.
And just as their bid to win the title this season was forecast to crumble, their success this season is being seen as a one-off, Express has to prove doubters wrong again.