Calvin Marlin was on the verge of a big-money move to Mamelodi Sundowns. There was no stopping him.
All Pitso Mosimane and his SuperSport United boss Stan Matthews needed to do was swiftly find a replacement.
Come to think of it; a foundation was being laid for a sustained period of success that would follow at Matsantsantsa. And down in East Africa, there was a young striker-turned-goalkeeper carving a niche for himself by, Denis Onyango.
His former teammate Postnet Omony had told his agent Ivica Stankovic about this budding goalie. Snooping, Stankovic put a call through to Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic, who was coaching SC Villa at the time to ask about this youngster. The young custodian came highly recommended despite his nominal senior team football experience.
“Micho told me that Denis was not ready; he needed another year,” Stankovic tells FARPost. “He was right because the year Denis spent in Ethiopia was quite helpful instead of coming to South Africa and spending so much time on the bench.”
At SC Villa in 2004 and 2005, Onyango was one for the future, but there was little room for him. During that period, the 16-time Uganda champions boasted some of the best goalkeeping talents in East Africa. In fact, every man who stood in between the sticks for the Kampala side between 2003 and 2005 was an international.
Omony himself, who had stints with Bloemfontein Celtic and Black Leopards in the PSL, was the country’s number one, while Hannington Kalysebula also guarded goals for the Cranes, as did Ibrahim Mugisha, a naturalised Malian. Matthew Ottamax was entrusted with keeping plans for the Harambee Stars in neighbouring Kenya. Ramadhan Elengesa was with Burundi.
In essence, in Onyango’s two years at Villa Park, he fought it out with veteran internationals and getting regular game time was always going to be an issue.
So, when Sredojevic, who tells FARPost how much he believed in the boy, left the club for Addis Ababa, Onyango tagged along. And his life-changing opportunity was beckoning.
William Shongwe, who was Bafana Bafana goalkeepers’ coach at the time, remembers the day ‘Jingles’ told them about this good goalkeeper in Ethiopia. They were in Gaborone for the Cosafa tournament. Whoever had told Mosimane about this goalkeeper had undoubtedly done a good job. He was as good as persuaded that he was about to unearth a generational goalkeeping talent.
“I remember we were playing Cosafa in Botswana, and we lost to the hosts on penalties in the final. Pitso told us on Friday that he needed to leave immediately after the game on Sunday because he had to fly to East Africa to watch a goalkeeper he had been told about. He said, ‘before I make a decision, I need to see the boy’,” Shongwe tells FARPost.
The date was 21 May 2006, just a week after Onyango’s 21st birthday. Onyango had been picked for the CECAFA Senior Challenge. So, when the Bafana assignment was done for Mosimane after losing 6-5 to the Zebras after a penalty shootout, he was ready to get onto the next one!
“We would have stayed another day, but because we had lost, we decided we’d all drive back that same day with Coach Pitso,” Shongwe recalls.
In Gauteng, Matthews and Stankovic were waiting for Mosimane. Tickets to Dar es Salaam were booked already. Monday was the departure day.
“Denis played three matches at that tournament, and Pitso and Stan saw quality right from the first game,” recalls the Croatian agent.
Interestingly, Onyango knows he instantly impressed the men that had travelled all the way to watch him. “Pitso signed me after watching me for only one match,” Onyango says.
Right in the middle of an hour-long telephonic interview with Stankovic, his mind recollects a funny story after the deal was as good as done.
While in the country that is home to Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, they decided to watch the Kariakoo Derby between bitter rivals Young Africans and Simba SC. The reasonable thing to do for three football-loving men was to watch Tanzania’s biggest football game, attracting 60,000 fans on a blessed day.
Maybe Mosimane thought he would spot another uncut gem while observing East Africa’s biggest derby. Sitting right in the middle of the stadium, sandwiched by Yanga fans on their left and Simba enthusiasts on the right, there was nowhere to go when ‘war’ broke out.
“So, it got tense, and they started fighting. Police got involved, and they threw teargas to disperse rowdy fans. Stan Matthews, Pitso and I were crying for an hour,” says Stankovic.
The visiting trio were not spared as the tear gas smoke filled the air. What followed was chest tightness, coughing and a choking sensation. “We had to be taken to another room. Whenever I see Stan, he says I’m not going anywhere with you. Pitso says, ‘even if it’s teargas, it was worth it for Denis’,” he adds.
Indeed, it was all worth it. The soft-spoken goalkeeper has risen over the years to become arguably the best goalkeeper in the continent.
Of course, prizing him away from Ethiopia’s St George’s was no easy task. With one year left on his deal at the time, his agent of 15 years reveals that some club officials were unwilling to let go of their rising prodigy.
Interestingly, exactly a season after joining Matsatsantsa, they won the first of their three successive League titles. His best clean sheet count to date stands at 13, achieved from the 23 league matches he played in the 2006/07 season – his first in the PSL.
His former teammate at SuperSport, Thabo September, recalls how he quickly fit into the team. “He proved at SuperSport that he’s the kind of goalkeeper who wins you titles. At SuperSport, we won titles because of a good defence and goalkeepers. When we were winning the League, we would sometimes get 1-0 wins,” September says.
Thereafter, he moved to Mpumalanga Black Aces in 2010 before Sundowns signed him in 2011 after just a season at the now-defunct club. “The move to Aces was just to market him and show what he is capable of,” explains Stankovic.
Strangely, at Chloorkop, he once again started as a very marginal fourth-choice keeper and had to spend the 2012/13 season out on loan at Bidvest Wits FC. Furthermore, his agent believes that move was strategic as Gavin Hunt knew him from their time at SuperSport.
“It was all about self-belief and the people I had around me,” Onyango says.
In just two seasons upon returning, this time under the tutelage of the man tear-gassed while scouting him in Tanzania – Mosimane – he went on to win the League, the Caf Champions League and the 2016 Caf Player of the Year award, the most accolades ever won by a single Ugandan player in a calendar year.
“[At some point] I thought it was over, but Coach Pitso told me I had a chance if I fought hard,” he says.
In total, his League title haul is nine, while he has also added two Telkom Knockout Cups, two Nedbank Cup titles and the Caf Super Cup.
It came as no surprise when the Kampala-born shot-stopper was voted among the top 10 goalkeepers in the world in 2016, ahead of Barcelona’s Marc Andre Ter Stegen and Petr Cech of Arsenal.
His reliability between the sticks has been further enhanced by his standing as the only goalkeeper with double figures in his clean sheets count midway through the 2020/21 season. Interestingly, he looks set to eclipse his 2006/07 record.
When the Brazilians beat Chippa United 2-0 on 31 January 2021, the result meant Onyango jumped up to 10 clean sheets in only his 14th league match – one of the quickest dashes to a double-figure clean sheets count ever in PSL history.
September believes it is no fluke that the man has won titles wherever he has played. He describes him as an influential goalie.
On the international front, while being awarded the best goalkeeper in Africa award for the past three years, he helped Uganda end a 39-year Africa Cup of Nations absence when they made it to the competition in Gabon in 2017.
As he continues to assert his status as the continent’s best number one, the 36-year-old is now the most decorated player in the history of South African football. This comes after he recently helped the Brazilians to their fifth consecutive league title.
Onyango, who hails from Busia, some 195 kilometres east of Kampala, became the first player to win nine South African league winners medals.
From the look of things, Onyango may just be PSL’s most decorated footballer when he is done with the world’s most beautiful game. And for Mosimane & Co, that teargas moment will indeed be worth the pain!