Beer with coach Bobby

Football Coach Bobby Williamson
Uganda Cranes Coach Bobby Williamson

In almost two years on the job, Coach Bobby Williamson has given the Ugandan national football team a much needed make-over. Yet, he has also failed to bring it to the popularity of other national teams – but not for want of trying.

For the people who follow the team, Williamson has changed Ugandan football with the aim of creating both a grassroots and a professional system to feed promising players to the national team. But for those who prefer to watch Manchester United play Arsenal – and this is the majority of Ugandans – Coach Bobby has not brought the country any closer to the ultimate football goal, a place at the World Cup.

I met Coach Bobby at Just Kicking, one of his favourite watering holes. This might be Kampala’s best sports bar for watching football matches, but Bobby does not come for the football. He comes to hang out with his friends.

“I do not watch much football. It’s what I do for a living. Plus I like to see the whole field when I watch a game and you cannot do this on a TV,” said the coach.

Before my butt even hit the chair, the Coach has ordered me a beer. I’m a Bell man, Coach Bobby prefers Club. After you get used to his thick Scottish accent, the first thing you notice about him is that he speaks his mind.

“You do not look American!” he told me.

On this night the coach was having a few beers with a group of expat friends, some of whom have lived in Uganda for over 20 years.

Upon hearing that I was a journalist, his friends were quick to sing his praises while at the same time bringing up his fading hairline and prominent belly.

“You do not look like someone who played professional football,” one friend yells to him from across the table. This is not a group for the thin-skinned.

As a player, Williamson scored 138 goals playing for teams in the UK, including Rangers and Rotherham United. Only one year after finishing his playing career, Williamson found himself on the sidelines as a manager.

“I have been very fortunate to make football my life,” he said.

Coach Bobby very nearly did not become the coach of the Cranes. After he heard that the position had opened up, he asked his agent to set up an interview. Upon landing in Uganda and driving through the dusty streets of Kampala, the coach had his doubts. “Culture shock” is what he calls it. After meeting with officials and seeing the facilities, Williamson told them straight away he was not interested.

But after his plane back to the UK was delayed for 24 hours, he had a chance to walk around Entebbe and meet some Ugandans. It was then that he decided that this was an opportunity he could not pass up.

“It was the people who made my mind up. They were just so friendly and I thought ‘If they are so happy, how can I be unhappy?’” he said.

According to the coach, the key to success lies in conditioning, dedication and an absolute commitment from the team members. This includes the coach’s famous requirement that that for any player to be considered for the team must show up five days before the match regardless of who that player is. This was a big step for the team.

The formula seems to be working. Since August 2008, his record has been good and the team just qualified for its first Confederation of African Football tournament in 32 years.

Sitting across from the coach of Uganda’s national team, I had to ask him the question that has been on the lips of every football commentator and fan around the world: who does he think is going to win the World Cup?

“I do not really know,” said the coach as he went on to list about seven teams who could take the cup – none of them African teams, “I have not really watched many games.”

By Ole Tangen Jr.