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How did a Kenyan striker with 25 caps end up in the Kerry District League?

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This week Adam Moynihan sat down with his new Killarney Athletic teammate Paul Kiongera to talk about his pro career in Kenya, playing for his country and adjusting to life in the Kerry District League

When I first heard that Triona Sheehy, a teacher from Killarney, was going out with a professional footballer in Kenya, I did what any self-respecting journalist would do. I googled him.

Paul Mungai Kiongera immediately passed the acid test: he had a Wikipedia page. That’s all the verification I needed. He must be the real deal.

Then I glanced at the side panel to check out his career stats. The 30-year-old had scored 50 league goals in 110 games for Kenyan Premier League clubs KCB, Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards and Ushuru, as well as two in nine during a short stint with Simba in Tanzania.

But then came the kicker. He had caps for Kenya. He was definitely the real deal.

Fast-forward to approximately one month ago when I got an Instagram DM from Triona telling me that her boyfriend was coming down to train with Killarney Athletic.

“Will you mind him?” she asked. When training rolled around on Wednesday night, I quickly discovered that Paul didn’t need much minding.

But how had all of this come to pass? How did an international footballer from East Africa wind up playing with us, a bunch of amateurs, on a cold and damp August evening in Killarney?

THE BOY FROM WEBUYE

It’s certainly a far cry from the balmy West Kenyan town of Webuye, where a young Kiongera and his friends honed their soccer skills with a makeshift football they had carefully constructed from discarded paper.

Speaking to me at the Killarney Advertiser offices this week, Paul said he has happy memories of his childhood and playing football, though he never dreamed he would make it as a professional.

“It was a carefree environment. We used to play outside, all day every day, kicking the ball. We started playing football when we were young because it was the only sport that was accessible. Football was always a big part of my life."

“At first I played it for fun. Even in primary school and high school I played for fun. Then towards my last two years in high school, my teachers and my coach started saying that I could make a good player. Then I started getting serious with it.”

Kiongera signed his first pro contract with Ushuru FC (known at the time as Kenya Revenue Authority) but just six months later he was snapped up by Kenya Commercial Bank, who handed him his Premier League debut in 2010. He would go on to score 18 goals in 32 games for The Bankers, an impressive return that led to a loan move to Gor Mahia.

The boy from Webuye scored seven times in 21 appearances for his new club and he played his part as the Kenyan giants won the league in 2013. It was Gor Mahia's first title in 18 years.

NATIONAL TEAM

His fine form at club level also caught the attention of the Kenya manager and he made his debut for his country in 2012. Getting the call from the national team was a proud moment for Paul and his family, although (like every other international footballer before him) he admits to not believing the voice on the other end of the line.

“For my first senior cap, I had played a league game on Saturday and on Sunday I was at home resting. My phone rang and it was the national team coach (Vince Ombiji). At first I didn’t believe it; I thought maybe one of my teammates was kidding me or something. So I talked to the coach and I had to call him again to confirm.

“Everyone was happy for me. It’s a dream to play for your country.”

He would go on to make 25 appearances for the Harambee Stars, lining out alongside elite players like Victor Wanyama of Tottenham and Wanyama’s older brother McDonald Mariga, the former Inter Milan defensive midfielder who made history in 2010 by becoming the first Kenyan to play in the Champions League.

Kiongera came head-to-head with some big names on international duty, chief amongst them Liverpool and Egypt star Mo Salah. In a match against Senegal, he also came up against Salah’s Liverpool teammate Sadio Mané and former Newcastle strikers Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cissé.

BUNDESLIGA

While at Gor Mahia, Kiongera was linked with a massive $200,000 move to German Bundesliga outfit Borussia Mönchengladbach but, unfortunately, a thigh injury put paid to any potential move to Europe. Mönchengladbach would go on to finish sixth in the 2013/14 season under current Borussia Dortmund manager Lucien Favre.

“Had I not sustained that thigh injury, I think the transfer to Borussia Mönchengladbach would have happened."

"The injuries slowed me down," Paul admits. "I started to have doubts, and I lost a bit of pace. They had a major impact.”

Not many Kenyan footballers make it in Europe but Kiongera is adamant that there is plenty of untapped talent in his homeland. However, financial limitations and the pigeonholing of African footballers make things difficult for Kenyans who dream of following in Wanyama’s footsteps.

“The issue is: how do the players get to Europe?” Kiongera says. “That’s the major challenge. Most of the players can’t afford it. Even when they’re playing professionally, they don’t earn big money. But honestly, there is a lot of talent in Kenya.

“Unfortunately in Kenya we are known for running! When people see that you’re an African player, they expect you to be strong and fast. That’s the expectation. With football, it’s your decision-making that matters. If you are fast with your decision-making, then you are fast. You can run fast, be physical but if your decisions are slow, then you are slow as well.”

That last observation is telling when it comes to analysing Kiongera as a footballer. The No. 10 certainly isn’t lacking when it comes to athleticism but his real strengths come to the fore when the ball is at his feet. Let’s put it this way, he is currently adjusting to the Irish style of play.

KILLARNEY

Kiongera first met Triona when the Killarney woman was helping her father, Eddie, with his charity in Embulbul near Nairobi. The couple started dating in 2016 and this year they decided to relocate to Ireland. Paul was keen to play a bit of ball so the Sheehys sent him down to their local club, Killarney Athletic.

Paul says he’s enjoying his time with The Blues.

“The lads are good. They’re welcoming and they’re friendly. In Kenya when you move to a different team, people have a mentality that you’re there to take their position. Here the lads have tried to help me settle in.”

And what about the standard?

“There are some very good players,” Paul says, although he could hardly say otherwise when he’s staring me, his teammate, straight in the face.

“I would say that the standard is not ‘top’ standard but you understand that it’s amateur. People don’t get to train every day, just twice a week or three times a week. It’s much better than the amateur standard in Kenya.

"I’ve noticed here that players try to find a solution quickly, try to go long, which is different. In Kenya we love short passing and we don’t hold the ball, but I’ve noticed here that people love dribbling. So it’s quite different.”

When I mention that Irish football is known for its tough tackling, his eyes widen.

“I’ve noticed with the tackling, yeah. They are quite aggressive. At first I was scared but I’m getting used to it.”

Apart from having to adjust to the tactics and the cooler climate (“when you wrap up properly, it’s not a problem”), Paul has had little difficulty finding his feet in Kerry, something he attributes to the warmth of the locals.

“I was surprised the way people are very friendly. I wasn’t expecting it because it’s different in Africa. When you are walking on the road, somebody will say ‘hi’. You see people chatting and you think that they know each other but no, they are just chatting. So yeah, I’m happy to be here because people are friendly.”

The ‘céad míle fáilte’ afforded to Kiongera in Killarney is a million miles from the racist abuse African footballers, and footballers of African descent, are subjected to in the top leagues in England, Italy and Russia. Instances of racial abuse, both online and at matches, are frequently documented in the media but, interestingly, the adopted Kerryman believes that the culprits shouldn’t be given the oxygen of press coverage.

“It’s unfortunate that there are people who are still racist. I don’t understand how you think you are superior to a fellow human being; we are all human beings."

“Sometimes the players need to be strong and ignore it and continue doing what they are doing. If fans are being racist towards you, it’s because something you are doing is good. They are trying to slow you down. I also think that the media shouldn’t give it so much coverage. They shouldn’t give the racists publicity.”

DEBUT

Kiongera had to sit out Athletic’s season opener last weekend as he is currently awaiting international clearance to play in the Kerry District League. The Blues, who won the double as recently as 2017 but finished mid-table last season, defeated AC Athletic 4-3 without Kiongera, thanks in part to a hat-trick from recently returned forward Tony Brosnan.

Manager Stuart Templeman is optimistic that the paperwork will be sorted out in due course and their Kenyan international will be available for selection sooner rather than later. Questions surrounding the eligibility of international players led to a series of messy appeals in last season’s FAI Junior Cup so Athletic officials want to be certain that everything is above board before handing Kiongera his debut.

If (and hopefully when) Kiongera does play for Athletic, he will arguably become the highest profile player to ever line out in the Kerry District League.

And he has the Wikipedia page to prove it.

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Kerry ladies must bounce back at home to Waterford

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All-Ireland Senior Championship Group 2

Kerry v Waterford

Saturday 3pm

Fitzgerald Stadium

The Kerry ladies will be looking to get back to winning ways against Waterford on Saturday following last weekend’s frustrating draw against Donegal in Ballybofey.

The Kingdom led with seconds remaining in treacherous conditions but a late Donegal free snatched a draw for the home side (Donegal 1-6 Kerry 0-9). It was a game that Kerry would have been expecting to win and the result puts a lot more pressure on them this weekend as they try to top the three-team group and earn a home quarter-final.

If they beat Waterford and Donegal do likewise next week, Kerry and Donegal will be level in first place on four points each. The top seed will then be decided by the head-to-head record between the teams. As Kerry v Donegal was a draw, the deciding factor will be whoever scored the most points in that draw. That would be good news for Kerry as they scored nine points to Donegal’s six.

When Kerry and Waterford last met (in this year’s Munster Championship), Kerry needed a late winner by Fiadhna Tangney to prevail by narrowest of margins (1-8 to 1-7). If Waterford beat Kerry and then lose to Donegal, Kerry would be eliminated from the championship.

The Kerry squad has been boosted by the return of Síofra O’Shea who came off the bench against Donegal following a lengthy period out with a knee injury.

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US-bound Kerry runner Lynch hopes to emulate Mageean magic

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by Adam Moynihan

Killarney middle distance runner Oisín Lynch is taking inspiration from newly crowned European 1500m champion Ciara Mageean as he gets set for the next stage of his career in the United States.

This week Lynch confirmed that he will be heading Stateside after accepting a scholarship at Adams State University in Colorado. The promising 800m and 1500m competitor caught the eye of coaches at the leading American college after representing Ireland in the Youth Olympics and also by winning two national titles in recent months.

Speaking to the Killarney Advertiser, the 18-year-old Killarney Valley AC athlete, who is currently doing his Leaving Cert at St Brendan’s College, says he one day hopes to emulate Mageean’s heroics on the international stage.

“The Irish are on the up at underage and at senior level,” Lynch notes. “We have been improving a lot in recent years. When you see Ciara Mageean winning the 1500m it just shows that it can be done by Irish people.

“Sometimes Irish athletes don’t really believe in themselves when they’re getting knocked out of championships by English or European athletes. Mageean winning that European title is definitely something to drive me on. It shows that I can actually do it.”

DREAM

For Lynch, moving to the United States is a hugely significant step, and one that he has dreamed about making since he was a child.

“It’s unbelievable. I always hoped I could earn a scholarship. I worked hard over the last few years, so it’s nice to see that work paying off.

“I had a few schools onto me but when Adams State got in touch, I sized it up and I knew it was a really good opportunity.

“The fact that the college is at 7,500 feet… That’s a crazy altitude. It’s double the height of Carrauntoohil. Altitude training has massive benefits for distance running and nowadays nearly every pro spends most of their year training at altitude. The chance to get that training for the next couple of years is great.

“And their athletics programme is unbelievable. Coach Damon Martin has been there for 40 years and he has coached 12 Olympians. Adams State is in the top 15 for distance in the country and the standard out there in America is very high.”

STRIDES

Killarney Valley AC have made enormous strides since building their new, state-of-the-art facility in 2020 and Lynch is a grateful beneficiary of that progress.

“I can’t thank the club enough. Going back a couple of years we were training on grass in parks. When you want to be a track runner, it’s just not the same. After a lot of hard work by a lot of good people, we managed to get a 200-metre track in Killarney. That’s massive for us and it’s all we need for training.

“The coaches down there are putting in the hard work, including my dad (Con), Tomás Griffin, Jean Courtney, Jerry Griffin, Bríd Stack, Alan Delaney… I could go on. It’s a great club and there are some good athletes coming through. It’s an exciting time for Killarney Valley.”

After Lynch completes his Leaving Cert, he will start preparing for life as a college athlete. He will study kinesiology in Colorado and on the track he hopes to keep on moving in the right direction. That means getting his times down (his current PBs are 1.50.59 over 800m and 3.51 over 1500m), representing Ireland, and hopefully winning a national title in America.

“Obviously I’ll take every step as it comes,” the ambitious Kerryman says, “but the Olympics is the main long-term target, hopefully in LA in 2028.”

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