David Gateri arrived at the Stadium of Light with dreams of brighter days but like the Biblical Moses, he saw the Promised Land Canaan but never got in. No!
He actually set foot in Canaan but his stay there was very short – one, two, three…Just three days in the land of “milk and honey” and the dream was gone.
A two-week trial at then English Premier League (EPL) side Sunderland in April 2013 was cut short by a groin injury. So bad was the injury, a Grade Three groin strain, that he couldn’t kick a ball for the next six months. Just like that, his breakthrough was gone.
“It was the lowest moment in my life, I remember I didn’t sleep that night. I asked myself many questions: “Why now? When things looked like they were opening up for me?” The feedback was positive from the Sunderland coaches. I started with the Under-18 team then moved to the reserve (Under-23) team and everybody was impressed,” says Gateri shaking his head in disbelief.
“The arrangement was that Sunderland would sign me then send me on loan to a Scandinavian league to gain experience of playing in Europe, then take me back. But then I tore my groin, the physiotherapists said it was going to take long to heal and I couldn’t complete my trial. I had to leave,” recalls Gateri, as he struggles to hold back the weight of those memories.
A month before the Sunderland trial, he was part of the Harambee Stars squad that held Nigeria to the historic 1-1 draw in Calabar under the guidance of Adel Amrouche.
In fact, he started the game but was withdrawn for Edwin Lavatsa after 75 minutes with a groin problem. It’s that game that earned him the trial at Sunderland. The club had been tracking him for some time.
“There was interest from Sunderland, (Portuguese club) Braga, and another club in Spain but the academy (African Soccer Development School) was not interested in the latter two since they could not match their offer. But after the Calabar game, Sunderland showed keen interest.
I was advised to do light training after the Nigeria game so that I could give my groin time to recover. There was no way I could postpone the trials because such opportunities come once in a lifetime. When I got to Sunderland the intensity was higher than I expected and my groin could not cope,” said Gateri with watery eyes.
For the next one month, Gateri couldn’t walk. Surgery was suggested as the first remedy by ASD Capetown medical staff but the Kenyan international was not for the idea. Then luckily, he got a physiotherapist who helped him get back on his feet three months later.
“At some point I almost gave up. I started thinking of other things I would do for a living apart from football but deep down I felt that I had unfinished business with the game. I was not where I wanted to be. It’s not always about the money. I decided to become a footballer because I fell in love with the game.
“My late father (Stanley Wainaina) was a big football fan and he cultivated that passion in me. I remembered his last words when I went to visit him in hospital. He asked me if I still go for my morning run and reminded me that I have to work hard to be a top player. There was no way I was going to let him down,” Gateri vividly recollects.
“Growing up I never lacked anything I needed to play football because of my father. I don’t come from a well-off family but he ensured I had boots and any other equipment. For him football came first before anything else. Whenever our academy coach came home looking for me, my father would tell me to stop any chores I was doing and follow him to the field. This did not augur well with my mum. Even when I got home late so long as I said I’m from watching a match then my father would not question me further. He made me love the game,” Gateri opens up on his mad love for the game.
The journey to full fitness was not easy. He had to put in more hours in training to regain his shape in the “most difficult moment in his life.”
“The physio told me there was no need for surgery but I needed to do a lot of strength training during the rehabilitation process. He guided me through it but it was not easy because it took me five months to lose weight and regain my fitness. If not for support from my family, I don’t think I would have made it,” said Gateri, who was part of the Harambee Stars squad that won the 2013 Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup in Nairobi.
After working so hard to return to the pitch, he suffered another setback. This one was beyond his control. Salt River Blackpool ASD, a third-tier side where ASD Capetown players featured after graduating from the academy, folded up in June 2014 due to financial constraints.
Recovered and full of energy, Gateri returned home to ponder his next move. Then in December that year, South Africa came calling again through top-tier side Ajax Capetown.
“There was this agent who always wanted me to sign for Ajax Capetown but ASD insisted that they couldn’t sell their players locally. We got in touch and he secured me a move to Ajax.
It was a done deal but the South African embassy denied me a visa due to the influx of foreigners in their country. The window lapsed and the deal fell through leaving me with no option but to play locally,” offered Gateri who joined Bandari in January 2015.
Here, he reunited with his friends David King’atua, Wilson Oburu and Anthony “Muki” Kimani. The presence of Ken Odhiambo, the coach who gave him his KPL debut, also helped him settle in Mombasa, an environment where many players struggle.
Gateri was signed alongside Kimani, King’atua, Musa Mudde and George Abege as part of concerted efforts by the coastal outfit to improve their performance.
And the dockers had their best season finishing a historic fourth in the league before winning the domestic cup under Twahir Muhiddin. For Gateri, who had nailed a starting place at left back, it was double joy as he also became a father in May that year.
“It was a big year for me since I won my first trophy in club football and played regularly as a fullback. I also returned to the national team and getting a son (Giovanni) crowned it all. It was a big motivation to me knowing that I had to work twice as hard to provide for him,” he said.
With Bandari set to take part in the Confederation Cup the following season, they went on a spending spree bringing in the likes of Daniel Sserunkuma, Edwin Wafula, Edwin Lavatsa and Felly Mulumba yet Gateri kept his first team place.
While Bandari had a flying start to the season beating Gor Mahia 1-0 in the traditional curtain raiser, The Super Cup, Gateri had one to forget.
He injured his knee in the Super Cup after colliding mid-air with George “Blackberry” Odhiambo in the first half and was replaced by Wafula.
A week later, while not fully fit, he played the entire 90 minutes in the first leg of the Confederation Cup preliminary round clash against St Eloi Lupopo but missed the second leg after aggravating the knee injury in a league match against AFC Leopards.
“I had a very good pre-season only to be slowed down by the knee injury. I felt so bad because I was looking forward to a good season. I played 90 minutes in Lupopo when I was at 70 percent fitness. I had to take an injection to play the full game. But in the AFC Leopards game, I couldn’t take the pain anymore. Football can be depressing and unpredictable sometimes,” he says before biting his lower lip.
As the big names failed to make Bandari tick, Gateri also struggled to regain his first team place even after recovering from injury. Changes in the coaching department fueled his move to Nakumatt in January 2017.
“I was spending a lot of time away from my family and my young son really needed me at that time. That was the main reason behind my move to Nakumatt so that I could be closer home to my family,” said Gateri.
At the newly promoted Moneybags, Gateri enjoyed a good six months before their sponsor supermarket chain Nakumatt collapsed leaving the club in disarray mid-year. Two months later, Gateri injured his heel (on the right leg) in a league match against Nzoia Sugar and he returned to the sidelines for another two months.
The financial situation at Nakumatt did not improve as they struggled to stay afloat in their first season in the KPL. After recovering from his injury, a frustrated Gateri moved to second-tier side Ushuru in January 2018 seeking a new lease of life.
But there was no respite at his new home. He suffered yet another injury during preseason that derailed him. He broke his wrist and stayed out for almost two months and in June conditions became unbearable.
Gateri opted out and returned to the top-tier as part of Robert Matano’s rescue squad at a struggling Tusker.
With Matano having guided Tusker to third in the league that season, the veteran coach did another reorganisation of his team ahead of the short transitional 2018/19 season.
Gateri was among those deemed surplus to requirements at Ruaraka and he moved to Mount Kenya United (formerly Nakumatt) in November. After a torrid start to the season, that saw them dish out two walkovers, Gateri ditched the financially strapped side for his boyhood club Nairobi City Stars in April this year.
Signed alongside Noah Abich, Heritier Luvualu, Paul Odhiambo and Ebrimma Sanneh, the immediate task was to pull the club out of the murky waters of National Super League relegation zone.
“City Stars is my home team so it comes first. It was an easy decision to make since I wanted to help them (avoid relegation). They also had a sponsor (Jonathan Jackson Foundation) compared to Mt Kenya where I received only one-month salary for the six months I was there. It was the hardest time for me as a player. You can imagine you have a family and they depend on you fully but you have no income yet you report to work daily. I was lucky I had a few businesses that kept me going, I wonder how some of my teammates survived,” said Gateri.
It’s City Stars, then World Hope, that offered him his KPL debut at the tender age of 14. This was a debut that still remains etched in his mind for all the bad reasons.
“I didn’t touch the ball on my debut. Coach Ken (Odhiambo) introduced me for the last five minutes but anytime someone had a chance to pass to me, he turned and passed elsewhere. I cried that night as I reflected on my debut. Is it because I’m too small or I’m not just good enough?” recalls Gateri who lists Francis Thairu as his number one mentor.
There was no time to waste with niceties since games were coming in thick and fast in the NSL. Gateri played seven out of the 15 second leg matches as the Kawangware-based side finished 14th to survive the chop.
“This was the first time in my career I was facing relegation. And the pressure was even more since everybody expects you to deliver twice as much. Luckily we had other experienced players in the team and we managed to survive,” offers Gateri.
This season, Gateri and co have raced to the top of the NSL log where they have 40 points from 16 matches and enjoy a six-point cushion. On evidence of their start, City Stars are on course for promotion to KPL and Gateri can’t help but bring his father, a diehard World Hope fan, back into our interview.
“My father was a diehard fan of Kawangware United. When it changed its name to World Hope he still used to follow the team to every match. So for me this (promotion) will be a very emotional moment for me. It will mean a lot, it’s more than winning any other cup.
Seeing some of his friends at Hope Centre during our home matches is very fulfilling. My return alongside Kimani and Oliver (Maloba) have given fans that sense of belonging. The entire Kawangware is now united behind the team,” said Gateri with deep conviction.
Looking back at his career that has been blighted by injuries, Gateri is “proud” of what he has achieved. In his own words “a glowing tribute” to the man who saw a superstar in him.
“I remember one time we were travelling to our rural home and he was reading a newspaper in the matatu while I was sitting on his laps. He showed me a photo of John ‘Mo’ Muiruri and told me I want you to play for the national team one day. It’s sad that he didn’t see me make my debut for City Stars or even the national team since he died in 2008. The only achievement he saw is when I made the Copa Coca Cola dream team that travelled to Brazil in 2008. I wished he lived longer to see what I achieved but I’m sure he is very happy and proud of me wherever he is.
“I think I have done my best and I was lucky to be supported by good coaches in my football journey. Coach Nicholas Ochieng’ who was like a father-figure to us, Ken, Oliver Page and Adel Amrouche also played a big part in my career,” he said.
With 14 appearances this season, three goals and as many assists, the 25-year-old is enjoying the form of his life. His career might have been dimmed at the Stadium of Light but he strives to inspire the next generation of Kawangware football stars every time he plays at Hope Centre.
“City Stars helped me achieve things I only imagined of. I would not be where I am today if not for this team so it’s all about giving back. When we return to the KPL. we will inspire another generation of football stars in Kawangware.
“We have unity in the team and everything is working well for us from the management, technical bench and playing unit. The main goal is to stay on top and secure promotion,” says Gateri.
And while at that, he still has the dream of playing professional football – returning to the “land of milk and honey” for a longer stay.
“Every day I push myself harder because I still feel I have it in me. You never know God’s plan, this is football and anything can happen. I have not yet given up!”
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