NAIROBI, Kenya, July 15 – When Englishman Steven Polack first landed in Kenya, he quickly earned himself a reputation as a top-notch football coach; his winning streak didn’t just speak volumes of his coaching knack, but worked to endear himself to a myriad of Gor Mahia fans countrywide.
But little was known about Polack the man. What was he like beyond the coaching circles and the training ground? What makes him laugh? Does he like anything else apart from football?
And as Capital Sports would find out, he is a man of laughter, an easy man off the pitch who loves to make himself a lovely meal and apart from football, has an undying passion for golf.
In between the demanding nature of his work and coaching one of the biggest clubs in East Africa, Polack is quick to underscore his golfing penchant with vim and vigour.
“I like golfing. It’s one of my biggest hobbies. I am currently playing off handicap 26 just because I have not had much time to go golfing. I haven’t played golf for probably a year now,” Polack revealed to Capital Sport of a hobby very few in the football fraternity know much about.
Although job commitments consume the better part of his time, the former Asante Kotoko tactician never shirks from showcasing his dexterity with golf clubs when time allows. He does not play golf competitively though and treats it as a pastime.
Perhaps picking up a cue from some great sporting coaches and players who swing the golf club occasionally to relieve the pressures of the coaching cabin. Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale are some prominent footballers who are into golfing.
Two sports that he hugely enjoys both, Polack loves the variety that comes with both.
“Actuality, the difference is that in golf you play against yourself. In football you play against the other team- you are not playing against your own team players. If it’s a Par 4 and I manage seven strokes, I don’t care. The thing is that I’m out and about. Imagine walking at my level of play; it could be at least three to four hours. This is really healthy,” the 59-year-old explained.
While in Nairobi, golf is what consumes his time away from the job, but for him, family always has a special place in his life.
He comes from a family of four, three of them girls and him being the only man in the household. The four have blessed their parents with 16 lovely grandchildren.
“I have two children. My son will be turning 23 soon. I talk to my family on a regular basis. My mum is incidentally the one putting my pictures on Facebook telling friends and relatives about myself. But my family is really very important to me.”
-Sports runs in the family-
For Polack, football runs in his blood.
“Football has been my passion since I grew up. My dad comes from the West Indies. He loved cricket and had a ball and a bat which I used to play around with. So, sports has been part and parcel of our family.”
The tactician was born in Birmingham, England but had a huge chunk of his career in Finland where he also holds citizenship. He played football as a defender for many years as an amateur, although he was balancing that with many jobs on the side.
In 1984 he went to Finland to pursue his dream as a professional footballer and did so for 14 years until 1998 when he retired aged of 37. He played for FC Inter Turku who have won the League title once, two Finnish Cups and one League Cup.
“I played the last six matches for FC Turku as a manager. I could have continued but sustained an injury on my left knee and the doctor decided it would be wise if I didn’t play anymore. I was a player coach for the team at the end of 1998 and we got them from the first division to the premiership which they still are into.
“I was head coach of our Under-20 team. But they got a more experienced coach by virtue of joining the Premier League as I had never coached before. So I remained the assistant coach of the senior team, which wasn’t a bad idea considering that I was a greenhorn in the field of coaching.”
-Journey to the African continent-
After years in Finish football, Polack took the sojourn into the African continent for the first time in 2007.
His first stop was Kumasi, Ghana where he did two seasons with King Feisal Babes FC. In 2011, Pollock joined Berekum Chelsea FC for a year, then returned to do a bit more coaching in Finland before returning to Ghana in 2017.
He joined up with giants Asante Kotoko, but what he anticipated to be a flowery and successful stint in Ghana’s capital ended in a sad divorce, just a year into the marriage.
“I lost my job there after our defeat in post-match penalties of a CAF match. We came back on a Thursday and then they brought me a letter on a Friday saying they didn’t need me anymore,” said Pollack who reckons that his sacking was executed in bad faith.
He stayed off the coaching radar for a few months but soon, 1987 Mandela Cup Champions Gor Mahia came knocking on his door in August 2019.
He moved to Nairobi to work with K’Ogalo on a two-year contract as a replacement to Hassan Oktay.
In his maiden season, he has already made his mark with Gor, leading them to their title number 19, albeit on COVID-19 circumstances and went on to rite history by becoming the first coach to win the Fidelity-Sports Journalists of Kenya (SJAK) monthly award thrice in one season.
“I came to Gor on a Wednesday and we played the CAF Champions League match on a Sunday against Burundi’s Aigle Noir. We drew 0-0 in Burundi and won the return leg at home. So, I’m glad that I delivered the first round of the CAF event to go through and the Super Cup in Machakos within 14 days of being here as a coach,” underscored Polack.
-Man of principle-
Just like all coaches worldwide, Polack is a man of principle who believes in his methods. Discipline and hard work are his buzzwords- and he likes it that way.
“When you are disciplined you succeed in many things that you do. It helps you focus more on your goals. Time keeping is also of essence on your way up. I wouldn’t expect a player to come to training 30 minutes later without any prior explanation. It’s not a good sign,” Polack said.
At Gor, he says the biggest impediment has been the lack of a stable training base as they have been forced to shuttle between the plastic pitch at Camp Toyoyo and the grass surface at the Parklands Sports Club.
Even in the midst of success, Polack says that coaching is not a comfortable ride, but just like a rose, it has a myriad of its own thorns.
Top of that, is the difficulty that comes with achieving results on every match day.
“Every team which plays Gor Mahia makes it look like a Cup final. Same case like when I was in Ghana with Asante Kotoko. But that is nice because It keeps us on our toes since every game tough. When you are at the top everybody wants to knock you off there.”
Meanwhile, Polack has also addressed the issue of ‘juju’ or ‘research’ as is fondly known back home. The practice is commonplace in West Africa and some parts of East Africa.
“Everybody has their own superstations. In Ghana there is this thing about ‘juju’ which is very common and which I don’t believe in. When you play everything happens on the pitch and results are determined by abilities,” he says.
Another challenge that he has faced both at Kotoko and to some limited extent at Gor is crowd trouble and this is something that he totally abhors and has called on fans to behave in more civilized ways.
“You don’t have to be aggressive to make an opinion, by wrecking the stadium and pulling chairs. Gor spectators are fanatic. But some supporters are sheer troublemakers and I don’t have time for those who partake in this infamous trend of hooliganism. They are not supporters to me. Supporters are those who get behind their team and their coach.”
-Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic-
Gor Mahia head coach Steve Polack reads a book as he relaxes at his Nairobi apartment. Photo/RAYMOND MAKHAYA
The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic which started sweeping across in Africa in March has already led to Gor being champions after Football Kenya Federation announced an annulment of the season.
And even with work on the field no longer tenable, Polack has found the going challenging.
“I miss going out to the training field. I had quite a number of drills that I wanted to try out but when the President announced pandemic restrictions in March, I knew that the 2019/2020 season was gone.”
“My worst moment was when I got injured during my playing days. I was probably out for eight months. It was so hard to sit and watch the team play. It was a hard moment for me. We all have our ups and downs but thanks God I got through it.
Sometimes you want come back a better and stronger player. I remember I came back a stronger and better player in the North of England. The team wrote a book and I was in it,” said Polack.
“My best moments come to when I joined Gor Mahia. It has been a successful journey so far, winning three Coach of the Month trophies in one season meant a lot for me and my team,” Polack stated.