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He took the reins down in Africa, and he hasn't once looked back

THE conversation moves slowly in the African heat.

Williamson admits it is nice to put sun screen on for training rather than 'root around for a hat, gloves and winter jacket'. Picture: Gor Mahia website
Williamson admits it is nice to put sun screen on for training rather than 'root around for a hat, gloves and winter jacket'. Picture: Gor Mahia website

The introductions have been made and Bobby Williamson is met next by some rather obvious small talk, something he scales down further so that it could fill the blurb of a pocket guide book. The accommodation is fantastic, the people are just great and the weather is fine; it's all good, thanks. The Scottish coach who has made Nairobi his home sounds already as though he is miles away.

The silence which follows is filled by the popular image of Williamson - the taciturn, sombre former manager of Kilmarnock and Hibernian - but that soon fades under the Kenyan sun. In a career which once took him from the fringes of Ibrox to the exotic Hawthorns of West Bromwich Albion, the 52-year-old coach has since ranged south and settled on the other side of Africa. It had seemed an unusual move to take charge of the Ugandan national team six years ago and it was one followed by predictable questions about the standard of living, the quality of football and ill-fitting comparisons to the Scottish game.

Now manager of Nairobi-based club side Gor Mahia, Williamson's responses have become just as formulaic, but only as there is more to be said for his coaching safari. This is told first by his success in winning four CECAFA Cups with Uganda and a league title with Gor Mahia after taking charge last season, and has been chronicled further by experience. He has been invited to dine with a president and explored a landscape prowled by more wild things than Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night in his native Glasgow. He also happens to be a Scot involved in continental competition beyond Christmas.

Gor Mahia will continue their CAF Champions League campaign on Saturday with the second leg of a first round tie with US Bitam of Gabon, the Kenyans having won the first leg 1-0 at the weekend. It is a competition which can feel particularly foreign, at least until Williamson places it into a more familiar context. "We've got a lot of work to do, but it's the same problem that we have in Scotland - you actually play big important games before the season really starts," he says, with the Kenyan Premier League campaign still in its infancy. "I would have liked to have had a month after pre-season before we faced these kinds of challenges, but that's just how it is."

That suggests his side are not yet equipped to make an expedition deep into the African competition. Instead Williamson will rely on coaching tools which were made in Scotland. These have been adapted since the days spent in charge at Rugby Park and Easter Road but continue to bear the hallmark of the Scottish Football Association's celebrated course at Largs.

He is a manager who learned his trade back home and has since taken it to a new frontier. "When I first went to Uganda, a lot of players couldn't understand me, not one word I was saying," says Williamson, hinting that it had as much to do with his accent than his players' grasp of English. "But the coaching practices I learned at Largs had stood me in good stead and I got my points across, slowly but surely."

He would arrive at the vacancy in Uganda just as tentatively, his interview with the country's FA ending with Williamson sounding a retreat from his prospective new venture and turning down the offer to replace Csaba Laszlo, who had left to become Hearts manager. It was only as the Scot killed time before his flight home that his enthusiasm for a new challenge came alive again and he recovered his ambition. Williamson would spend five years in charge of The Cranes before being removed as manager following a faltering start to the World Cup qualifying campaign last year.

A return to Scottish football seemed likely, but Williamson was too far down a road less travelled. "It was just an opportunity," he says of that first job opening through which he would carry his whole life. "I have never regretted coming to Africa. I feel I did a good job in Uganda and it's like anywhere; if you are successful and put in the hard work then people see that and give you a chance. That's what happened. That's how I find myself in Kenya."

It was not a move made in the heat of the moment. It was informed instead by warm humour - "It is nice having to put the sun cream on before going to training rather than rooting around for a hat and gloves and a big winter jacket, that's for sure" - and confidence in a knowledge of African players which could be applied to the demands of club management. The Gor Mahia squad now includes two players who worked under Williamson in Uganda, as well as players he had become aware of and dispatched scouts to assess fully.

Williamson has also been watched closely and at the turn of the year was pursued by Young Africans, the Tanzanian champions; the Scot was even contacted directly by the club's chairman to try to prise him away.

It would serve as a test of character - the coach had committed himself to Gor Mahia - and also of his determination to follow through on a long-term plan. "We don't have a youth system here but I am trying to put one in place," says Williamson, who has also discussed an extension to his contract.

The future has still to come into focus and Williamson is reluctant to look back, not even to watch last weekend's William Hill Scottish Cup ties from a distance. In 1997, he won the competition with Kilmarnock.

"Listen, I don't want to live in the past," he says.

Having made Nairobi his home, he is miles away from that now.

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