Roger Gillard looks back on one of the most extraordinary football tours ever undertaken by a schoolboy side.
Uganda in 1972 was probably not one of the most stable countries on the African Continent, as I had discovered while teaching there several years previously. The euphoria of independence gained in 1962 was beginning to wear off and political unrest was bubbling up, fanned by tribal divisions which were ultimately to lead to the later horrors of the Idi Amin regime. It was not therefore surprising that a few ISFA Committee eyebrows were raised when I suggested a first-ever Public Schools football tour to that scenically beautiful and soccer-mad part of Africa.
However, official approval was finally granted and three members of the ISFA Committee and 17 boys took off on the long flight Nairobi in a state of considerable excitement, tinged with more than a hint of apprehension as we were initially in the hands of the Russian airline, Aeroflot, whose reputation for safety then was not of the highest but who offered us the cheapest fare. The journey included an overnight stay in Moscow and also a conducted sight-seeing tour.
Accommodated in a tourist hotel on the edge of the city, we had the somewhat unnerving experience of being marshalled together outside our respective bedrooms before being escorted to breakfast by a very formidable looking “chambermaid” who we suspected was armed and who clearly had instructions that we were to be kept together and to see as little as possible of either of the hotel or the other guests.
The breakfast was quite foul! As I recall, it consisted of under-cooked fried eggs, sour tasting cucumber and black bread. After the coach tour of the city and a fascinating amble round Red Square (watched no doubt by Soviet agents), we were driven to the airport for the second leg of the journey. Whilst waiting for the plane one member of our party was surreptitiously approached by what appeared to be a young Soviet policeman who inquired whether he possessed and was willing to part with any US dollars. Very wisely the request was declined.
On arrival in Nairobi, after a short stop-off in Khartoum, the final stage of the journey was completed by overnight sleeper on the Nairobi-Kampala express. At no stage in the 24 hour journey did the train travel at more than 30 mph and at frequent wayside stops we were continually accosted by local traders offering for sale anything from fresh fruit to home-made trinkets of various kinds.
After a tolerably comfortable train ride, we arrived weary at Kampala Station to be greeted, to our utter astonishment, by banners on the platform bidding us a warm welcome and a brass band playing military music. This was a wonderful surprise and our spirits immediately revived.
Our base in Kampala was a small hotel called The Fairway and one of the most dramatic experiences of the entire six weeks took place. The staff were apparently in dispute with the owner, resulting in a strike, whereupon the boys offered their services as waiters in the dining room, a gesture greatly appreciated by the owner and other guests in the hotel. One of the Ugandan waiters, however, remained at his post and, while we were sitting at breakfast one morning, we suddenly caught sight of his colleagues lining up outside the glass panelled door, each brandishing a vicious-looking kitchen knife with murderous intent on his face.
On seeing them the strike-breaker rushed from the room in panic, fled down the hotel stairs and out into the street. We watched horror-struck but I have to relate that the whole scene proved too much for one of the three ISFA staff who rapidly disappeared under the table in terror and could only be lured out when told the action had shifted to the street below. He should remain nameless but suffice it to say that he later became a very distinguished chairman of ISFA! We were later to learn that the fugitive had managed to shake off his pursuers.
The most interesting and exciting part of the tour occurred when we were taken up-country to play against Combined Schools teams in three different locations. At Fort Portal, where the first match took place, there was dismay when, on arrival at the local football pitch, it was discovered that the goalposts, consisting of study tree trunks, had been removed the previous night, probably for firewood, and replacements had hastily to be found.
At Lira we were greeted with an array of native spears stuck in the ground beside the pitch, only to discover that one was to be presented to each member of the team as a gift at the end of the game as a token of our visit. At Gulu, where we played our final up-country match, such was the tension engendered during the game that a young Ugandan spectator was so overcome by a hard, by seemingly fair, tackle by the visiting full-back that he seized a knife and was just about to rush out onto the field before he was spotted and duly restrained – a nasty moment for all concerned.
One of the pleasures of this tour was that in between matches and training there was the opportunity to explore the country and a particular highlight was a visit to the Murchison Falls Game Park, where accommodation was provided before us in tents in the grounds of the Paraa Lodge, one of Uganda’s best tourist hotels.
While staying there we were taken by boat up the Nile to the base of the Murchison Falls, dodging dreamy looking hippos and observing crocodiles sleeping on the banks of the river with mouths wide open. Having been warned that hippos, though apparently docile, were in fact one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, one can imagine the concern of Robin Trimby when, on leaving his tent to answer a call of nature in the middle of the night, he encountered one such animal directly in his path. He later informed us that he had returned to his tent with the call unanswered and at a considerably faster pace than he had left it.
On our way back to Kampala, and relative civilisation, we played against a Combined Schools team in Jinja, the second largest town in Uganda, before the highlight of the tour from a playing point of view when we came up against the full Ugandan Under-19 team in the National Stadium in Kampala. An estimated crowd of 10,000 turned out and the boys, who had been unbeaten on the tour so far, were keen to give a really good account of themselves.
The game was attended by the British High Commissioner and prior to the match several attempts were made to contact President Amin to whom we felt it appropriate to extend a personal invitation. Unable to obtain a definite reply, we were uncertain right up to the last minute whether he would attend or not and, since a few days previously he had delivered a stinging attack on the British Government and the so-called evils of British colonial rule in Uganda prior to 1962, I have to confess I was somewhat relieved when he failed to appear and I was absolved from having to make polite conversation with him, aware that a word out of place could have resulted in a diplomatic incident.
The occasion was in fact a huge success with the team, at the end of a six week tour, playing superbly and triumphing 2-1 under the inspirational guidance of Robin Trimby and Chris Saunders, providing entertainment for a large and appreciative crowd.
If there were moments of high drama on and off the pitch, there were several incidents rich in humour. Pride of place must surely go to the occasion at the end of the tour when Chris Saunders and I, together with several members of the team, were invited to take part in a live Uganda TV Sports programme. Introduced by the English presenter as “an interesting group of people from the UK, currently in Uganda”, we shared air time with a film of the Ugandan athletes departing from Entebbe Airport for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
Carefully briefed beforehand as to the particular question each one of us was to be required to answer when our moment of glory arrived, we watched as the newsreel of the athletes appeared on the TV screen. Initially the film was shown upside down and, after apparent correction following due apologies from the presenter, the athletes then appeared sideways on! The farce was compounded by the sudden appearance of several chickens wandering across the studio (the previous programme had been to do with Ugandan farming) and a little man crawling along the floor on his hands and knees with a Ugandan flag which he had forgotten place on a small table in front of the cameras.
By now everyone was in hysterics and, after finally witnessing the athletes with the film the right way up, it was our turn. But to our dismay the presenter had clearly forgotten to which member of our party he had assigned each question and we were all asked questions to which we were totally unprepared. Somehow each member of the party managed to flannel his way through and we were amazed to hear later from the other members of the team, who were being entertained by the British High Commissioner and his wife at their Kampala residence and who were watching the programme, that we had come across in a most convincing manner!
So ended a truly memorable tour. The whole team acquitted themselves magnificently in every way and clearly provided some fine entertainment wherever they played and this was demonstrated by the size of the crowds at every match. The Ugandans proved to be wonderfully generous hosts.
The one sombre note was on the final morning when, as we were driven through the main street of Kampala on our way to Entebbe Airport for the flight home, we passed dozens of Asian shopkeepers standing outside their shops below a “For Sale” sign. They were having to respond to an edict from President Amin ordering them to sell up their businesses prior to eviction from the country. It was the beginning of his “Uganda for the Africans” policy and the expulsion of all non-Africans, which was later to lead to extreme violence and brutality and to scar Uganda for almost another decade.
We had been lucky – a few months later and we would never have had this superb opportunity to see so much of this fascinating country with its marvellously friendly and hospitable people.