He was the mainstay of Uganda’s golden generation of the seventies.
He also captained The Cranes to the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations, held in Ghana. An elegant sweeper, Kirunda was known for his outstanding technique and tactical insight. As a coach, however, he miserably failed to live up to the expectations. Jimmy Kirunda admired Germany great Franz Beckenbauer so much that he emulated him in all aspects of the game; from the sweeping position to captaining the national team.
And for all the great things Kirunda did on the pitch, he is best remembered for the late winner against Ethiopia in 1977, a result that sealed Uganda’s berth at the 1978 continental showpiece.
The ‘Kaiser,’ as he was fondly known, had an explosive ten-year career at KCC, holding down a permanent spot for the Yellows. His consistency and insatiable appetite for the game commanded the respect of KCC fans but in one of the most controversial decisions in Ugandan football, he shocked the team by joining SC Villa in 1982.
He was born in 1950 to late Henry Kirunda and Constance Nawalu and grew up at the football-mad suburb of Mulago. That provided him with a great head start at a tender age, together with the local children at the famous playground nicknamed ‘Maracana.’ Thus, throughout his school days at Mengo Primary School, Naggalama and later Old Kampala SSS, football remained Kirunda’s biggest passion.
That passion was turned into a career when one Steven Kakooza spotted and enticed him into joining him at Mulago FC. In 1965, Kirunda part-timed his schooling at Naggalama by playing for Kampala District Bus Service (KDS) and a year later, moved to Old Kampala SSS where he became part of the formidable side that also had the likes of Polly Ouma and Ali Sekasamba.
It was around that time that he featured for second tier Lint Marketing Board (LMB) and when the national league was introduced in 1968, Kirunda starred for topflight Express FC at the same time. Weird as it is, the football laws at the time permitted such an arrangement.
After a satisfactory performance in both leagues, Kirunda, who, by now, had switched to defence, got his first taste of national team football with the youth side in the annual Friendly Cup in Ethiopia.
Kirunda earned his first cap with national senior team during a friendly match between Uganda and Burundi, which marked Pope Paul’s Uganda visit in July 1969. He came on for Steven Baraza and partnered veteran Ibrahim Dafala in central defence. KCC coach Bidandi Ssali admired the 19-year-old and immediately signed him to build a formidable side that would later rule Ugandan football for over a decade.
As an inducement, Kirunda became fully employed by the institution as an accounts clerk and in 1973, he was elevated to sports officer—a role he kept for 10 years.
On the pitch, Kirunda’s artistry, combined with a swashbuckling personality won him the hearts of the Lugogo faithful and he responded by playing a vital role for the club in its bid to join the topflight in 1974.
He transferred his club form to the national team, helping Uganda win the 1973 Cecafa Cup not to mention qualification to the1974 Nations Cup held in Egypt. Just weeks to the Egypt-hosted tournament, Cranes German tactician Westerhoff Otto clashed with national captain Ouma and as a result stripped him of the armband, only to hand it to Kirunda, who by then was still an upstart in Cranes circles.
It didn’t occur to anyone at the time that Kirunda would become the longest serving Cranes captain. His first assignment as skipper was the 1974 Nations Cup and the Cecafa Cup later that year but on both occasions, the team didn’t live up to the billing. Nevertheless, there were signs of positive returns in near future going by the terrific understanding in defence, where Kirunda partnered Ahmed Doka.
Kirunda’s pace and power was complemented by a ferocious shot and great heading ability. He also became an expert of dead balls but, surprisingly, didn’t want to take penalty kicks and never took one in his entire career.
It was his hard shot which hit the crossbar in 1975 and ended in the stands, killing a staunch Express fan, one Kiggundu (brother to Gen Katumba Wamala). At KCC, Kirunda’s partnership with Tom Lwanga became one of the most potent in the club’s history; the pair, alongside Moses Nsereko and Phillip Omondi, was widely viewed as a team within a team at the club.
In the 1976 campaign which earned KCC its first league title, Kirunda scored only three goals, but his 87th minute equaliser against Simba SC still evokes sweet memories among the club fans. It all started when Moses Nsereko played a long ball to Chris Ddungu and the striker passed it to Kirunda who raced, beating three defenders and drove the ball into the corner of the net beyond Paul Ssali.
That title marked the beginning of Kirunda’s great transformation into a versatile player. KCC went on to retain the league title the following year. On the national front, Kirunda guided the team to the 1976 Cecafa Cup title and the following year, he was in Somalia where The Cranes won the regional tournament for keeps. In 1978, KCC won the Cecafa Club Championship but, despite Kirunda’s best efforts, missed out on league success.
It was an incredible season for Kirunda in which his amazing 32 goals in 28 league matches won him the top-scorer award. That record stood for 21-years until Andrew Mukasa broke it in 1999. However, what still stands is his six-goal haul in one match against Lira-based Black Rhino. Indeed, Kirunda carried his form to the continent, where he scored in KCC’s narrow aggregate win over Ethiopia’s St. Michael in the Africa Club Championships.
He was on the mark again scoring the equaliser against Algeria’s Mouloudia in Kampala. He also found the back of the net in the return leg but minutes later the Algerians secured a win to eject KCC. But what would perhaps become the defining moment of his career came in November 1977 against Ethiopia in a Nations Cup playoff.
With the 90 minutes elapsed, the Ethiopians were going through on away goals rule, when Kirunda scored a stoppage time goal against Ethiopia which earned Uganda a slot to the 1978 Afcon. He went ahead to spearhead the team to the final, where they lost to hosts Ghana. In 1979, Kirunda went to the United Arab Emirates and signed for Abu Dhabi Sports Club.
He returned to KCC the following year (1980), and reclaimed his Cranes armband. Coincidentally, KCC won the Uganda Cup as well the 1981 league. That would prove to be Kirunda’s final appearance for KCC.
In the close season, Kirunda became one of George Mukasa’s first signings as SC Villa coach. He left a void at Lugogo which took time to fill as KCC coach Nsereko experimented with George Serunjogi and Kent Lutaaya before John Latigo established himself as an able successor. It didn’t take long for Kirunda to thrive at Villa Park, using his experience to help upcoming players like Paul Hasule find their feet.
With Kirunda and Hasule in tandem, the Jogoos won the league title unbeaten and Kirunda emerged the club top scorer with 13 goals. He was also voted the Uganda Sports Press Association ‘Sportsman of the Year.’ In August 1983, SC Villa suffered a 1-4 defeat at the hands of lowly Masaka Union, a battering angry SC Villa bosses blamed on Kirunda’s profligacy.
An incensed Kirunda pulled off another shocker – this time making a U-turn to KCC. Around the same time, he also part-timed as coach of another topflight side Bell FC. In 1984, he helped KCC win the Uganda Cup but in an abrupt move, decided to retire that year. In 1985, he signed for Buikwe Red Stars as coach but along the way, he played four games and guided the Mukono-based side to the topflight.
He then switched to second tier Cooperative FC but couldn’t repeat his promotion magic. In 1989, he was appointed Cranes team manager up to 1996, in a period Uganda won three Cecafa Cups. He embarked on a coaching career and served as Cranes Team Manager. He is currently the personal assistant to the Fufa president.
The author is Director Marketing & Promotions of The Observer Media Ltd.
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