In a few weeks’ time, the iconic Villa Park in Nsambya will be no more. The Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra) has finalised plans to demolish the one-acre piece of land to pave way for the construction of a flyover.
This has been Villa’s home for the past 43 years, dating back to 1976 when the club was known as Nakivubo Boys. Back in 1975 when Villa officially broke away from Express FC to start competing on its own, Edward Luyimbazi Mugalu, Dunstan Musoke and Joseph Kabundi, the architects of the breakaway, settled the club at Nakivubo Settlement grounds.
In fact, the team’s first name was Nakivubo Village FC [which would later evolve to become Nakivubo Boys, then Nakivubo Villa before settling with its current name of SC Villa in 1981].
However, due to the busy schedule at Nakivubo Settlement, which used to regularly host music and arts festivals, this couldn’t allow for a conducive football atmosphere. That’s when the club relocated a short distance away to Nsambya in 1976.
A ground just near Sharing hall became their new home but a few months later, the club settled a few metres away in what looked like an abandoned bushy ground belonging to Uganda Railways. The club officially applied to rent the facility, which was granted by the management of Uganda Railways for Shs 5,000 a month at the time.
It would later be known as Railways ground until 1980 when new Villa chairman Patrick Kawooya rebranded it as Villa Park. I remember it wasn’t a rosy start for Kabundi, who had to juggle the role of team captain, coach as well as administrator. On many occasions, he coached his players to pass the ball at the expense of shooting partly because stray shots that ended up in the surrounding bush made it difficult to retrieve the ball.
There was also the fear of snakes biting people and it was not uncommon to have a rat crossing the field even as the training sessions went on. I remember some of the team’s first set of players included Kitatta Semakula, Shaban Mwinda, Kabundi, Muhammad Kalema, John Mapeera, Peter Kitaka, Fred Mukasa, Asumani Sentongo, Robert Alembe and Ahmed Seguya who would later become the first NRA army commander.
Within a few years, the club had established its base at the grounds and started expanding the size of the place by cutting down the surrounding bush.
The disbandment of Express FC in 1977 created an opportunity for Villa’s rise as several former Express officials joined forces to raise Villa’s profile. Officials and supporters such as George Faison Ddamulira, Eriab Kamya, Fred ‘Guy’ Kawuma, Charles Jaggwe, Patrick Kawooya and Dan Lule helped to recruit a new pool of star players.
The year 1981 proved to be Villa Park’s breakthrough year after mass recruitment. The acquisition of Coach George Mukasa, Jimmy Kirunda, Godfrey Kisitu, Dan Lutalo, Jamil Kasirye, Fred Serwada and Paul Hasule stood out and on any given day, Villa Park would become a hub of sorts as hundreds of football fans jostled to see the star players.
Villa Park would also become the hub of innovations when Kawooya introduced training kits with player names on the back. The act of selling football memorabilia such as Villa-branded scarfs, key-holders and horns started at Villa Park and the flurry of activities there made it more than just a training ground but also a business centre.
It became normal to have a traffic jam – a rarity in Kampala those days – at Villa Park because hundreds of fans and prominent personalities used to flock there to see the club trainings. I also remember the day a youthful William Nkemba, fresh from completing his senior four exams, walked into Villa Park for trials in 1984. David Otti noticed his excellent game-reading abilities and immediately drafted him in the team.
The hiring of Geoff Hudson as Villa coach in 1988 further turned Villa Park into the epicentre of non-competitive football because he turned around training sessions to be like feisty competitions for places on the team. Incidentally, talk of Villa’s looming eviction from the ground date back to the eighties and reached a head in 1990 when Kawooya opted to relocate the club to Masaka.
But somehow, the club management has always found a way to remain in the place until the latest developments by Unra made it inevitable to leave. It remains to be seen how the club will cope in the aftermath, but there may never be another place like Villa Park.
The author is The Observer operations director.