Feet may be in his mouth, but his heart’s in the right place
So give Bafana coach Stuart Baxter a break, and if he fails it will be his own sword he will eventually fall on
It is problem when a Bafana Bafana coach is not getting the results on the field, and then exacerbates that with his statements off it. The two are not a sustainable partnership. That much has been seen time and again.
At the end of his post-match press conference to another underperformance in his tenure, Saturday’s 0-0 Africa Cup of Nations stalemate at home to 101st-ranked Libya at Moses Mabhida Stadium, Stuart Baxter took it upon himself to make a speech.
Speeches are a problematic notion, and, from the experiences of past Bafana coaches, best left not done.
The motivation was worthy: defending midfielder Dean Furman, who had been outstanding and whose selection has at times come in for criticism.
It started well.
“I thought Dean was outstanding today,” Baxter said. “And I know that when we select teams there’s always someone who pops his hand up and says: ‘What about Dean Furman – why is he playing? And what about Fred and Tom and Harry?’
“So when you make that kind of comment you must feel pretty silly when the player puts in a performance like Dean did this afternoon. Dean’s an asset to South Africa and I think anybody who doesn’t see that doesn’t know football. And constant negativity towards certain players, or the whole of South African football, doesn’t encourage anybody.
“As Dean said, we know what’s gone down today. We know that we should have won. We are disappointed we didn’t win and we’ll analyse it and try to come back stronger. But I have to say that players like Dean – a player who puts his heart and soul into every game – I think we all need to ask ourselves a question: Are we fair with that criticism, or not?
“Somebody said the crowd ignored us. I thought the few who came out in this torrential rain were fantastic.
“Are Bafana Bafana's stocks at the top of the tree at the moment? No they are not. I think we all have that responsibility – not in the least, me – to try to have a product that we can enjoy.
“I think that if we all pull together and then create an environment where people like Dean feel wanted, then we have a better chance. I just want to throw that one in because Dean does take a little bit of unwarranted stick. I thought he was magnificent today.”
A seemingly relatively uncontroversial sentiment. It’s good for a coach to defend a player who has just performed well.
But then a journalist asked for a chance to respond. Baxter was taken to task for the phrase: “… I think anybody who doesn’t see that doesn’t know football”. He had used the same term – a figure of speech – earlier in the week when son Lee Baxter was appointed to the camp as goalkeeper-coach as a replacement for Andre Arendse.
Baxter does struggle to say things in a manner that will not rub South Africans the wrong way. The coach, as with his appointment of Quinton Fortune as assistant last year, is too oblivious to what will offend and what will not.
But there are two sides that have not always been presented in roping in Kaizer Chiefs’ Lee Baxter as goalkeeper-coach. Bafana keepers Itumeleng Khune and Ronwen Williams were pushing for Baxter junior to have the role. So in effect all Baxter was doing was giving the players what they wanted.
When the coach said Lee Baxter is the most qualified in the country – another overly-dissected statement that sparked outrage – he was referring to paper qualifications, not the more loosely defined who is best for the job. And Lee Baxter has his Uefa A Licence certificate, and a string of others too, making him, in terms of paperwork, more “qualified” than most PSL head coaches.
Any coach, too, wants his own technical staff as a like-minded sounding board he can trust.
A year and three months into his tenure, the Fortune debacle aside, Baxter has had to make do with the remnants of predecessor Shakes Mashaba’s technical staff. And the fact that SA Under-20 coach Thabo Senong no longer seems willing to be a Bafana assistant, and Under-17 head Molefi Ntseki has come into the senior team, seems to indicate just how well that has gone.
But Baxter’s continued insistence that he has submitted recommendations to the SA Football Association, and that budgetary constraints and politics and a dragging of feet have delayed the process, again show the coach’s ability to put his trouble where his mouth is.
Indications from Safa are that this is not so. Either way, coaches just should not bite the FAs that feed them.
What Baxter seemed to be trying to say in his speech, though, and what got lost in a somewhat petty back-and-forth of who knows what about football, is that he is the one in charge, and it is his neck on the line.
There are four matches to go in the Afcon qualifiers. Once the Furman selection issue was a major hoo-ha, but he seemed to prove his detractors wrong, and not for the first time, in Durban on Saturday. So who is to say other issues – such as the Lee Baxter one – cannot go the same way?
Baxter has a job to do. If he fails to qualify for Afcon 2019, he should go. If he goes to Afcon 2019 and cannot get past the first round, he should go.
It might not be popular to stand up for Baxter in any way at the moment, but frankly, some of the reaction is a little over the top. Perhaps the coach should be allowed to do his job the way he thinks it can work. If it does not, at least it will be his own sword he will eventually fall on, and not someone else’s.
Perhaps that was what the coach was trying to say in his speech. As so often can be the case, though, Baxter just could have somehow said it a little better, less defensively and indignantly, and dare one say it, less arrogantly. Then perhaps it might have found a more sympathetic ear.