I’ll Buc the trend and walk the plank with Pirates
Despite a propensity for mutiny, Orlando Pirates have a hunger that makes me believe this is their year
To throw your lot in with pirates is a dangerous game.
Pirates are volatile and unpredictable and overly emotional. They can be your friend one second, and against you in an instant, and you might never know why.
Pirates will promise you the world’s riches to lure you into their ranks. They will crush your heart like a Caribbean crab under a sailor’s boot.
Just ask any Orlando Pirates supporter.
To write an opinion piece speculating that this, 2018-19, may be the “Season of the Pirate” on the morning before they meet Mamelodi Sundowns at Loftus Versfeld – the scene, two seasons ago, of a 6-0 humiliation to the Buccaneers – is really taking a risk.
But, hey, tomorrow (for you the reader, yesterday, or Sunday) is my birthday and I want to enjoy my day off, and life’s about living on the edge – at turning 44, risky columns are the closest I seem to be able to get, these days.
Whatever the result might have been this (yesterday) afternoon at the Blue Bulls’ hallowed home, this has been the best start by Pirates domestically since their back-to-back treble-winning immortals of 2010-11 and 2011-12.
They have been very impressive. Like their opponents this weekend, Sundowns, they have not come out of the blocks too quickly, and they have plenty of room for improvement.
There are other teams raising their hands early on to be contenders come May. Gavin Hunt’s rebuilt Bidvest Wits, for one. Even Giovanni Solinas’s chameleon impersonators Kaizer Chiefs might be up there, though surely it’s too early for the Italian to contend. He also just seems too nervy for it.
Sundowns, with Pitso Mosimane slowly integrating the new players in his rebuilt combination, and Pirates – where Milutin Sredojevic leads one of the most dynamic technical staffs, overseeing some of the league’s best talent – seem guaranteed to slug it out.
Pirates, for all the firepower and depth they possess to be deployed on the field, and intellect off it, remain a warhead that is as likely to blast its target to smithereens as it is to explode in the deck.
Bucs chairperson Irvin Khoza has shown his intent to break Downs’ recent grip on the PSL, hiring a new goalkeeper-coach, Andrew Sparkes; new head of performance, Franck Plaine; and bolstering the analysis department with Darian Wilken.
The hiring of a specialist finishing coach, Stephane Adam, met with derision when it did not yield immediate results. How ridiculous. Finishing is highly technical. Correcting bad habits and playing patterns, and improving such a department, takes months. Pirates need to be applauded for the move.
The concern, perhaps, is that so many coaches, with an already hefty squad and plenty of players’ egos to massage, could backfire if this experiment in following the international trend of being more manager than coach is not carried out to perfection by Sredojevic.
Add to that a relationship with ambitious assistant coach Rulani Mokwena that Sredojevic has assured all is a partnership, but to the public has increasingly been perceived as the junior member running the show.
Sredojevic has perhaps created a monster – not Mokwena himself, but the public’s perception of the No 2 – constantly crediting his assistant for the excellent work he does.
The head coach is respected across the continent for guiding Uganda to a first Africa Cup of Nations in 39 years, and for his league titles in Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan. Surely he is the boss of the operation.
But the video clips that have swept the internet of Mokwena seemingly repeatedly overriding Sredojevic on the touchline in matches have been hard to ignore.
If Bucs’ management are as intent on silverware this season as they have indicated, then perhaps it’s a situation worth monitoring.
It is a system put together by Sredojevic that, like a Swiss watch, seems like it could either work to infinite split-second perfection, or should one spring pop out of place, unravel spectacularly.
The coach, though, seems a perfectionist. He should be able to bring it off. Harnessing all that friction of ideas and talent into a unified unit could make Bucs monstrous.
If Sredojevic does, with the brains trust he has available, not least his own and that of Mokwena, and player power available, Pirates will be hard for anyone, even Sundowns, to stop in 2018-19.
Sredojevic, Mokwena and their analysis staff go into exhaustive detail deconstructing each opposition. They come up with a plan tailor-made for what they have found. It does not always work, but even then you can see the intention.
Mosimane, Manqoba Mnqithi and his Sundowns team of analysts and conditioning personnel – from which Mokwena migrated to Pirates – are the only comparable technical staff in the PSL.
Pirates, like 2016 Caf Champions League winners Downs, have star quality. Asavela Mbekile is their fifth right-back deployed this season, and the former Brazilian is no stooge at all. He could probably play for Bafana Bafana.
Augustine Mulenga and Justin Shonga are an explosive strike partnership still establishing the telepathic understanding in black and white that they have shown in green for Zambia.
Thembinkosi Lorch is in some of his best form. Luvuyo Memela, returning from injury, is yet to re-establish himself in the front line, having been Bucs’ best attacker last season.
Ben Motswari has been a revelation, adding steel to a central midfield where Xola Mlambo is brilliant on a day and – slowly – finding some form of consistency too, and Musa Nyatama was last season’s club player of the year.
Eleven goals conceded by the one-third stage is far too many for title aspirants – some league winners have let in that many in a season – and Sredojevic needs to find his best back four (or three) fast. But it also points to this not being a team intent on grinding out results.
Again, only Sundowns compare in player quality. Wits have the Hunt factor and will be able to earn results.
The difference, perhaps, that might separate Pirates from those two is hunger. Bucs have not won a trophy since the 2014 Nedbank Cup, and the league title since those trebles in the two successive seasons following the 2010 World Cup.
Motivation should not be a problem. Just their propensity for mutiny and walking their own plank seems these Buccaneers’ greatest threat to themselves.
Personally, I’ll put my neck on that plank and predict that this will be the Year of the Pirate.