CHILLIN’ WITH SAZI
All strength to Usuthu and Arrows, may their futures be golden
The Durban clubs have proved that management trust in coaching and playing staff will take teams places
I have followed many a season in the 25-year history of the Premier Soccer League (PSL). But in all those years I haven’t been as intrigued as I am now regarding what is unfolding in the campaign that will be concluded at the end of next month.
For one, there have been numerous occasions when I’ve felt Kaizer Chiefs - four-time winners of the league title and regular collectors of domestic trophies before everything dried up in May 2015 - might have to fight relegation or end the season below ninth spot, the lowest Amakhosi have finished in their worst seasons in 2006-07 and 2018-19.
There’s still the possibility of a relegation scramble if Gavin Hunt’s men fail to follow their remarkable but unexpected victory against Mamelodi Sundowns at the weekend with good results in their last seven fixtures, including yesterday’s encounter against Chippa United.
But Chiefs’ struggles are not the only ones that have been entertaining and keeping us on tenterhooks for most of this season.
Being lucky enough to have been born among the lovely rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, having a soft spot for any team from the province, be it rugby, cricket, football or athletics, comes naturally.
It therefore goes without saying that I have been thrilled to be reporting on local football at a time when Benni McCarthy and Mandla Ncikazi are at the helms of Amazulu FC and Lamontville Golden Arrows, respectively.
It's a huge pity the fervent followers of these clubs won't be able to attend the game because of Covid-19 restrictions.
Interestingly, the pair are having their first seasons as head coaches of these Durban clubs. And Ncikazi is surprising many with his seamless assumption of the head coaching job with Abafana Besithende after numerous stints as an assistant.
The former players – McCarthy a record-scoring striker with Bafana Bafana and Ncikazi a former African Wanderers defender and qualified teacher – will see their teams locking horns on Saturday in a KZN derby that is guaranteed to attract unprecedented interest, and not only in my province.
It’s a huge pity the fervent followers of these clubs won’t be able to attend the game because of Covid-19 restrictions. Eish, this pandemic has no manners.
This derby is ranked way lower than others in the PSL, but not because these teams don’t have rich histories. They owe that to their unpalatable records, particularly in the PSL era.
Only one trophy (2009 MTN 8) has been won by one of these sides in the PSL era yet AmaZulu have played 18 seasons in the top flight, while Arrows, the ones who won that cup with Manqoba Mngqithi, have played one season more than Usuthu.
So as we approach the business end of the current campaign we can’t ignore the wonderful work by McCarthy and Ncikazi in their teams.
Going into their 25th league games against Cape Town City (v AmaZulu) and Mamelodi Sundowns (v Arrows) on Wednesday night, the clubs were sitting second and third on the log, with Usuthu just three points behind the Brazilians and Arrows five points further down.
While Arrows can point to the 2002-03 season as their best – they finished fifth on the premiership log table – it is likely it will be the current season they remember more as Ncikazi has had to make do with players little known in the PSL while finishing his first full season as a head coach of any club.
The highest AmaZulu have ever finished in the PSL was seventh at the conclusion of the 2011/12 season. Clearly the takeover of the club by renowned businessman Sandile Zungu, who grew up in Umlazi, south of Durban, has been key to the revival of one the oldest and loved, but sleeping giants of KZN.
It is the investment Zungu has made and the support he’s given to the coaching and playing personnel who are delivering the results that has many thinking Usuthu have the potential to repeat what they did in 1972, when they won the national league title.
Plans to play in the Caf Champions League next season are already being made by the two clubs in the event one of them wins the league or finishes second. It’s something unheard of in KZN since Gordon Igesund’s now-defunct Manning Rangers won the title in 1996-97, the PSL’s first season.
With his playing credentials serving him well, McCarthy has steered Usuthu to unprecedented heights and it’s no wonder he’s now being linked to a possible move to that vacant head coaching position at Bafana Bafana.
McCarthy’s dream of coaching Kaizer Chiefs may be realised sooner than he ever thought, but for now his focus is on resuscitating the Usuthu that last won a trophy two years before the dawn of our democracy in 1994.
The success of this season presents Arrows with a big opportunity to confidently market the brand more effectively.
Zungu has spoken a lot about making people aware of the Usuthu brand and its history ahead of the club’s centenary in 2032.
He knows they can only gain that support if they constantly win matches and with McCarthy they may be on that path, if they can sustain the current momentum beyond the 2020-21 campaign.
For the longest time KZN-based PSL clubs have failed at sustained success and growth, thus Arrows boss Mato Madlala may have to think hard about how they can help Ncikazi to improve the club using current form as a model for what they do in the coming years.
The success of this season presents Arrows with a big opportunity to confidently market the brand more effectively and approach those big investors who can boost the club’s coffers and long-term plans.
It will be sad if one of these Durban clubs have to fight relegation next season. Yet we know this is a huge possibility.
Being a one-season wonder is something Zungu and Madlala must avoid at all costs. Rangers were crowned SA league champions in 1997, but mismanagement of the club not long afterwards led to their oblivion.
Surely Arrows and AmaZulu can’t suffer the same fate, even if they don’t win or finish second in the league this season. These clubs have already done wonders in demonstrating that success is possible no matter where you are in the country, as long as those in management trust their coaching and playing staff.
Long may it continue.