Seven points from nine games, one win, four draws and four losses! That’s definitely Kaizer Chiefs’ worst start in PSL history and certainly one of the worst in the club’s history. Positioned 14th on the log, something has to give!
Where did it go wrong? Is it the departure of coach Ernst Middendorp? I say NO, emphatically! Is it the well-documented FIFA ban? Certainly not and I feel it is a combination of a lot of things, but the main reason is the scouting and recruitment system. Yes, the team finished second last season, having led the log standings for the better part of the campaign, only to be dethroned in the last 30 minutes of the season by Mamelodi Sundowns. Heartbreak, disappointment, disaster and anguish for the Naturena-based club. Rival supporters had a field day, celebrating the misfortune of Amakhosi, mindful of the fact that had Middendorp’s charges won the league, no one would hear the end of it from the team’s passionate and so-called ‘noisy’ supporters.
It came as no surprise that Middendorp would leave the Soweto giants as his pragmatic approach was not what Amakhosi were renowned for. With him winning the league or not, the writing was on the wall that a new sheriff would be in town come the start of the 2020/21 season because, by his own supporters’ admission, the brand of football played by the team was far from pleasing on the eye. What everyone has since come to realise is that Middendorp actually deserves a huge pat on the back for steering the team as well as he did. Former American boxer, Floyd Mayweather, always used to defend himself against critics by saying, “Men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t lie!” in reference to his achievements in his glittering boxing career. Love or loathe the Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States of America-born boxer, but you can’t argue with his numbers. The same thing applies to Middendorp. With almost the same team, he finished the season on 57 points, two behind eventual winners, Pitso Mosimane-led Sundowns.
When Middendorp was shown the exit door, with the FIFA ban hanging over Amakhosi, if there was one local coach who could steer the ship into calm waters, it was thought and expected that Gavin Hunt would be that man. Inheriting a team that almost won the title looked appetizing, on paper, but the four-time league title-winning coach would soon realise that his inherited side had much deeper problems than he would have thought. No one would have expected Hunt’s Amakhosi to be languishing in the relegation zone after almost a third of the season, but that’s the sad reality faced by the experienced coach and Amakhosi. Interestingly, Hunt’s team is just two draws away from matching Middendorp’s number of draws in the whole of last season! Of even more concern is the fact that three more losses and they would have matched last season’s seven losses! This is Chiefs’ season in a nutshell and this should be a cause for concern. Amakhosi, kwenze njani (what happened)?
There are a number of reasons/excuses given for the team’s poor showing, but let me try to analyse, from a distance and using hindsight, which is the best. Chiefs have not, since they last won the league title five years ago under coach Stuart Baxter, had a solid team that is championship material! I have always maintained that Baxter saw it coming and decided jump before being pushed. That season’s squad had most of its juice squeezed out and the squad was ageing. What needed to be done was a gradual overhaul but, sadly, that never happened. Instead, a shortcut of replacing quality with quantity was embarked on, which resulted in some players signed and released without making any meaningful impact. Pound-for-pound, Chiefs have not been able to stand their own against arch-rivals, Orlando Pirates, and Sundowns over the last five seasons and that’s a fact! You can argue about a few individual players that they managed to sign, like Khama Billiat, Lebogang Manyama, Leonardo Castro, Ramahlwe Mphahlele and Samir Nurkovic, to mention five, but in terms of assembling a quality squad of players with depth, they’ve been found wanting. To further illustrate this point, take away all of Nurkovic’s goals last season and see where Chiefs would have finished on the log!
This season, Hunt hasn’t had the luxury of having Nurkovic in his team and that’s now translated in the team’s lackadaisical performance in front of goal, where they’ve only managed to find the back of the net seven times in nine games so far, one goal less than Themba Zwane’s goal tally, conceding almost half the total number of the goals they conceded in the last campaign. It is easy to win games with individual brilliance, but it takes the whole team to win the league. Khama can flatter to deceive and make you think Chiefs are a top-class team when he and Manyama are on song, but you can only go so far with that kind of performance. Last season, they conceded 27 and their defence has already been breached 13 times in nine games so far! Could things have been done better by the coach? Absolutely! What coach Hunt should have done is to continue from where Middendorp had left off, forget about beautiful football and apply the ‘horses for courses’ approach just to get through this rough period until he’s able to assemble his own team rather than trying to get them to buy into his own philosophy. Surely that would make a lot more sense even if it means compromising your own identity, philosophy and approach as games are coming thick and fast, so that you don’t dent your image and that of the team. Now you find some of the very same people who were calling for Middendorp’s head making a sharp U-turn and wishing he had stayed. Middendorp clearly did what he could with what he had, looking at how his Maritzburg United team is playing now. They are playing attractive football because they have enough ammunition to do so, which goes to show that his pragmatic approach was influenced by the material he had at his disposal.
At the risk of sounding hypocritical, after emphasizing the importance of Chiefs taking the CAF competitions seriously, I think it is time they focused their attention more on their bread and butter and forgot about prioritizing the Champions League, lest they find themselves fighting relegation. Here’s to hoping that Amakhosi will start climbing the log standings and hold their own until the coach can finally get a chance to sign his own players when the playing fields have been levelled after the FIFA ban. Until then, you can’t really expect much from the team and one can also hope that there are lessons taken by the team’s management from this rather disappointing, hurtful and embarrassing period.