At Naturena this week, just a day before the sacking of Vladimir Vermezovic, Tinashe Nengomasha did his best to toe the party line.
“Everything has always been fine between us and the coach,” said Kaizer Chiefs’ long-serving Zimbabwean midfielder.
There was a pregnant pause, followed by howls of laughter from the attending media. Nengomasha simply smiled and walked away.
There’s a well known saying in the land of the esoteric that “fine” is actually an acronym for “F***ed up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional”. American rock group Aerosmith even wrote a song about it. That looks a more accurate description of the relationship between Vermezovic and his players, a relationship that had deteriorated to such an extent that Amakhosi management saw fit to fire him only six weeks or so before the end of the season, with a league and cup double still within reach.
Chiefs adopted a policy of denial throughout Vermezovic’s final season in charge, but a sacking is a fairly forceful, if non-verbal, admission that all is not well.
Nengomasha was the latest member of the Chiefs team to appear to have fallen out with Vermezovic when he was dropped from the Chiefs squad for the Soweto Derby on March 17.
Jimmy Tau, stripped of the captaincy earlier in the campaign, Josta Dladla, and Reneilwe Letsholonyane were others all linked to player dissatisfaction with Vermezovic’s methods.
“In all families, if you are not united, it won’t go so well,” said Nengomasha earlier in his interview, leaning slightly more towards revealing a rift. It’s not perfect, but you always try to be united for the club. This is one of the biggest clubs in the southern region, with a winning culture.”
The main problem for the Amakhosi is that this winning culture has simply not been strong enough. Vermezovic did pick up two Telkom Knockout trophies in his time at the club, but the league and the Nedbank Cup have remained out of reach.
For now, caretaker coach Ace Khuse has been tasked, along with his assistants, Doctor Khumalo and Arthur Zwane, to lead the team to success before the end of the season.
And that starts today, with a tricky Nedbank Cup quarter-final against Free State Stars in Polokwane.
There is no little irony in the fact that Stars are coached by Steve Komphela, the man most strongly linked to the Amakhosi hot-seat in recent months. Ea Lla Koto have had a fantastic season so far and could give no better advert for their boss than by taking down Chiefs.
Siphiwe Tshabalala, a former Stars winger, is set to captain the Amakhosi in the continued absence of Itumeleng Khune.
Chiefs are also without the suspended Keegan Ritchie, Bernard Parker and Dominic Isaacs.
“I think they (Stars) have a very good coach in Steve,” said Tshabalala. “They work very hard as a team and are very solid at the back. They have an experienced ’keeper (Kennedy Mweene, who won the Africa Cup of Nations this year with Zambia).
“It won’t be an easy game. Whenever you play your former team it is difficult.”
Nengomasha also believes Chiefs are in for a scrap, encouraging his side to battle hard to lift some silverware at Naturena this season.
“It is unusual, it is disappointing (that Chiefs haven’t won anything this season),” he said.
“I think it is down mostly to consistency. We went to the final of the MTN8 but we did not make it, and although we wanted to win the Telkom we lost in the first round to Platinum Stars.
“We realise the importance of this cup. Teams are not going to come out and hand it to us on a silver platter. We have to go out and fight, and grab it from them.”