After the naming of his first squad, for a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria next month, Baxter is certainly making all the right noises – not just in the composition of the squad, nor in his refreshing, positive attitude, but also in how he has opened up the lines of communication with PSL coaches.
Too often, in the past, Bafana coaches have worked in isolation. Too often they have adopted an arrogant, I-know-it-all demeanour, but then prove to be palpably naïve by their lack of planning and tactical awareness. And too often they have selected players for reasons that have nothing to do with form and the ability to perform at a higher level. Baxter has very quickly eschewed all three of the above-mentioned.
As Cape Town City coach Eric Tinkler remarked after Baxter phoned to ask him about Lebogang Manyama and Aubrey Ngoma: “It is the first time ever a Bafana coach asked for my opinion on players. It’s the right way to go because, as coaches, we spend the most time with the players.”
If this is an indication of how Baxter intends to change the way a Bafana coach operates, then it’s only right that we doff our caps. It’s something that’s been sorely lacking and such candid communication about selections can only be good for the progress of the national team.
The squad to play Nigeria is also clear evidence that Baxter has given deep thought to how he wants to play, especially in the away leg. It’s a horses-for-courses policy.
For example, the two forwards Tokelo Rantie and Thamsanqa Gabuza. The blistering pace of Genclerbirligi forward Rantie has troubled Nigeria in previous games, while the bustling, aggressive approach of Orlando Pirates man Gabuza is always good to unsettle a defence.
It doesn’t mean that the inconsistent Gabuza will be a regular Bafana selection – for Baxter, the point is that the Pirates man is good for this particular game, because his unorthodox style and physicality suits the occasion.
It is for this reason too that the squad is loaded with players with big engines, like Abbubaker Mobara, Hlompho Kekana, Andile Jali, Dean Furman, Themba Zwane and Bongani Zungu. Baxter knows how he wants to play in west Africa and he’s picked his squad accordingly.
Importantly, too, Baxter has rewarded form. He hasn’t sprung any surprises on the public. Football followers, for the most, are a knowledgeable bunch; they know when a coach is pulling wool over their eyes. In football, form is king – it’s there for all to see: Lebogang Manyama, Aubrey Ngoma, Percy Tau, Darren Keet, Kekana and more.
You cannot argue against their selection – and, as such, immediately the coach wins people over. It proves he’s been watching closely and hasn’t been swayed by external influences with their own personal and financial agendas.
Another plus is that Baxter is insisting on players who are regulars (hence the omission of Thulani Serero, who is out of favour at Ajax Amsterdam). He is also adamant that he wants to personally watch, track and monitor overseas-based players before introducing them into the squad (in this way, we won’t have another Lars Veldwijk sprung on us).
In terms of play, it is expected that Baxter will, as he did so successfully at Kaizer Chiefs and SuperSport United, infuse the team with his trade-mark shape and structure. His presence should, in time to come (not immediately, of course), see a more organised Bafana side, a team with a game plan, tactically disciplined and clued up and prepared with regard to the opposition and the conditions expected.
All in all, though, Baxter, unlike his first stint when he knew very little about the inner workings, and the peculiar, often maddeningly frustrating politics in South African football, he’ll be more prepared and a lot more savvy this time around.
When Baxter returned to South Africa in 2012 to take charge of Kaizer Chiefs, there was more than a whiff of “unfinished business” in the air. He wanted to prove himself as a coach to the country that had fired him in 2005. He most certainly achieved that with the magnificent work he did at Amakhosi.
Now, back in charge of Bafana, dare we say it? Yes, we may as well – there is, again, a very strong aroma of unfinished business in the air. Let’s see...