Durban – Allan Freese confessed following Platinum Stars’ shock penalty shoot-out victory over Orlando Pirates in the MTN8 that he had never expected he would turn the club’s promising fortunes around in such a short space.
Dikwena missed out on the league championship last season, pipped by Kaizer Chiefs by just a point, but Saturday’s success – when they were overwhelming underdogs but kept their nerve in the shoot-out after a hard-fought 120 minutes at Moses Mabhida Stadium – left Freese astonished.
“I really didn’t think I would be here, addressing you as an MTN8 champion,” the Stars coach said in the post-match press conference after his team had lifted the R8-million competition. “I was just happy that at the beginning of the season, I was appointed head coach. But to be sitting here tonight, it’s incredible.”
Saturday’s triumph, following a 1-1 draw in heavy Durban rain, was only Stars’ second cup success in their history, following their first in 2006, when they had also last reached a final.
It was mainly for that reason that the Phokeng side were hardly given a chance against a Pirates side who, aside from having the experience of playing in these pressure situations, had the backing of almost everyone of the 50 000-strong crowd.
But Freese, whose side were under pressure for long spells but still managed to take the lead through the excellent Robert Ng’ambi before Thabo Matlaba’s stunner sent the game into extra-time, was confident his team would build on their success.
“This is a great moment for myself, the players, the owners of this club – the Bafokeng nation. We are a work in progress but tonight is a great start. Hopefully the people of North West have seen now that we can win trophies, they’ll start supporting us and attending to our games,” Freese said.
For Pirates, Saturday was a shock of seismic proportions. The Buccaneers were clear favourites after vanquishing Kaizer Chiefs in the semi-final, and flooring several giants in the African Champions League.
But aside from Matlaba’s belter of a goal, Pirates were pretty disappointing in front of goal, leaving Roger de Sa frustrated.
“We dominated for long periods and had better chances, but it was one of those nights where the ball wouldn’t go in for us. Dominating counts for nothing when you can’t convert and Stars deserve this because they did better than us.”
Stars, indeed, converted three of their penalties while Pirates, remarkably, seemed to choke under pressure, Rooi Mahamutsa, Ndumiso Mabena and Lennox Bacela all failing from the spot.
“We did practice penalties, but didn’t want the match to go that far. It’s like you taking out insurance on your car … you don’t do that because you want to deliberately crash it, but you insure it anyway. We should have won in normal time. The last thing we wanted was extra-time because we’ve had a tight schedule. Conditions were not great for us. There were heavy legs out there.”
One of the main talking points of Saturday was the sight of Andile Jali in the starting XI, after the Pirates midfielder had initially been named only on the bench following his miraculous recovery from a shoulder injury which initially was thought would take between six weeks and six months to heal.
Speculation was rife in the pressbox that De Sa, whose original side contained Lehlogonolo Masalesa in midfield, may have been “overruled”, but the Bucs trainer denied this.
“It was a mistake that Jali’s name was missing from the initial team. He was always going to start and we knew that from (last) Tuesday after he went for a second opinion,” he said of the midfielder who didn’t really have an exceptional game but was the only Pirates scorer in the shoot-out.
Bucs now have to pick their pieces together and face yet another demanding game – the first leg of the Champions League against Tunisian giants Esperance at Orlando on Saturday.
Patrick Phungwayo and Sifiso Myeni are set to miss that game, adding to De Sa’s woes ahead of a game his men simply must win if they are to compete for continental glory now that they’ve surrendered a domestic cup.
Freese, meanwhile, will tell his players Saturday’s success was not the end of the road. “I will tell them to remain calm – they must not think they have arrived and get complacent.
“Thankfully we have guys like Benson Mhlongo, Vuyo Mere, Elias Ngwepe and Patrick Malokase who are experienced enough to know to keep the other players’ feet on the ground.
“They’ve enjoyed success elsewhere and know that we can only get better from here.”