When Stuart Baxter arrived at Naturena for the start of the 2012/13 season, he did so with a myriad of problems hanging over Kaizer Chiefs, and with the bragging rights of Soweto securely in the arms of Orlando Pirates.
The Buccaneers had completed successive treble-winning seasons, including back-to-back Absa Premiership titles, while Chiefs had not managed a league title since 2005, and any sort of trophy since 2010.
As such, the turnaround exacted by Baxter, heading into this weekend’s Soweto Derby, has been quite spectacular. Chiefs captured the league and cup double last season, while Pirates left empty-handed. And again in the new campaign, it is Chiefs who are heavy favourites to defend their crown, even taking into account Wednesday night’s defeat at Platinum Stars.
At the start of last season, it was impossible to predict the success Chiefs would have under Baxter. The Amakhosi had let their midfield talisman of the past few seasons, Tinashe Nengomasha, go to Bidvest Wits in the off-season, the signing of Bernard Parker up front appeared an expensive flop, and Baxter’s own arrival was greeted with plenty of scepticism.
Baxter had been a mixed success in his stint as coach of Bafana Bafana, qualifying the side for the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia, but failing to make it to the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany.
It was a surprise move by Chiefs chairman Kaizer Motaung to bring him back to the country.
Baxter’s stint in charge could not have got off to a worse start, as Chiefs were hammered 4-1 by Mamelodi Sundowns in the first round of the 2012 MTN8. In the league, however, Chiefs were on the front foot from the off, thrashing AmaZulu 6-0 and never really looking like relinquishing their grip on the rest, completing the double in May when they lifted the Nedbank Cup.
Parker, meanwhile, scored four times against AmaZulu, and has never looked back under Baxter’s astute guidance.
Chiefs also signed well, to give club management credit, their defence beefed up for one, by the likes of Morgan Gould and Tsepo Masilela.
When asked how he has turned Chiefs around, Baxter yesterday preferred to give credit to the players.
“The players were very receptive when I came in,” he said.
“They had gone a long time not winning, and the previous season there had been a bit of turmoil, I think VV (Vladimir Vermezovic) left in slightly acrimonious circumstances.
“I thought it would take six or seven months (to get on track) but the players were so open.
“We got off to a good start and were flying and we believed, but then we started cramping up, when we thought ‘we can actually win a double’,” added Baxter, and Chiefs did rather stumble over the title finish line last season.
“I knew that would be a problem going into the new season, and then everything settled and we got down to doing our job properly, and went on a good run (including nine league wins in a row at one stage). Now it is about our schedule.”
Pirates, for all their barren times since Baxter took over (at Chiefs), still reached three cup finals this season, including the African Champions League. In fact, their success on the continent played a large part in their failure to mount a decent title challenge last season.
When Baxter discusses Chiefs’ “schedule”, he is referring to the fact that Amakhosi are starting to find similar difficulties created by their own Champions League campaign.
A tricky trip to the DR Congo looms next weekend, where they face AS Vita.
This provides an interesting new element in their attempt to repeat the success of last season, and defend their double, and the signs of trouble were already there as Baxter rotated his squad in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss at Platinum Stars.
“It looks like we leave on a Friday to play on a Sunday (in the DRC), then we leave in the middle of the night and get back at 6am, then we have to play the Nedbank Cup on Wednesday. But we can’t stand and complain, I said to the players that I don’t want to hear bitching … we have got to play and if we want to win the league we have to get through it,” said Baxter.
First comes the Derby and a chance to make a major statement about any loss of momentum.
“It would be massive (to win),” said Baxter, who, for all his success, is yet to beat Pirates in a competitive match.
“It would dash the hopes of a lot of people who think we are tired and could go down. And it would stretch the lead over Pirates to almost impossible levels (for them). It is really important in terms of gaining momentum.” - The Star