Long odds. Ridiculous story. Unbearable sadness. Redemption.
It was all there and last night the remarkable narrative reached its crescendo as United played in the Nedbank Cup final.
In almost 40 years of the club’s existence, Maritzburg has never known anything like it. Sure, there have been happy moments along the way, highlights here and there, but knocking off giants like Sundowns and reaching a major cup final outranks anything that came before.
Doing it with a market capitalisation of just less than R60-million, United were undaunted by Sundowns’ big-spending owner and braggadocio coach. Sometimes, it’s less about the money than the esprit de corps; the common spirit that has surged through United in recent months.
They finished fourth in the PSL, far outstripping their previous best (eighth in the 2014/15 season) and might have ended higher had the fickle mistress of fortune been a little kinder.
Theirs was a triumph of the battlers and provided domestic soccer with the feel-good story of 2018. Sure, Sundowns got to sip champagne from the title trophy, but the warmth and goodness came from little Harry Gwala Stadium where United planned and executed their ballsy campaign.
Borrowing a little from Leicester City’s gorgeous storyline of two years ago, Maritzburg defied the odds again and again. It was a foundation forged under Farook Kadodia’s immaculate stewardship and the empathetic coaching hand of young buck Fadlu Davids. It was he who moulded an unbreakable team spirit, taking essentially the same squad of players who worked under Steve Komphela and Ernst Middendorp – to middling effect – and making them contenders.
It says something for backing one of your own – Davids still holds the club scoring record - and trusting him with the top job at the tender age of 36, especially in an environment where even gnarled old buggers get chewed up and spat out.
Not even when hotshot Evans Rusike was sold in the transfer window – to offset team costs, the bane of any small team – did Maritzburg lose their focus.
Players like Siphesihle Ndlovu, Fortune Makaringe and Lebogang Maboe came roaring through and now Ndlovu is in line for the PSL Player of the Season award. Even if he doesn’t crack the big one, he’s in a world of his own for the Best Young Player award. His emergence was a nod to Davids’ youth policy, defined less by his penchant for risk-taking than necessity.
Kadodia’s pleas this week for improved funding – they have neither local government nor corporate support – illustrate the difficulties faced by his club. Whereas other clubs have wealthy backers and well-heeled sponsors, Maritzburg operate on the margins, often just scraping by.
Perhaps things will get easier after this dream season, although they must box clever to keep the big teams away from stars such as Ndlovu. They must pray a European club doesn’t come sniffing.
Underscoring their remarkable run was that it came against a backdrop of immense sorrow. Two years ago, midfielder Mondli Cele was killed in a car crash. At the start of the season Mlondi Dlamini was killed the same way.
Tragedy was to visit a third time just a fortnight ago when young Luyanda Ntshangase died after being struck by lightning earlier in the season. One such tragedy would be hard to bear. Coping with three must have tested the resolution of squad as never before.
It helps that Maritzburg have a strong sense of self. They have no delusions of grandeur, the Harry Gwala Stadium a cosy 12000-seater that suits them to a tee. Attendances rose in tandem with their performances, proof that there’s no substitute for winning. Local chests swelled as United smartly kept their ambition on track, often playing in the heart of the community.
Even with their success, you suspect that not much will change for the little club that could. Our obsession with the major clubs will continue and they’ll bravely fight their little corner. But they’ve carved out a small slice of history all their own.
Field of Dreams indeed.