Maritzburg United coach Fadlu Davids has been a revelation at the team as they look to finish in the top four of the league and are in their first ever Cup final. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix
It was only a few, short years ago that Maritzburg United and its growing army of striped fans used to dread the week of fixtures they have emerged from with a beaming smile and a thump of the chest.

Not once, but twice, champions-elect Mamelodi Sundowns were the guests over a period of four days. On Friday United made their final trip of the league season, away to Kazier Chiefs.

In times gone by, such a trio of examinations would have been met with dread, and with a lowering of ambitions. A point here and there, perhaps. A stoic stance and a stay of execution until penalties in the Nedbank Cup tie, maybe.

Those days are long gone now.

Before they squared up to Chiefs at FNB Stadium, the “Team of Choice” had already bundled Sundowns out of the Cup, and then came from behind in Wednesday’s Absa Premiership tie to share the spoils 2-2, in a draw of searing quality and intensity.

Maritzburg United striker Andrea Fileccia raises a fist in celebration of his goal during against Mamelodi Sundowns at Harry Gwala Stadium in Pietermaritzburg. Photo: Gerhard Duraan/BackpagePix

From humble, often frustrated beginnings, United have emerged as one of the most aesthetically pleasing sides in domestic football. There is plenty of honest endeavour, a mild obsession for clean sheets and cleaner tackles cultivated by players like the experienced Bevan Fransman at the heart of the defence.

Behind Fransman and his wall, there is the colourful Richard Ofori in goal. The Ghanaian, a fine shot-stopper and an astute reader of the game, has grown in stature, barking the orders and the cajoling from the last line.

That optimism has spread like wildfire across the rest of the squad.

Beyond that toil at the rear, there is a creative hub, one that has been sprinkled with the star-dust of Siphesihle Ndlovu, who has pulled the strings on the football field, and tugged at the heartstrings of any neutral fan who appreciates good football.

To see him on Wednesday night, hoisted aloft by all his team-mates after scooping yet another Man of the Match award, was to see an X-factor player grounded by his humility, but lifted higher by a dressing-room that knows what he brings to the collective.

There is no ego at the Harry Gwala Stadium, because they know only too well where they have come from.

Fadlu Davids, the enterprising coach at the helm of this magnificent Maritzburg renaissance, knows only too well how low ambitions used to be at United.

At this time of the season, they used to be nervously looking over their shoulders, the dark cloud of relegation looming large like the Grim Reaper.

Somewhere between those dark days and this glorious new dawn, United put to bed their fears, and didn’t bother to rouse them again.

That unmistakable humility that comes from emerging out of a small town was done away with, replaced with a giant-killing streak that also gave way with time.

Maritzburg United were ecstatic after their draw against Mamelodi Sundowns and celebrated with the Man of the Match Siphesihle Ndlovu at Harry Gwala Stadium in Pietermaritzburg. Photo: Gerhard Duraan/BackpagePix

Indeed, in their current guise, perched in third place on the league table, and through to their first ever Nedbank Cup final, United are a giant in their own right, a curiously, but deliciously, co-ordinated fusion of local talent, an experienced spine, and lashings of well-travelled flair.

And what’s more, their growing legion of fans have noticed. No longer is it the case that the stands at Harry Gwala Stadium are dominated by replica jerseys of Chiefs, Pirates and Sundowns. That used to be the irritating norm - Maritzburg was just another city that went with the masses, finding it easier to shout for the big names of Soweto, over men they shared the streets and supermarket queues with.

The likes of Chiefs were indulged by local municipalities, happy to throw public funds at private juggernauts.

It is a practice that confused and then dismayed the United hierarchy, to the point that they flirted with a move to Port Elizabeth for greater relevance.

That is no longer the case. The blue and white stripes are everywhere you look in the 'City of Choice', a testament to the pride that now swells the footballing heart of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

The players have been galvanised by the fortress that their little ground, in their underrated city has become.

Match day and, even more so, match night, is a social event in the city. It is a gathering that renews hope, a weekly reminder that things can change.

The city of Maritzburg, for all its history, has always been the poorer cousin to Durban, its early nights and crisp mornings constantly compared to the bright lights and beaches of party central down the N3.

Even the football of AmaZulu and Golden Arrows was given more air-time. That is no longer the case, as Davids’ men have snatched the headlines away with a swashbuckling style.

The cautious, counter-punching, almost apologetic style that used to be their staple has been replaced with the cavalier and the cunning.

Indeed, some of the most memorable football has been played out at unfashionable Harry Gwala Stadium, in front of an audience so close to the action that the fans could be part of the team talk.

Maritzburg United fans celebrate their victory in the 2018 Nedbank Cup semi final match against Mamelodi Sundowns. Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

The VIP section in Maritzburg is merely a pane of double-glazing that blocks out much of the atmosphere and flavour of the stadium. Subsequently, even the well-heeled now prefer being out in the stands, in the thick of the noise.

A beaming Farouk Kadodia tends to do the same, and the fans have noted that greater affinity to the people from the powers that be. Everyone knows everyone in small communities like Maritzburg. That intimacy, that claustrophobia, has become United’s weapon, as they swarm teams more accustomed to time and space.

The win and draw against Sundowns didn’t surprise anyone who is a regular at the ground. Heck, it was anticipated, greedily marked on the fixture list as another opportunity to add yet another chapter to the Cinderella story of this 2017/18 season.

The clock is yet to strike midnight, mind, and United have a final date in the Mother City to look forward to. In years gone by, that could have been a promotion/relegation play-off. Instead, they are chasing silverware, and a glorious exclamation mark to stamp on a stunning season.

Their fairy-godmother has played out of her boots.

Sunday Tribune

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