CAPE TOWN – It must have been around 1988. I was fresh from the University of the Western Cape and there I was at Elsies River High School, in front of a class for the very first time.
With around 40 kids staring at me in eager anticipation, I was an absolute bundle of nerves, a stuttering wreck of a human.
But like everything else in life, after a period of adaptation, I settled into the teaching profession.
This column has always been inspired by moments such as these; vivid memories and meaningful instances in time that form the backbone upon which various perceptions and themes can be extrapolated.
So, as the PSL season rapidly draws to a close, with about two months remaining, I thought it the appropriate time to reflect on Benni McCarthy’s debut season as a head coach; hence the poignant memory in the opening paragraph about my ignominious debut as a teacher.
Because, and I firmly believe in the similarity, when all’s said and done, coaching is akin to teaching.
While the Cape Town City coach would obviously not have been the quivering, blundering mess that I was on day one, no doubt there would have been more than a hint of apprehension, perhaps even a sense of trepidation at how it would all pan out.
Was he cut out for this coaching gig? Would he succeed? Or would it all come crashing down around him?
Think about it: a teacher’s job is to inspire, to fire the imagination, to shape character and to develop within the individual, and the class as a whole, a goal-orientated focus.
For the football coach, it’s no different: inspire them to play to the best of their ability, mould the character to withstand any game situation, and have both the team and the individual player geared towards a common objective.
The teacher’s big hurdle, in my opinion, is to grab the attention of the pupils.
Teenagers are a difficult, fickle bunch and, in order to move them, the man or woman in front has to ensure that he or she always has their ear; if not, prepare to struggle and accept the ensuing failure.
In this regard, McCarthy has been very fortunate. His legendary status as a player has given him the inside track – he has never had to work hard to gain the respect and attention of the City squad. They’ve been on the journey with him right from the very first training session.
So, let’s look at the positives. McCarthy’s awareness of the culture of football in Cape Town has been a major asset.
He knows what makes it tick, and he understands how Capetonians think. Because of it, he has been able to build a squad of disparate footballers into a cohesive unit.
The 40-year-old’s charisma energises people, and his passion in how he goes about his business is so contagious that it motivates those around him.
When McCarthy first arrived at City in June last year, he knew he was in for a tough time. He wasn’t sure how things would play out.
But, if anything, and having known him for a long time, the one thing he doesn’t lack is confidence.
His belief in his own ability as a player all those years ago was unshakeable – and now as a coach, he has that very same supreme, super-confidence in his ability.
Some may see it as arrogance, but for me, it’s the secret to his success. He doesn’t have a diffident bone in his body.
I’ve already written extensively about his eye for talent, especially in how he has taken players like Craig Martin and Taariq Fielies from obscurity to household names in the PSL.
The manner in which City performed against Orlando Pirates last week also provided an indication of the contribution McCarthy has made as a coach.
The football his team produced in the first half was simply scintillating – the smooth, swift passing and the movement on and off the ball were just a joy to watch.
Another plus that has caught my eye this season is his resolute belief in the entire squad.
He doesn’t dwell too much on selection – show him the necessary spark and spirit on training, and you’ll get an opportunity.
He is steadfast in his opinion that footballers don’t hide – the job is about industry, hard work, commitment and complete dedication to the team ethic – and if you buy into this philosophy, he’ll support you all the way.
And the negatives? Of course, there have been. While City are doing more than okay this season, there have been quite a few slips and slides with regard to form and results.
McCarthy has been the first to admit that on many occasions, he has erred with regard to tactics and selection. It’s something that is part and parcel of the life of a coach.
City’s profligacy in front of goal is also a problem. With McCarthy’s reputation as a marksman, you’d think he’d be able to transfer just a little of that information to improve his team’s strike rate; it just hasn’t happened.
Lastly, and this is hopefully some sound advice, he needs to become more media savvy.
At the moment, the City coach is the media darling because everybody knows a tasty sound bite, be it funny, dramatic or controversial, is just around the corner.
Yes, he is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve, but it’s better to keep that wholehearted passion for the interaction with his squad rather than the media.
Perhaps it’s best for McCarthy to offer a little less of himself during interviews.
Stick to the script: give journalists what they need, and that’s it. As with anything in life, less is better.
They say there has to be a struggle to make progress. For McCarthy, this has certainly been the case.
But through thick and thin, through the good and the bad this season, he’s never been afraid; he’s tackled it head-on, tried things and failed, and he’s done things and succeeded.
Overall for me, as a new coach, he’s done rather well.
And, if the teacher in me had to grade him right now, my bold red pen would ink his report card with a solid 70 percent.