Durban – In the aftermath of Kaizer Chiefs’ 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Mamelodi Sundowns in the MTN 8 at the start of the season, Amakhosi assistant coach Doctor Khumalo expected the “hairdryer” from Stuart Baxter.
Instead, the Scot told his players to take Sunday and Monday off, and then return to training on Tuesday to prepare for the next game against AmaZulu at the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
“I was expecting flames, you know. Usually, a result like that will make a coach furious,” Khumalo chuckled this week, in the build-up to Saturday’s Nedbank Cup final against SuperSport United.
“But in that instant, he proved to me that his man-management was top notch. He knew what the players needed, and he understood that they were already disappointed. And you saw the reaction after that,” Khumalo added.
The Chiefs’ stars hit back at their detractors by slamming six goals past a startled AmaZulu, and their ultimately triumphant league journey was up and running.
In an instant, the nightmare against Sundowns was forgotten, cast aside as just a bad day at the office. All season, Chiefs have insisted that they were “reclaiming the glory”.
Yet, Khumalo explained that the arrival of the PSL trophy at Naturena was ahead of schedule. Ominously, for their rivals anyway, Khumalo reckons that Chiefs are still a work in progress.
“We are building for the future, man. The league is obviously a great honour for us, and our fans who have been waiting for it, but we are trying to look to the future.”
Like many associated with the club, Khumalo is certain that Baxter is the man to deliver the promise that the future holds. The former national coach was criticised for his “foreign tendencies” when he failed to get Bafana to the 2006 World Cup, but he has come back and proved that he is made of stern stuff.
“I don’t really want to talk about what happened in the past with the national team,” Khumalo explained. “Our priority is now, and you can see what work he is doing. Stuart is very knowledgeable, and he is also very passionate about the game. He loves discipline, and the players have come to understand his philosophy on those aspects of the game.
“Without discipline, we have nothing,” the former midfield ace emphasised.
That discipline has extended into Chiefs’ style of play. Khumalo, a practitioner of the dribble, the shibobo and the feigns and flicks that had the stadium in raptures, conceded that his beloved Amakhosi had embraced a new era.
“We have had to sacrifice the flair. In modern football, there isn’t the time or the space to take that many touches. Those players that this club were associated with were greats, but we have become a club that has shifted the focus to transition,” he explained.
Warming to the subject at hand, Khumalo then gave an insight into the thinking at Naturena.
“In football, there are three fundamentals – defence, attack and transition. That transition is the key for us. Do you know that Arsenal train to take four seconds to get from their half to the opposition half, in possession?
“How does a team re-organise itself against something like that? That’s what we are working towards, a balance between our natural game, which the crowd enjoys, and moving with the times and embracing the modern game.”
Certainly, when Chiefs break forward, with wing-backs Tsepo Masilela and Siboniso Gaxa prominent, they are a sight to behold. Khumalo says it has been immense to have that calibre of experience in the squad, too.
“When you hear people asking, why did we take so long to win the league, I think you have to look at the current squad. Gaxa, Masilela, Gould, Mashamaite, these guys have given the team a backbone that previous seasons didn’t have.”
He added that it was that experience that allowed Chiefs to not drop points in games that they would have previously given up on.
“You know, people say we hadn’t won in our last six league games of the season. But how many did we lose? A draw in this country is regarded as a loss by some people, as if there is something wrong with it. You know, that single point can win you a title. If Manchester United can accept a point against Stoke City, why can’t we be happy with one here?”
While Khumalo refused to single out individuals, one man who has towered above the rest this season was captain and keeper, Itumeleng Khune.
His form at the Africa Cup of Nations saw his talents recognised on a larger scale, but, in fairness, Khune has been doing the business time after time for Chiefs in the league.
Galvanised by the responsibility of the arm band, he produced a seemingly endless highlights reel to keep the opposition at bay. The end of season awards tonight should see him rightly acclaimed as the country’s best footballer this season.
And a footballer he definitely is, because he also play-ed a vital role in sparking Amakhosi counters with a range of passing that many a midfielder would be proud of.
The petulance and the play-acting that marred his game have also been ironed out.
Indeed, the silly, but talented boy has become a man, and he certainly is the man of the moment at Naturena.
There are others, too, who have played their role in “reclaiming the glory”.
Bernard Parker’s goals may have come in fits and starts, but when he was hot, he was unstoppable. In midfield, Siphiwe Tshabalala and Reneilwe Letsholonyane were creative hubs, while Willard Katsande was immense as a defensive midfielder.
The experienced defence allowed Chiefs to move away from the kamikaze goals that used to characterise their seasons, and the strut in the step of the side suggested that they were getting comfortable with Baxter’s methods.
“A lot of people thought he was crazy to play three at the back. But it’s worked for us, hasn’t it?” Khumalo observed.
With Chiefs back in the business of collecting trophies, their Soweto neighbours, Orlando Pirates, themselves greedy gobblers of silverware in recent times, will be desperate to wrest back the initiative.
With Pitso Mosimane looking to steady the ship at Sundowns, and Platinum Stars punching above their weight, the league looks as competitive as ever. But there is a different energy when the most popular club in the country is back in the conversation.
“In this league, you have to be able to have a game plan for every side. And we are learning all the time,” Khumalo warned.
“Like I said, this season’s success is not the finished product. It’s only part of the process to ‘reclaim the glory’. We need to make our fans happy again.” – Sunday Tribune