By SAMKELO MTSHALI
“LUZOYA ehlathini Usuthu.” Loosely translated, this means AmaZulu Football Club will be condemned to the wilderness of the South African football pyramid’s often derided second tier.
Growing up in predominantly isiZulu speaking KwaZulu-Natal, this was one phrase commonly associated with the football prospects of the now 89-year-old Durban based club as it often battled against relegation to the obscurity of National First Division (NFD) football.
In the provincial lexicon the NFD is called “ihlathi” or the bush.
Teams who find themselves suffering the indignity of dropping down from the lucrative top flight Premier Soccer League (PSL) are seen as heading to the obscurity of the wilderness and in many a season in their PSL era history Usuthu and the relegation dogfight have been synonymous.
The club’s Yo-Yo like movement between the two divisions is well documented and is often expected ahead of each season with Usuthu ordinarily pitted by fans and pundits alike as possible relegation candidates.
Having finished the 2019/2020 campaign in 13th place with a measly 30 points from their 30 league encounters, only five points better than relegated Polokwane City, Usuthu looked a shoo-in for the 2020/2021 season’s relegation battle by the time they had relieved the club’s former striker Ayanda Dlamini of first team coaching duties in the middle of December.
The club’s next coaching appointment, Benni McCarthy, proved that the club’s new owners, the Zungu brothers Sandile and Manzini of the Zungu Investment Company, were prepared to put their money where their mouth is.
Shortly after their 100% purchase of the club from sugarcane farming tycoon Patrick Sokhela and his family trust, the Zungus wasted little time in boldly declaring their ambition to finish the new campaign in no lower position than fourth place.
As if reading from a Christmas wish list, the Zungus also waxed lyrical about a 12-year-plan to re-establish Usuthu as a giant of the South African game by the time the club’s centenary celebrations came around in 2032.
However, results on the pitch were not anywhere near matching the lofty aspirations the new owners had excitedly listed upon their takeover.
With just two wins and three losses and draws apiece in the first eight games before January, one could be forgiven for thinking that Zungu’s wishes were just the run of the mill rhetoric of an excited new club owner.
Despite holding the most acclaimed coaching qualification in world football, McCarthy’s only previous experience as a head coach of a top flight club was a two-and-half-year stint with Cape Town City with whom he won the MTN 8 Cup in 2018/2019.
Now, after 30 rounds of Premier Soccer League action Usuthu sit pretty on second place on the log table, on 54 points, and with a maiden campaign in CAF Champions League football secured.
McCarthy officially took over the reins with Usuthu languishing in 13th place with a paltry nine points on board after eight rounds of league action and his first four matches in charges were characterised by a draw against Bloemfontein Celtic on his debut, a defeat to Kaizer Chiefs in his second and two more draws against Maritzburg United and SuperSport United.
Mission Accomplished💚 pic.twitter.com/Ewhpi96dq5— moeneeb josephs (@moeneeb_josephs) June 3, 2021
The tide would turn in McCarthy’s fifth match manning the dugout for Usuthu with a 2-1 away win over Baroka at the Peter Mokaba Stadium which kick-started a run of 12 wins out of 14 league matches, only offset by goalless draws with Swallows FC and Mamelodi Sundowns.
McCarthy, and his technical team, which includes his former Orlando Pirates teammate Moeneeb Josephs and fellow South African international striker Siyabonga “Bhele” Nomvethe, quietly went about writing a fairytale story akin to that of English Premier League Leicester City’s when they went against 5000/1 odds to win the coveted English title in 2015/2016.
Now here at home, in the year 2021, Usuthu defied odds to come a miraculous second to a swashbuckling Sundowns side.
It is perhaps fitting that in the year of the demise of the Zulu nation's longest reigning monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini KaBhekuzulu, aged 72, AmaZulu Football Club, the King's club and a symbol of Zulu sporting pride would scale such dizzy heights.
Usuthu’s meteoric rise in the standings was been built on the back of a rock solid defensive unit marshalled by captain Mbongeni Gumede and the ever improving Thapelo Xoki, a central defensive pairing flanked by buccaneering fullbacks Thembela Sikhakhane and Sibusiso Mabiliso.
It is often said in football that “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles” and it is without doubt that McCarthy’s former boss at Portuguese giants FC Porto José Mourinho, a proponent of defensive sturdiness and creating watertight defensive rearguards, would certainly approve of the defensive stoicism of his former striker’s charges.
The midfield duo of the industrious defensive Makhehleni Makhaula and the crafty playmaker Sinethemba Sithebe has also contributed immensely to the unbelievable title charge. Offensively, the creativity of Thabo Qalinge and Luvuyo Memela has come in handy to assist the predatory striking quartet of Bonginkosi Ntuli, Augustine Mulenga, Siphelele Mthembu and Lehlohonolo Majoro poach the bulk of the team’s 38 league goals.
In honour of Usuthu’s history-making win, here's a message from our President Sandile Zungu (@mfanawasemlazi ) He’s inspired by the team’s courage and determination. 💚 #HebeUsuthu #UsuthuTogether pic.twitter.com/WnV1rOFxAE— AmaZulu FC (@AmaZuluFootball) June 2, 2021
A great spirit was key. Numerous videos of a happy Usuthu camp, such as the coaching and backroom staff singing and dancing alongside the players and the owners using their social media platforms to galvanise the players, doing rounds more and more as the title run-in intensifies.
Following years of KZN clubs being relegation fodder, AmaZulu Football Club; from the owners, McCarthy and his coaching staff to the warrior-like players led by skipper Mbongeni Gumede, have made the people believe in the province’s football future once more. It seems like an age since one has heard the words “Luzoya ehlathini Usuthu” being bandied about, words that often confirm that the pride of the Zulu nation will once be condemned to yet another campaign in the wilderness of the second tier.
Long may that continue. Heeeeebe! Usuthu!