NELSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA - MAY 18: Chiefs players celebrate the trophy during the Absa Premiership match between University of Pretoria and Kaizer Chiefs at Mbombela Stadium on May 18, 2013 in Nelspruit, South Africa. (Photo by Duif du Toit/Gallo Images)

Mbombela – It’s considered inadvisable to single out individuals for praise in a league-winning team, but Stuart Baxter was persuaded to break this unwritten rule after Kaizer Chiefs’ final Absa Premiership fixture against Tuks here on Saturday.

Baxter, his grey suit soaked in champagne following the 0-1 defeat to the university students, picked four players whom he identified as “the spine” from the triumphant Amakhosi side, lauding them for their role in ending the club’s eight-year wait for the championship.

Goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune provided leadership, according to the Briton; Tefu Mashamaite’s performance was the difference between finishing fifth and first; Willard Katsande was transformed from a “rough-tackling hooligan” to a dependable holding player, while Bernard Parker helped keep opposition defenders busy.

“That’s the spine,” Baxter said of the quartet, before going on to heap praise on each one of them.

“There’s no secret that Itu (Khune) is the best goalkeeper in the continent, certainly one of the best I’ve ever worked with. I don’t think there’s a ’keeper who’s made as many saves this season. His general presence is a huge inspiration to the team. He produced big saves at important times.”

In his first full season as Chiefs captain, Khune conceded the least number of goals, having played an incredible 29 of the club’s 30 league games.

Baxter lauded him for leadership, but unexpectedly, highlighted Mashamaite’s performance at the back as having made a bigger difference.

“When we brought Morgan Gould into the club, we thought he’d be the leader at the back, but unfortunately he got injured. We were stuck with Tower (Erick Mathoho) who was very inexperienced, and Mashamaite.

“Fortunately Mashamaite grew in stature and he matured. His performance surprised a lot of people. When I came here people said he won’t be good enough, but he’s proven more than that.

“Without one of our defenders coming forward and saying I want to be the one to take up the leadership role in the manner that Masha did, we could have finished fifth or sixth.”

On midfielder Katsande, Baxter confessed he was on the verge of ejecting him out from the club after witnessing a friendly match during which the Zimbabwean behaved like a “hooligan”.

“He was a rash-tackling hooligan when I got here,” Baxter said. “We played a friendly and he gave away a penalty by almost breaking someone’s leg. Then we played Free State Stars and he kicked someone up the backside. I told him to learn the job as a defensive midfielder, or he has no future with this club. He told me I should teach him how to do this job and he turned out to be a modern defensive midfielder. He gave us balance.”

Parker’s goals at the beginning, meanwhile, contributed massively in Chiefs setting the pace from the opening day of the season.

“I saw him while I was coaching in Sweden, and I was interested in signing him. If you put him in right areas, ask him to be a little patient, then you have a top player in him,” Baxter said of the Bafana striker.

After leading the scorers’ chart for most of the season, Parker fell short of winning the Golden Boot by just a goal and, as a result, Baxter said the striker was a little subdued amid wild Chiefs’ celebrations in Mbombela.

“He’s disappointed not to get a couple more goals, but that’s life. It’s not always perfect.” – The Star