Cape Town - Barely 80 seconds have passed and the referee points to the spot. Darren Keet is in goal for Cape Town City. He hasn’t played for 315 days. Up steps Baroka FC’s Sekela Sithole, but the former Bafana No 1’s first touch for his hometown club is a brilliant diving save to his left to foil Sithole.
The ball ricochets into the field of play. Taariq Fielies partially deflects the rebound strike. The looping ball is still goal-bound. With the acrobatics of an Olympic gymnast, Nathan Fasika completes an overhead clearance off the City line. With the danger averted, City overwhelm the Bakgakga 5-1.
If there was a singular moment in the 2021/22 season that personified the former City Slicker’s new-found defensive resolve this was it.
Coaches often speak about the key to a good defence being the players’ attitude. It was clear during this passage of play that everyone at City was willing to give their everything to ensure the ball stayed out of the net.
How times have changed. When Eric Tinkler arrived at his former club for a second spell in charge of the Citizens towards the end of last season he inherited a group of players that were disillusioned, unhappy and unpredictable on the pitch.
The talent and skill available to Tinkler were not in question. City chairman John Comitis had assembled a squad that could go toe-to-toe with the best in the DStv Premiership on their day – but only when the mood took them.
Under the charismatic but erratic Dutchman Jan Olde Riekerink, City had played some hugely entertaining football. It was end to end stuff. But the rock-and-roll nature of their play meant that while City were banging in 36 goals at one end they had let in 39 at the other. Only the relegated Black Leopards (42) conceded more by the time Riekerink was sent packing.
There was nothing secretive about the fact that Comitis had called upon City’s first coach to shore up a leaky defence, but more importantly bring about a change of mentality.
Tinkler could not be more different in style and personality to the former Ajax and Galatasaray mentor Riekerink. The former Bafana Bafana hard man had forged a successful playing career that took him to the top echelons in Portugal (Vitoria Setubal), Italy (Cagliari) and England (Barnsley) on the basis of clinically executing the basics.
It is a philosophy that’s been transferred to his coaching style, but to implement the mindset change Tinkler needed time.
The fickle nature of the DStv Premiership doesn’t often provide such luxuries and at the halfway stage of the season it seemed that Comitis may have erred in sending an SOS to Tinkler, with City languishing in 12th place. Perhaps the hangover of the MTN8 final defeat was also too much to contend with.
From the outside it seemed that Comitis was tightening the noose further with City offloading influential squad members in Bradley Ralani (Mamelodi Sundowns), Fagri Lakay (Pyramids FC), Abbubaker Mobara (AmaZulu), Abdul Ajagun (Al Hilal) and Edmilson Dove (US Songo) in the January transfer window.
But given that Ralani was into the last six months of his contract and Lakay had just one year left on his, it was exceptional business by City as these two deals brought in close to R20 million.
The clear-out was executed with Tinkler’s blessing for it sent a message to the remainder of the squad that the responsibility was now on their shoulders to forge a new direction for City.
Comitis did not leave Tinkler without a paddle though. Armed with a kitty in excess of R20 million, the pair scoured the globe for the best talent available at cut-throat prices and brought in Cameroon youth international Brice Ambina, Venezuelan Darwin Gonzalez, Gambian forward Kajally Drammeh and local Hanover Park prodigy Mogamat May.
Tinkler had also introduced a new training regime in line with European standards of two sessions per day at the beginning of the season. It took time for some players to adapt, but once they realised the benefits the transformation has been exceptional.
City have surged up the table into second place behind champions Mamelodi Sundowns through a record 13-game unbeaten streak. This run has placed them in pole position to qualify for the CAF Champions League for the first time.
Furthermore, Tinkler has achieved his primary objective with the blue wall being virtually impenetrable with the Citizens letting in just four goals over the last 1170 minutes of action since the defeat to Royal AM in the Nedbank Cup in February.
“I have to thank our chairman for being brave enough to move those seven players when we moved them. That was obviously a difficult task for him because there is the fear and the danger that it doesn’t work out for you. At that stage of the season we were 12th in the league, so it showed a lot of bravery from him but it worked for us with everyone holding up their hand since then,” Tinkler said.
“We needed to fix our defensive displays … It was a weakness that we already had when I joined. We just conceded way too many goals. That first half of the season we still struggled to change that, but we managed to work on it quite extensively during the January period and that’s been our strength ever since.”
Goalkeeper Hugo Marques had joked with Tinkler upon his arrival from Portugal’s Farense that if he conceded 42 goals – like City did the previous campaign – he would pack his own bags.
The Angolan international, who was signed as a stop-gap for the injured Keet, is nowhere near the departure lounge and instead a PSL Award nominee for “Goalkeeper of the Season” owing to his 15 clean sheets in the league beckons.
Marques has also been one of Tinkler’s premier allies in translating his message of overall professionalism to the squad.
“Hugo looks at some of the boys eating crisps and possibly drinking a soft drink before a game and tells them that’s not how it’s done,” Tinkler said.
“It’s the same when I speak about how other things are done in Europe … they just look at me … ‘like coach, that's 20 years ago,’ but when Hugo speaks about his Portugal experiences, saying exactly the same thing, they sit up and take notice.”
Tinkler has fostered unity within the City squad by supporting his senior players. He has also never deviated from his core philosophy that players can be improved through coaching.
Club captain Thamsanqa Mkhize is the epitome of this blueprint. Under the previous management Mkhize’s role was reduced to a bit-part player. For a player that had served the club with distinction for over 100 matches since joining in 2016 it was an indictment.
Despite his advanced age of 33, Mkhize has kept up with the frenetic pace of the Premiership and repaid Tinkler’s faith with a barnstorming season that has him among the PSL nominees for “Defender of the Season” – an award that any one of City’s defensive unit consisting of Fielies, Fasika, Terrence Mashego and Keanu Cupido could have been in line for.
The gap between City and Sundowns is still too much for Tinkler’s liking as “Sundowns are on their own plateau” but he believes this can be closed due to his own team still only performing at “60 to 70% of our true capacity”.
A prospective continental campaign, with CAF Champions League qualification hopefully secured against neighbours Stellenbosch FC in the final game of the season on Saturday at the Danie Craven Stadium, will also be uncharted territory for the Citizens.
But that is all for next season. Right now Tinkler and City can be proud of having delivered a team the Mother City can be proud of once more.