JOHANNESBURG - The “doctor of football” at the helm of Bloemfontein Celtic has taken a team that narrowly missed relegation to their first Cup final since 2012 in the space of four months.
Dr Veselin Jelusic - holder of a PhD in Physical Education from the University of Belgrade, majoring in football - took over a Celtic team which was lucky to have avoided relegation last season due to their pathetic strikeforce.
Phunya Sele Sele managed a paltry 16 goals in 30 matches last season, 10 less than Highlands Park, who were relegated. Celtic only avoided the drop thanks largely to Patrick Tignyemb and the 12 clean sheets he kept. But Celtic’s problems have been beyond football.
Two seasons ago, a group of passionate fans waged war on the club and chairman Max Tshabalala to a point that Tshabalala threatened to sell Celtic. He decided against it, but that bad blood had already spilled onto the field. Former coach Serame Letsoaka tried his utmost to turn things around, but he couldn’t.
Letsoaka’s replacement, Luc Eymael, left before he even sat on the bench due to his battle with Polokwane City, who insisted he was still their coach after his abrupt resignation to join Celtic the following day.
Celtic needed more than just a coach to move away from all of that. They also needed someone to stimulate the players’ minds after their confidence took a battering, but more importantly they needed a calm figure who had the patience to build the team from the ground up. Enter Jelusic.
The Serbian has injected Celtic with a large dose of character and fighting spirit that took them to the final of the Telkom Knockout for the first time since 2012. Celtic won that title in Durban and will look to do so again on 2 December at Princess Magogo Stadium, against Bidvest Wits.
“Wits is one of the best teams in the country,” Jelusic said. “They are the league champions with many good players and a good coach. The game will not be easy for us. It will be tough. But I hope that it will be a tough game for them as well.”
Jelusic is humble despite his bright start and huge influence at Celtic. He speaks more about the collective rather than blowing his own horn, unlike the last Serbian coach to win a trophy in South Africa - the charismatic Vladimir Vermezovic who won the Nedbank Cup with Orlando Pirates in 2014.
“I have some good friends in South Africa, they persuaded me to come here,” Jelusic said. “They told me that yes, Celtic have had some difficulties in the past two years, but in their opinion it is a club with big potential. It was a new challenge for me.
"My time in Angola and Botswana helped me to prepare for life in South Africa. I was able to see the quality of South African football in my time in Botswana and Angola which is what also persuaded me to come here. Those stints helped me understand the culture here.”
Jelusic served as a coach and youth co-ordinator in Botswana, which helped shape the future of the Zebras. He has spent the better part of his career as a lecturer in his home country, teaching aspiring coaches subjects on the technical, tactical and methodology of football. Celtic offers him a different challenge, to put that theory to use by working daily with the players in a bid to improve.
“The biggest challenge that we needed to improve on was in the final third because we had problems with scoring last season,” Jelusic said. “But at the same time we have been working in improving other parts of our game. I am satisfied with how my players have responded. This club has a bright future.”