CAPE TOWN - It was Liverpool defender Alan Hansen who famously said in 1995: “You can’t win anything with kids.” This was aptly demonstrated in Saturday’s Nedbank Cup final, where Maritzburg United’s kids struggled with nerves and failed to deal with the occasion.
In contrast, the seasoned campaigners of Free State Stars strode the field with poise and confidence. And Stars went on to claim their first major trophy in 24 years when they won the Cup at Cape Town Stadium - they did it with a very simple recipe: experience.
Hansen, at the time, was talking about a young Manchester United team who would eventually go on to win the Premier League and FA Cup that same season. For a long time after that quote, the Liverpool defender had to endure quite a bit of stick for his assertion about young footballers.
But, while that may be so, there is no doubt that there is also a lot of truth to Hansen’s opinion. Occasionally, a good crop of youngsters can prove to be the exception - but, more often than not, there is, as the cliche goes, no substitute for experience, as was fully evident in Stars’ Cup win at the weekend.
In a 1-0 win over a young, exciting Maritzburg side, Ea Lla Koto always looked calmer and so much more in control of proceedings, While the Team of Choice hogged possession and held territorial advantage for most of the 90 minutes, at no stage did the Free Staters ever look uncomfortable.
As soon as they scored, a minute before halftime, they were never in danger of losing. They managed the game effectively, while they made full use of their superior composure and experience of having been in such pressurised games before.
Leading from the front was Stars captain, Paulus Masehe. Now 34-years-old, the industrious footballer dominated his opponents through the sheer force of his on-field presence and intelligent positioning.
Not far behind was experienced 36-year-old central defender Rooi Mahamutsa; the former Orlando Pirates man was the rock upon which Stars’ resolute defensive shield was built, ensuring that Maritzburg were able to make no headway despite their overwhelming possession.
Stars coach Luc Eymael paid special tribute to his captain Masehe. “I have great respect for him,” said the Belgian coach. “He is a leader at training, he is a leader in the dressing-room, and he plays the way he trains.
"He, and Rooi are important players because of their experience. A team needs players who don’t lose focus and who help the younger players in the team. It is always important to have players like that in a team.”
Maritzburg coach Fadlu Davids, while disappointed, admitted that, in the end, Stars’ greater experience was the difference between the two teams.
“We have to take the loss as a team,” said the promising young Cape Town coach. “As a young team, I thought we made a few mistakes, but we will learn from it. Stars had one chance and they scored from it. You could see the tension and the nerves in my team. In (the) end, Stars probably deserved to win because they had a bit more experience.
“But we have to grow, we have to learn from this defeat. The players are disappointed, they are sad, they put everything into the match, but, overall, I’m proud of what the team achieved this season: to finish fourth in the league and a place in Cup final. Next season, we have to be better.”
Eymael gave some insight into the game plan he designed to limit Maritzburg’s effectiveness.
“When you arrive at a team, you have to assess the players you have to manage,” said the Stars coach. “You have to adapt and deal with the quality you have in the squad. We looked at Maritzburg and we knew that they had rotation, movement and a good attacking game.
"We knew they had strengths, but, at the same time, we also knew what their weaknesses were. We were happy to let them have the ball, but we made sure that we avoided any danger. We stayed compact and we defended very well.
“For Stars, this is the first trophy in 24 years and that makes me happy. For me, it is my fifth trophy in eight years of coaching in different countries in Africa.”