JOHANNESBURG - “I did it for one game,” Siphesihle Ndlovu says, emphasising the “one” as if he is ashamed of his time as Maritzburg United’s ball-boy.
But it’s the opposite. That short-stint inspired the lad from Ashdown, a crime-ridden township in Pietermaritzburg, to become the consistent figure he is in the colours of the Team of Choice.
“I remember that day vividly. We were playing against Kaizer Chiefs (at the Harry Gwala Stadium on 11 March, 2015). It was during the first season of the MDC (MultiChoice Diski Challenge),” Ndlovu said.
“The atmosphere was amazing. I felt like I was in the wrong place. I wanted to be on the field and not on the sidelines. I told myself that I will be there. I didn’t say that I wish to be there, I said I will be there because that’s how much I believed in my talent and how much I was driven to play for the first team.”
The 21-year-old made his first team debut in 2016 against Bidvest Wits on December 20.
He hasn’t looked back since then, becoming an integral figure in the Team of Choice. Ndlovu’s consistency makes him the first name on coach Fadlu Davids’ starting XI.
“He is a special player,” Davids said. “I don’t know whether he is a better attacking player or he is better defensively. He is an all-rounder, really good at both. He is so flexible. You can play him on the left, on the right and on the centre based on how tactically you want to go at the opponent, whether to stop them or attack them.
“His understanding of the game is his main strength. He can only get better and better. He is still young. I don’t think that we have to put pressure on him. It’s his first full season in the PSL after he made his debut last season.
"He can only grow. But putting too much pressure on him and praising him too much isn’t the right thing. Let him play his game and let him continue to improve because there is still a lot to improve and we are working on that on a daily basis.”
Ndlovu, who is nicknamed "Mbesuma" after the former Chiefs’ striker Collins Mbesuma, owes his tactical flexibility to KwaZulu-Natal academy.
“I started out as a striker, and that’s how I got that nickname. The academy helped me a lot in improving my game. We didn’t have fixed positions there. You had to play all over the pitch and that’s how I got to grow as a player and be at home in every position that I play,” he said.
But before there was universal approval of Ndlovu’s talent, there was rejection.
“I went to trials at SuperSport United, afterwards they told us that they would call the successful trialists. I never got that call. At first it hurt me but I was still young so it didn’t break me or anything.
“It actually motivated me to prove that I have what it takes to make it. That rejection was a wake-up call because there was clearly something missing in my game.”
The blessing in disguise regarding that rejection was that it allowed Ndlovu to make his name at home, inspiring his peers who saw him start his career at Ashdown Young Bucks before moving up in the amateur ranks until he turned professional for the team from his hometown.
“It feels good that I made my name in Maritzburg,” Ndlovu said. “There isn’t much pressure here, all I have to do is represent my city well. Maritzburg is a very small city where everyone knows everyone, one way or the other. I get noticed almost everywhere I go which took some getting used to.
“People here really love this team and all we want to do is to make them proud. I think that this current generation will make them proud. We can finish in the top four, and if we push enough we could even sneak into the top three and qualify for continental football. That would be great for the city and the club.”