JOHANNESBURG - Contrary to reports that Percy Tau was “devastated” after being loaned out to Witbank Spurs in the NFD by Mamelodi Sundowns two years ago, the man who convinced the player to return to his hometown to revive his career is adamant that this decision was in fact the turning point.
Themba Mafu, co-owner at Spurs, spotted Tau during open trials in Mpumalanga when this season’s top goal scorer at Sundowns was just 15-years-old and immediately thought he was special.
But his career may have taken a different route, Mafu said, if Tau had indeed been against rejoining a club he was so familiar with at the time, the Brazilians were ready to discard him based of his apparent “lazy” work rate.
“He took a pay-cut,” said Mafu, who adds that he then felt the need to make sure that Tau didn’t take too big a hit while on loan.
“You know that with a lot of players, money is a priority. But instead of saying he would rather stay at Sundowns, sit in the stands and keep getting the big money, he put his career first.
“For me that was the biggest indicator that he wants to work hard, so I said I would try and see if I can make it worth his while financially as well.
“He was back at Sundowns even before he finished his project with us because they then needed him for Caf.”
Such was Tau’s potential that there are so many coaches along the way who did their best to make sure the player, who turns 23 this month, was not lost in the system.
Mafu is one, so is head of scouting at Sundowns Walter Steenbok and Orlando Pirates assistant coach Rhulani Mokwena, who coached the club’s junior team and later worked with Tau while an assistant to Pitso Mosimane in the senior team that triumphed in the Champions League in October 2016 - months after Tau’s loan spell at Spurs was cut short.
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There is a reason why Tau often credits Mokwena for some of his most recent achievements, doing so either in public or on social media.
“I arrived to assist the Under-19 team when coach Floyd Mogale was moving to our (Sundowns) ABC Motsepe League side and was promoting a few players with him,” Mokwena recalled how he first encountered Tau.
“What was left then were players that were largely considered surplus to requirements or were not good enough for the next level. Percy was in fact on the list of players to be released by Sundowns at that time. I was really taken aback in my first training session by Percy and another player - Roscoe McKenzie.
"My first statement to them was actually a question and I asked whether they had ever played for any of the junior national teams. The answer was that they had never been given the opportunity. I immediately gave the national Under-20 coach a call to ask that he has a look at them.
“(Solly Luvhengo) first reaction was that he was not convinced, but he would thank me later. And the rest is history.”
All of these coaches (and club owner), agree to an extent that Tau perhaps needed that loan move to Spurs. Steenbok also explained why the loan move to Spurs was necessary, having been first scouted by Harris Choeu from the same club around 2009, where they met resistance from owner Mafu.
“We have three steps at Sundowns in determining whether a player is ready for the big leagues,” said Steenbok. “We thought Percy was not willing to work hard at the time and that meant it would be difficult to break into an extremely talented first team, especially because coach Pitso wanted him to adapt to the front pressing style, where he could also defend as an attacker.
"That was lacking a bit in his game. So we decided it is best to loan him out and then monitor him from there. Remember that everyone believed that he had great potential, even though he might have been on the verge of being released.”
Mafu confirmed that he himself was in constant communication with Mosimane about the services of Tau, even if for a brief period.
“I was sure that in a familiar surrounding, in his home town and a club, Percy would improve. We even got him a personal trainer and moved him from being a winger to a second striker,” said Mafu.
Steenbok said Mosimane was always aware of Tau’s evolution, hence it was easy to cut short his loan spell at Spurs when Sundowns were in crisis with a shortage of players going into crucial Champions League matches in 2016.
“I went to go see Percy in a very important game for Spurs at the Old Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane when they were playing Baroka FC, who were still in the NFD at the time. It was, in fact, the year they were promoted,” Steenbok recollects.
“I saw a changed Percy, a No 9 who was chasing and he gave the opposition a hard time. I reported this back to coach Pitso, and when we had that crisis, it was easy for him to fit in.”
Should Tau go on to win the Footballer of the Year later this month, as expected, it will not be by fluke. It will be well deserved, more so on the back of helping Sundowns win their eight Premier League title.
There’s been an immense amount of investment in making him the player he is today.