BACK WITH A BANG: Phakamani Mahlambi looks to the heavens after scoring a goal on his return to the starting line-up in a 3-1 win over Free State Stars on Saturday night. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix
Johannesburg - Bidvest Wits coach Gavin Hunt took a long pause followed by a sigh before he spoke about the return of Phakamani Mahlambi from a career-threatening injury that kept him out of action for almost 10 months.

Hunt - not one to overly express his excitement, tried to contain his emotions but couldn’t hide the relief of having Mahlambi back and the fear he endured when the 19-year-old was tackled in the Clever Boys’ 3-1 win over Free State Stars on Saturday.

Mahlambi, however, played without any fear in his first start since February 19. He left the field that day against University of Pretoria at Bidvest Stadium with just 10 minutes to go after a minor knock that turned out to be serious. The doctors confirmed that Mahlambi had torn his medial collateral ligament (MCL) on his knee and his anterior collateral ligament (ACL). His brother, Mthobisi, had to donate his hamstring which was used to fix Phakamani’s knee ligament. Phakamani dedicated his performance to his brother and even gave him his Man of the Match award after his brace helped Wits end a four-match win-less streak.

“Nine months ago he couldn’t even straighten his legs,” Hunt said. “He couldn’t walk. To see where the boy is today, it’s phenomenal. What the doctor did was unbelievable. I just hope that we can keep him on the pitch. I took a big chance by starting him. I thought, you’re playing at home so do it. Play him wide and protect him. I did the same thing with Benni (McCarthy) at 17 - playing him wide, protecting him more and giving him game time so that he gets the hang of it. That’s the way to go. He (Phakamani) is exceptional. He is the future of South African football.”

Having paid lavish praises to Mahlambi, the other side of Hunt came out.

“He (Mahlambi) took the penalty when he shouldn’t have. But he took the ball (after he was brought down in the box by Fanele Filita) and who am I to question him. If he feels confident enough to take penalties, than let him be. He takes magnificent penalties. The second goal, that’s him, instinct, quick, sharp. You can’t defend against that.”

Hunt believes that Mahlambi has a lot of catching up to do though before he returns to his best. The coach argues that he lost his fitness and toughness in the months he spent on the side-lines. Mahlambi, however, returned more confident, taking on defenders with his pace. He wasn’t afraid to be tackled or take on imposing defenders with Thamsanqa Teyise and Rooi Mahamutsa trying to bully him off the ball. Hunt will be hoping he continues doing that tomorrow night against Maritzburg United at Harry Gwala Stadium in the Clever Boys’ last league match of the year before a lengthy break due to the Africa Cup of Nations.

“The key to getting him to play without fear was about telling him that if the fullback is tight, play it simple,” Hunt said. “If the fullback is off, then you can do what you want. I said to him don’t get involved in stupid things. Your back is to the line, you can see what’s coming on your left and right. Just look after yourself. And then I put him in front, his best position, the guy (Teyise) almost broke his leg. I was worried.”

Luckily for Hunt, Mahlambi walked away from that tackle unscathed. Now the coach is preparing the last piece of his attacking puzzle that’s also recovering from an injury.

“Phakamani and James Keene, that’s the combination.”

The Star