JOHANNESBURG - Gordon Igesund lets out a chuckle, and is probably wearing an evil grin such is the pride his voice is filled with, just before he explains why unfancied teams have an advantage in the final stretch of the PSL season.
The four-time league winning coach produced two Cinderella stories in the PSL era by winning the championship with Santos and Manning Rangers. He also added to the rich history of Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns by guiding them to league titles. The dynamics in winning the league with the People’s Team and the Mighty Maulers compared to winning it with the Buccaneers and Brazilians are different.
No one outside the Santos and Rangers camp expected them to win it, while winning the league with Pirates and Sundowns wasn’t enough to guarantee his future afterwards such is the demand for excellence at those two clubs.
Due to the inconsistent performances this season and a high number of draws, just five points separate second-placed Cape Town City from eighth-placed Baroka FC after the halfway mark. Teams like City, Free State Stars, Bloemfontein Celtic and Chippa United have kept up with the leading pack, and this season is shaping up to be one that could see an unfancied team win the league.
“There’s a very strong possibility that could happen looking at how this season has panned out,” Igesund said. “There are teams who are at the top at the moment that you wouldn’t expect them to be there at this stage. The gap between the other teams and the so-called big teams is closing with each season.”
Ea Lla Koto are just three points away from the 28 they finished on last season, while Bakgaga need only five points to get to the same number of points that helped them dodge the axe to fight for their PSL status in the relegation-promotion playoffs. The pair, along with Phunya Sele Sele and the Chilli Boys, have been punching above their weight in a race that’s set to intensify.
By the end of February it should be clear who are the challengers and the pretenders. Teams like Sundowns, Kaizer Chiefs, Pirates and SuperSport United have the experience to help them on how to handle being champions elect. But the underdogs have an even bigger arsenal Igesund argues.
“There’s no pressure,” he said. “Smart managers downplay their chances as much as they can. ‘Come on,’ they would say, ‘we have no chance of winning the league. Look at our squad. We don’t have the depth that team X have’.
"Even though deep down you feel that you can win the league, you don’t say it when you are a small team because that would bring unnecessary pressure and attention to yourself. You fly under the radar as much as you can.
“I remember when we won the league at Santos, on the same day we would win 1-0 and Chiefs would lose. The following day there would be nothing about our win in the papers.
"All the attention would be on Chiefs, looking at why and how they lost. That pressure is hard to manage. I know from my time at Sundowns and Pirates. Players end up playing not to lose, rather than playing to win. When you’re an unfancied team, you play with a lot of freedom because no one expects you to win.
"That’s good because by the time people see you as a threat you find yourself needing just one win in the last three matches to win the league. By then no one can catch up with you and you then can start talking about the championship.”