CAPE TOWN - Time is still on the side of Morne Nel. It has been a long and frustrating slog for the Ajax Cape Town midfielder, as injury threatened to scupper a really promising career, but now, rehabilitated and ready to go, the 21-year-old is looking to put things back on track.
Nel will anchor the Cape side’s midfield when they host Wits in a must-win PSL fixture at Athlone Stadium on Wednesday night (7.30pm kickoff) - and, while his own individual performance will be crucial as he continues on the comeback trail, he is just as aware that the needs of the club are far more important.
Ajax are languishing second-from-bottom on the league standings. With five games remaining in the season, personal egos and ambitions are secondary. The most important thing is to get the points and ease the Capetonians away from the threat of relegation.
“It’s a big week for us,” said Nel. “Wits are not an easy team to beat, but we need the three points. We are second-last on the log, so any points at this stage will be vital. Then we have Chippa after that, and it won’t be easy, especially because our away form has not been good.
"We’ll focus on Wits first and then look at Chippa. Of our games remaining, we have two away and three at home, and we have to make the most of it. Our home form has definitely been better. It won’t be easy, but we know we can do it. Right now, we are just looking at picking up points.”
From Mitchells Plain, Nel sprang to prominence as a hugely promising teenager at the Old Mutual Academy about five years ago. Tottenham Hotspur were interested in his services and he was invited for a few training spells with the English club.
At the same time, he was signed by SuperSport United - the future looked really bright for Nel. But football can be a cruel, cruel game and things just never really worked out for the youngster, with injury playing a big role in curtailing his progress.
Earlier this season, a decision was made to return to the Mother City, where, hopefully, the familiar surroundings of home could bring about a change in fortune. He signed for Ajax, who immediately sent him for an operation on the groin which had been troubling him. And, then, the hard work really began.
'I’m just happy to be playing again'
Nel readily admits it has been a frustrating time - but, through it all, he kept faith and made sure that he never lost heart. Last month, he finally made it back on to the field - and he was influential in a 2-0 win over SuperSport.
“It wasn’t easy, I was out for many months,” said Nel. “But to come back after such a long time and play in the win over my former club was good. I just give all the glory to the team, they always supported me during the difficult time.
“It’s never easy to be out injured for so long. But my family motivated me, my mother and my sisters helped me - I’ve worked hard on and off the field and now I’m just glad to be back playing again.”
Nel isn’t looking too far ahead. He’s keeping his feet planted firmly on the ground. From experience, he knows that football rewards humility and he’s not focusing on anything but his next game. More than that, all is not lost; he is only 21, there’s still time for him to realise his enormous potential.
“I’m not thinking too far, I’m just happy to be playing again,” he said. “I know people are talking about me being the No 6 that Ajax have been looking for, but I don’t know. I just want to play - it’s for others to speak about my form and how I have been performing.”