JOHANNESBURG – Last season’s disastrous spell is slowly proving to be a blessing in disguise for Orlando Pirates.
It shook them up from their slumber to energise a squad that was on its last legs.
The Buccaneers needed to change the players’ mindset as well as change personnel in the playing staff and technical team.
Augusto Palacios, who coached the club in the interim last season, hinted that some of the players’ attitude wasn’t right for Pirates.
Palacios left Pirates the way he took it over – a miserable bunch with the fight of a chihuahua in the lion’s den.
It wasn’t surprising to see them devoured to a point that they finished outside the top eight for the first time in the PSL era.
The mind – Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic, heart – Rhulani Mokwena, and soul – Benson Mhlongo, of the club are on course to solving that problem with how they have managed the Buccaneers.
No one is guaranteed a place in the starting XI, a stance that has pushed the players to perform and allowed the introduction of new faces to move away from the generation that won six trophies in two years, along with reaching the finals of the 2013 Caf Champions League and 2015 Caf Confederation Cup.
Club captain Thabo Matlaba picked up a suspension that saw him miss the match against Mamelodi Sundowns. Pirates played brilliantly without him and he hasn’t returned to the team since.
Innocent Maela, Gladwin Shitolo and Marshall Munetsi returned from their loan spells and their future was decided by themselves, with the technical team giving them a chance to prove their worth, something they didn’t consistently get in the past.
Maela and Shitolo have made the most of that chance, and now they are among the ever-presents in the club’s defence.
The signing of Diamond Thopola and Phetso Maphanga will intensify the battle for places. Xola Mlambo’s arrival will strengthen their midfield.
But the Buccaneers’ biggest coup was announced yesterday, the signing of Zambian forward Augustine Mulenga.
The forward’s presence should allow his countryman Justin Shonga to play in his preferred position as the supporting striker, instead of leading the attack.
Shonga has already opened his account, and with confidence and a familiar sight, he can only get better.
“All that you have seen on the field (including Shonga playing as the leading centre-forward) has been patiently planned, with the deepest possible attention to detail.
“We were looking forward to get from him that No 9 (performance), because in the pecking order he was high up, which is why he started ahead of others,” Sredojevic said, giving a politically correct answer on whether the circumstances – the absence of a prolific No 9 – forced them to play Shonga there, or whether this is a position they plan to use him in going forward.
That’s likely to change with the pieces of the puzzles slowly coming into place. But that doesn’t mean that the Buccaneers have arrived just yet.
If they get maximum points against Ajax Cape Town tonight at Cape Town Stadium, they’d still be seven points behind their target of 40 points after 20 matches.
What will give Sredojevic confidence, though, is that the club continues to rise up from the ashes of last season to return where the Buccaneers belong, among the big boys and contesting for honours.