CAPE TOWN - Rookie Craig Martin’s continued maturity as a PSL footballer is one of the few positives Cape Town City coach Benni McCarthy can take from Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat to Bloemfontein Celtic at Athlone Stadium.
While McCarthy was visibly disappointed with the team’s underwhelming performance, he highlighted the performances of reserve goalkeeper Sage Stephens, tireless midfielder Thabo Nodada and excellent newcomer Craig Martin. The City coach, in fact, couldn’t stop waxing lyrical about Martin, a footballer who just a few months ago was still playing amateur football.
Stephens pulled off a few good saves and is certainly putting pressure on veteran No 1 goalkeeper Shu-Aib Walters, while the dynamic Nodada is blossoming as one of the PSL’s most committed and energetic footballers.
Having impressed McCarthy on trial, Martin was signed and has never looked back, impressing everybody at the club with his blinding speed, effervescence, and, importantly, never shirking a challenge. In short, he has been a breath of fresh air in the team.
“As physical as Celtic were on Tuesday, Martin was our toughest body out there,” said McCarthy. “He’s the skinniest player, but he was a gladiator he’s come from amateur football, he’s never really played at this level before, but he has the biggest heart.
"In fact, it was the two smallest players on the park - Martin and Nodada - who gave me the most; they left everything on the pitch, while their teammates just couldn’t keep up. Let me tell you, if there are two players I will pick to go to war with, it’s Martin and Nodada.”
For McCarthy, as he ponders a sobering last few days as coach, there is clarity in defeat from which valuable lessons can be taken. Despite two losses on the trot, the road ahead now looks much clearer.
At the weekend, the Cape side lost on penalties to SuperSport United in the MTN8 final in Durban. On Tuesday night, they went down to Celtic in a league match at Athlone. In the former, McCarthy took responsibility and admitted that some of the tactical decisions he made contributed to the defeat. On Tuesday, the City coach made a raft of changes, giving a number of regulars a rest, but most of the selected players just never made use of the opportunity.
“We were flat against Celtic, we were nowhere near to winning,” said McCarthy. “We gave nothing, we had one shot on target for the entire 90 minutes. There was no fight, no heart. We had no creativity, we were just dull. This was an opportunity for other guys to put their hands up and show me what they’ve got, but they didn’t show up.
“In contrast, Celtic were fantastic. They were organised and used an intelligent game plan. They were physical and used their big players very well.”
And this was the lesson for McCarthy with regards to his squad as he ponders the rest of the season.
“I thought I would have some hard decisions to make, but most of the players on show on Tuesday have made it easier for me with that performance,” he said.
“There will be no more risks, no more gambles, no more wholesale changes. Now I will simply pick the strongest available team. The guys had an opportunity to stake a claim and they didn’t show. The only one is Martin, he has definitely played his way into the team.”