JOHANNESBURG – For seven uninterrupted years at Free State Stars, and a few more before his brief spell at Orlando Pirates prior to returning back to Ea Lla Koto, all Paulus Masehe has known is heartache and the pressure to keep the club’s status in the elite league.
This season is a little different - Stars are currently in second place behind Absa Premiership leaders Mamelodi Sundowns by just three points, with 13 more games to go.
“I think the mentality has changed,” explains Masehe, giving credit to coach Luc Eymael, whose methods in training have been extraordinarily executed by his complement. We can control the tempo of the game, even after we take the lead we are able to hold on to it and we are very organised. Before we were just playing, and we conceded easily. It’s difficult now for teams to score against us. Our coach has a winning mentality and that has rubbed off on us. We are used to the winning feeling - at all times.”
Masehe, as the captain of the club, has seen plenty of coaches come and go. The most recent was Sammy Troughton, who only had two matches in charge before Eymael was brought in to help stabilise a side bracing themselves for yet another relegation dogfight.
Almost a year ago to the day Troughton was sacked, Stars had sent Frenchman Denis Lavagne packing following two defeats in three games, citing that the relationship between the coach, players and staff had broken down.
Eymael and the Bethlehem outfit, however, are a match made in heaven and are now considered serious dark horses in the championship race.
“That’s the kind of pressure we don’t want to put ourselves under,” says skipper Masehe. “It’s a cliché, but we will take each game as it comes until it’s clear how high we might finish. We have plenty of work to do.
“There are a lot of things we need to fix as a team and as individuals. To be honest, our form doesn’t come as a surprise to me. When we finished the season last year I felt we would start strong in the next one because of the kind of team that was assembled. You could see the signs.
“There was quality and management were able to hold on to most of the players. The coach is a cherry on top.”
Speaking of “quality”, those who manned the dugout before Eymael have argued that Stars were resident relegation candidates because of a recruitment policy that left a lot to be desired.
Very few of the players there were Premier League material, insisted coaches such as Tom Saintfiet, Lavagne, Giovanni Solinas and Ernst Middendorp.
“The market is very difficult in South Africa. If you are a good coach, you must understand that you have to work with what you have and make the best out of what you have,” Masehe responds. “In one of the interviews, coach Luc said he was asked where he was going when he took this job. I think the coach can change the mentality of the team because every player is a good player. But it’s up to the coach to work on their mentality and make them believe in whatever he wants from them.
“There is no such thing as a bad player. Look at our squad, most of these guys have been playing in the PSL for more than three years. They can’t be bad players overnight. Maybe if they were saying age is not on their side, but a lot of them still have at least three seasons to go.”
With the same players and some clever reinforcements, Eymael has managed consecutive wins over SuperSport United, Pirates, champions Bidvest Wits and Cape Town City. But critics have looked for another negative: that Ea Lla Koto are conservative in their style, sitting back and hitting teams on the counter.
“Who is not conservative?” Masehe cuts in. “Tell me. Each team is conservative, even Sundowns are conservative. If you check, they will score one or two and stay back. Why would you go out and attack when you are in the lead. If the score is goalless then it makes sense to keep attacking, but if we are leading 1-0 we are going to try and protect what we have and catch you on the counter.
“That’s modern day football. Unfortunately it’s moving in this direction and there’s nothing we can do about it. We don’t want to dwell too much on the hype that we could win the league. We are not playing to win the league at this present moment. Game by game.”
Masehe can calm talks of a title challenge all he wants, but Stars have forced everyone to sit up and take notice of their slim chances.