DURBAN - Ahead of a cup final, the nerves in a team are strung tighter than usual. Players often withdraw themselves into quiet corners, dreading being the guy who lets the team down. Managers fiddle over their notes, desperate to be the difference between glory and despair.
Deep in the heart of Maritzburg, the “Team of Choice” have been quietly building towards the Nedbank Cup final against Free State Stars on Saturday. It is a first final for the bulk of the squad, save for three players who have been there.
“It is a massive occasion for the club. It’s historic,” coach Fadlu Davids pointed out.
Davids, a former striker who has become quite a cult hero at Harry Gwala Stadium, has been central to the transformation from puzzlers to pursuers of top prizes. He was once celebrated as a goal-poacher for the club, but now he is lauded for his ability to turn a young team into an enterprising brand of football.
“Of course this season has been a success. We have had our best season, but we are still building. It is important for us to take opportunities like this game, because there is a huge difference between making a final and winning it,” Davids pointed out.
Maritzburg United have been down disappointment lane before this season, after their demise in the MTN8 semi-finals. Having scored away from home in the first leg against SuperSport United, too many assumed that the home leg would be a procession, and they were already dreaming of being in a final.
As sport is wont to do, they were taught a brutal lesson, and it took them weeks to shake off their anguish. Thus, United will not be making the mistake again. Indeed, they have humbled themselves, aware that this is fresh territory for them.
“We are underdogs for this final,” Davids said flatly. “We have to be underdogs. We have never played a game of this magnitude in our history, but Free State Stars have been there before.
“It is not that I prefer to be underdogs; it is what it is.”
The underdog tag suits United and their city, a place of scrappers and hustlers. Not for them the easy road. Along the way to this august occasion, United have suffered deep heartache, losing two bright stars along the way.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Davids recalled.
“We have kept them in our thoughts and prayers as a team, and we know that they will be there for us on Saturday,” he said of Mlondi Dlamini and Luyanda Ntshangase, who have both passed away over the course of an unforgettable 2017/18 campaign.
“We have to play for them too, and that is extra motivation. Winning would be a great way to finish off this season, and then kick on from there,” Davids added.
Kicking on will depend a lot on which players are retained, but Davids said he and the club management had already spoken to a clutch of youngsters whose skills have become flames to the moths that do the dirty work of serenading for big clubs.
“We want to keep this group together, and the encouraging thing is that none of our youngsters want to go to the so-called ‘Big Three’ and sit on the bench. If they get overseas offers, we will not stand in their way, but they all want to play their local football here,” Davids enthused.
He himself has also committed his flourishing future to the club, and that continuity is crucial in ensuring that this incredible season is not a once-off.
As Saturday approaches, United were tempted to travel down early to Cape Town, but thought better of it.
“We have travelled the day before each away game all season, so to change things now would be weird. You don’t want to be changing things ahead of such a big game,” Davids pointed out.
Footballers are creatures of curious habits, but it is within that repetition that they find the courage to scale mountains previously deemed impossible.
Saturday, Davids will take his United side to their biggest mountain yet, and he will ask them to find the conviction to stamp their authority on this final match, as they have in every other match this season.
He will ask his side to dream once more, to play for those brothers who cannot play anymore, and to play for a city that has been handed the chance to dream. He will ask his team to reach deep within, and prove that winners can emerge from the unlikeliest of places.
Saturday, Davids will ask his men to ditch a Maritzburg United habit of a generation, emerge from the familiar comfort of playing safe and dreaming small, and find the boldness of 2017/18 to break through and become champions.