Free State Stars have been a revelation this season. Struggling to make any headway over the last few years, with rumours regularly circulating that their elite league franchise was up for grabs, things changed rather dramatically in the campaign just ended.
Packed with dedicated, determined performers, Stars surprised all and sundry with consistent displays of courage and commitment – and, as a result, they got the results they deserved. A lofty league position (6th) was followed with the cherry on top: Nedbank Cup success.
There is no secret to Ea Lla Koto’s success; in fact, the recipe is very simple: hard work. The team’s fitness trainer is Riedoh Berdien, who, in working very closely with this bunch of driven and passionate footballers, has been able to witness first-hand, on a day-to-day basis, how Stars went about turning things around.
“This squad knows only one way and that is hard work,” said Berdien. “Because they are a small club, because many of the players come from humble beginnings, they always have their backs to the wall, they are never favourites in anything - and, because of that, they always work very hard at what they do.
“Coach Luc (Eymael) came in, and he has his way of working; he brought greater stability to the team. And what was just as important was the experience in the squad, with players like Rooi Mahamutsa, Paulus Masehe and Patrick Phungwayo. For me, because I was responsible for the fitness of such experienced, older players, my challenge was to keep them in good shape. I had to condition them well; it was important to get the best out of them.”
For Stars this season, the motivation for everything was there were no shortcuts. The motto they adopted was that, with hard work, anything was possible - and, when a team doesn’t give up, when it is prepared to always put in the hard yards, then they will always be difficult to beat. In essence, to be successful, a team has to do that little bit extra. And, boy, has this philosophy paid off, big time.
Stars’ Belgian coach Eymael has a background in physical education, which is why he understands the significance of fitness and conditioning. So, in conjunction with Berdien, special training programmes were put in place, designed to optimise the players’ performance.
Berdien is rapidly developing a good reputation in the PSL. The Capetonian has previously worked at Cape Town All Stars, Chippa United, Bloemfontein Celtic, Banyana Banyana, and the national teams of Botswana, Togo, Bangladesh and Trinidad & Tobago.
He is currently in his second stint at the Free State club. The first was in 2014 when he worked with then-Stars coach Tom Saintfiet. When the Belgian left Stars, he took Berdien along – and the fitness guru had the opportunity to join Saintfiet in working with the national squads of Togo, Bangladesh and Trinidad and Tobago. After returning home, Berdien was at Cape Town All Stars when Ea Lla Koto asked him to return to the club.
“As a strength and conditioning coach, I work very closely with the head coach of the teams I’m at,” said Berdien. “The coach has a way he wants to play and, because I deal with the fitness and conditioning of the players, I design my work to fit in with the style of the coach.
“I’ve built a good relationship with coach Luc. We both want the best for Stars and we have worked together well this season.”
Backroom staff are often not given enough credit for the work they do behind the scenes. But, based on the incredible fitness and conditioning of Stars this season, it’s more than obvious that Berdien’s contribution deserves some applause.
“The Nedbank Cup victory is a big achievement for the club,” he said. “Not just that, but the way it was done. The team was always consistent this season - and they fully deserve the success. Because of the way the team performed all season, the club knew they needed something to show for it at the - and they got it with the cup win.
“For me, personally, with Stars doing it in Cape Town, in my hometown, and against fellow Capetonians like Fadlu and Maahier Davids (Maritzburg coaches), both of whom I know very well, it’s something I won’t forget very easily.”