“This could be the season where Maritzburg United go from being a so-called small team to a force,” the Team of Choice’s centre-back said.
“We are fortunate that we learned our lesson early into the season and we recovered quickly. We went through a dip after a good start that had led to us getting carried away thinking that we had arrived. We now deserve to finish in the top four. Our biggest challenge this season is changing the perception about us as a club. We need to show people that this is also a club where you can realise your dreams. You don’t have to go to a big club to achieve that. Trust me, I’ve been there.”
Xulu’s fortunes in big clubs were mixed. He launched his career at Mamelodi Sundowns, bagged the Absa Premiership Young Player of the Season and went on to earn a contract in Russia.
The lad from KwaMashu joined Kaizer Chiefs upon his return three seasons ago but featured only 10 times in two forgettable seasons. He bounced back from that disappointment to become a key component of the joint-best defensive record in the league, his coach Fadlu Davids playing a key role in that transformation.
Davids told Xulu in his first training session that he will make him the best defender in the country despite his struggle at Chiefs. Davids remained true to his words as Xulu is indeed one of the best this season.
He is just one example among many which show why Davids is a good coach. The 36-year-old has turned a team that avoided relegation two seasons ago on the last day into a side that can finish in the top three to qualify for the Caf Confederation Cup and even reach a major cup final for the first time in the club’s history should they get the better of Mamelodi Sundowns tomorrow in the Nedbank Cup semi-final.
Davids refuses to take all the credit, arguing that it’s been a joint effort with his technical team and the players who bought into his philosophy. He is constantly striving to improve which is a characteristic he has imbued into his players. He actually turned down initial offers to be head coach because he was working on getting a Uefa Pro Licence, the highest coaching qualification in the world, to build on the Caf B and Uefa B Licences he currently holds. He is constantly studying, watching his opponents' last five matches to prepare for them - looking at their trends, how they react when they take the lead or go behind.
“I can’t switch off that inquisitive side in me,” Davids told me last year. “Even when I am watching a football match for 'enjoyment', I look at what the coach is doing and how he is reacting to certain situations. I am constantly learning and looking to improve as a coach. That’s important because trends in football change quickly. You can’t do today what your coach did 20 years ago. You can learn from it but you have to know what’s happening now. Football is changing minute-by-minute. That’s why I am constantly empowering myself with knowledge.”
The Team of Choice have this season collected the most points in the club’s history and are poised to record their highest ever finish which sets them up to challenge for bigger and better things in the next campaign.
Davids’ success with Maritzburg is an example that hard work pays off – it shows how important it is to arm yourself with the required tools before taking on a mammoth task, and why you should never jump into situations until you’re fully ready for them. He is an inspiration to young coaches as he has represented them well and should give club owners across the country the confidence to give young coaches a chance instead of constantly regurgitating has-beens.
It’s hard to believe Davids isn’t from Pietermaritzburg, considering how he has immersed himself into the city.
The Capetonian understands the culture and the dynamics of the region which is why he has been able to ensure that people in the KZN capital embrace their team more than ever, with a number of home-grown talent playing in the side, like Siphesihle Ndlovu from Ashdown.
Hopefully Davids also doesn’t fall into the trap of coaches who, having gained a reputation, quickly want to climb the ladder and jump at the first biggest cheque on offer.
What he has done with Maritzburg is just the start. If this team can stay together they can do far more and continue to wake up the city known as Sleepy Hollow.