We head into the final game of the season sitting 2 points outside of the playoff places. Before we get to that, let’s take a quick review of the 12 matches since I took over.
I had an extremely rough start to life at the club. I was experimenting with a few tactical options and just couldn’t get the attack firing at all. My first win came in the cup, although it was hardly a match to be proud of. African All Stars are from the lower leagues, and we only won thanks to two goals right in the dying moments of the match. The second round of the cup start off brilliantly, but the team fell apart after halftime and allowed two goals to force extra time. Both teams were completely exhausted and penalties felt imminent almost from the first kick of the added periods. We made a complete sham of the shootout, only scoring once the entire time. Something had to change.
Two things happened that started our turnaround. Initially, after the shootout loss in the cup, I tore into the team. They had the quality, that much was apparent from how the season went before I arrived. We were approaching ten matches with me in charge, I wasn’t exactly unfamiliar anymore. In the case of the second change, I did something I was very hesitant to do. And Germans can be very, very hesitant.
I took the advice of my assistant manager. In our bi-weekly backroom meeting. I was really starting to feel at a loss how to fit this very strange squad together, and nothing had been working. Perhaps it was his full beard, but when he suggested that the team should use a narrow 4-3-1-2 formation in our next match, I decided to listen. We had decent wingers, but it just wasn’t clicking. To add to our struggles, in the match before our humiliating shootout defeat, we received some wonderful news.
Our leading scorer so far was out for the rest of the season. There were only three other strikers on the books, and I’d just decided to switch to a formation that used two. On top of all of that, two of those three strikers were the two worst first team players at the club, according to my assistant.
As you can see in the results table above, the changes worked better than I could have hoped for. We won the next four matches in a row by a combined score of 12 to 2. The new first choice striker, Ashwin Roelf, kicked things off with a hat trick in our next match, and bagged a brace in a fitness friendly during a two week empty stretch. Kelebogile Nguzana, a mouthful of a name and my ass man’s bet for our worst player, took over where Roelf started and bagged two braces in a row with a single goal in the following match. Things were looking up heading into the final stretch of the season.
The streak must have gotten to the player’s heads. We lost the next two matches, where we easily could’ve gotten at least four points. This put us in the delicate position I mentioned at the start. Two points out of the playoff places, heading into the last match of the season. We play away, and to make the scene as dramatic as possible, we’re matched up against the team who’s position we’re hoping to take. The stakes are simple and clear cut. If we win, we’re in the playoffs. A draw or a loss leaves us in fourth and stuck in the second tier for another year.
Can we win? Can the inspirational German lead this group of South Africans to glory in a last stand?
In a word: not exactly. In what was a surprisingly wide open match, it was our mentality that let us down. My miracle striker pair each netted in the first 20 minutes to give us a clear view of the playoffs. Not a minute (literally) after we had taken control of the match, Royal Zulu pegged us back one. These things happen, the players were still caught up celebrating the second goal. I reminded them that there was a long way to go still and the match was most certainly not won yet. They didn’t listen. Happy Mabuya made me quite unhappy (I had to) as we started approaching half time, netting his second and drawing them level. The tantrum I threw on the sideline was of a level only a young German could reach. The team certainly got the message, as Kelebogile completed a brace of his own in the dying moments of the half.
The third goal had not calmed me down by the time we got to the locker room. We were ahead, I told the players, but we had been two goals ahead half an hour ago and look what happened. There were forty five minutes left. and they were all equally important. I didn’t care if we scored another goal, or another three, we were going to keep full focus until the final whistle. They didn’t listen again. Less than five minutes into the second half the equalizer came, from a lapse in concentration no less. Royal Zulu decided that this free for all had gone on long enough and started compressing backward. I made changes, I brought on substitutes, but nothing could get past their turtle.
A point each kept us both in place in the table. We’d finished fourth, outside of the playoffs. That left us short of where I had promised the board we’d be when I took the job, but they didn’t seem to have any desire to let me go.
Despite falling short of expectations, the season wasn’t really a failure. An unknown, foreign manager coming in halfway through the season with the club in reach of first can’t be easy for the squad. We still ended a place in the table higher than the club ever had before, and Ashwin Roelf’s end of the season outburst grabbed him the Golden Boot.
It looks like these minor successes will keep me on for another season. We’re in a decent position, but with two teams coming down into the division and only three places offering a chance of promotion, we need to push forward to ensure progress.
As a closing note on the season, I wanted to share that our (completely brand new) tradition of magnificent hair at my clubs continues here in South Africa. This guy even has a great name to go with it.
I’m looking at making big changes for the year ahead, in terms of personnel and tactics. With a full preseason, I’m hoping the players will be able to grasp the 4-3-3 that I wanted to use initially. It’s been one of our tactics since I’ve been at the club, so with a half season of training with it before we even get to the preseason I”m hoping it won’t be as big of a disaster next time around. We need to strengthen in some key areas, as well as add some much needed depth. I’ll be working overtime with my three man scouting team all summer to try to find the gems hidden in South Africa.