Three matches. That’s all that stands between an unqualified German lad and the immortal greatness of being champion of the South African second tier. First, home to Witbank Spurs who sit three points above the drop zone. In a cruel twist of fate, not only do we play away to Chippa on the final day, the remaining match in between is away to the other team in the top three.
There’s still plenty of hope. We beat both Chippa and Ga-Rankuwa earlier in the season, and were unlucky to draw with a poor Spurs. Closing out the season with back to back away matches to 2nd and 3rd is about as tough as it gets.
Home vs Witbank Spurs
The referee wasn’t even done writing down the details of the second yellow card before I was mentally planning our playoff strategy. The lads had other ideas, and it took only five minutes before Ngobeni showed how we react to going down a man. Most other managers might have drawn the team back, or brought off an attacker to bring a fourth defend back on. After a momentary internal war, I told the lads to continue business as usual. That meant running our patient, controlling 4-2-3-1 with two full backs and a single center back. Did I mention that center back is 5’5″ with the jumping reach of your average briefcase?
Spurs started pushing back after the half, possibly sensing that the early-aging 27 year old patrolling in front of our area struggled to reach their striker’s shoulders. All of their shots on target came during the second half, as our goalkeeper played out of his skin to keep our title hopes alive. Full credit to our diminutive defender Andrew Sheppard, who despite my concerns turned into a brick wall with rocket boots. He was relentless in defense, flying all over the pitch to steal the ball away and throw himself in front of shots. A solid defender all season, but nothing like this. Not wanting Dhlamini to be the only player on the team to call the laws of physics into question, Sheppard also repeatedly sent himself soaring inexplicably into the air. The shocked commentary team even noted how no one could beat him in the air. Justin De Wee sealed the match five minutes from time at the end of a counter started from (you guessed it) a headed Sheppard interception.
Brilliant, brilliant stuff at exactly the right moment. The squad is as pumped as they’ve been all season. One down, two to go.
Away to Ga-Rankuwa United
This result got me so angry I didn’t even get all the right screenshots. Nangombe scored less than 10 minutes into his return from injury, but despite a shot total over 20 we could not score again. Ga-Rankuwa equalized shortly after the half and absolutely nothing I tried could get us a goal. It was bad enough having to play Chippa away to determine the title, but now we’d turned it into a must win match. The perfect pressure cherry on top of the pressure cake.
Away to Chippa United
National First Division Championship At Stake
Here we are. Despite a season plagued by injury, we can field ten of our first choice 11. Right wingers Farouk September and Justin De Wee both miss out, forcing me to start Slipshire Charles. He was a free agent central mid proficient in several other positions that I picked up as cover a little before the transfer window. The only other possible issue we may run into is that the only central defender available for the bench is a youth player who’s just come through the intake. Chippa has also had some injury problems with their front three but managed to get all of them fit. This is bad, bad news for us. Toe, the lowest scoring of the trio, has as many goals as our top scorer. There is one light in the dark in the fact that Pule, their shadow striker, only returned from injury today. His condition is quite poor and I’ve let the lads know to hound him nonstop.
We come flying out of the gates, turning the opening kickoff into a Jonas Nangombe shot on goal in less than 30 seconds. Chippa United can hardly get out of their half in the opening minutes. I can feel the hunger from our players. The defensive line is edging up, confidence growing as we gather up clearance after clearance. The boys must have been praying to mighty Odin again, as Andrew Sheppard has remembered his form from the Spurs match. Luhie Sibaya is in full pout-y brilliance, finding Nangombe several times for good opportunities in the first twenty minutes. Twenty four minutes; a deep Sibaya invokes a little David Beckham and lands a beautiful, arching cross field pass right at the feet of a forward bombing Sidney Mhlongo. Our captain drives toward the by-line, makes a cut worthy of an NBA highlight reel to lose his man, and drives a hard cross into the center.
The Chippa goalkeeper comes off his line to claim the cross, but in the middle of doing South African football’s nastiest ankle breaker Mhlongo gave the ball a wicked dip. Felizatto is leaping through the air for a cross that’s coming in at his knees. That misjudgment isn’t even his biggest mistake; Jonas Nangombe, completely unseen by the goalkeeper, is flying through the area and meets the cross on the full with his left foot. The back of the net threatens to give way under the power of the shot. 0-1
I’m so excited I can’t decide between English and German so I opt instead for some bits of Zulu I picked up off the lads. Felizatto had gone five hundred and two minutes prior without conceding. We hadn’t only taken the lead, we’d just shattered the momentum of their entire run in. Emotions are running high. The pressure is maintained despite the goal. We’re still keeping over 60% of possession. The sense of frustration on the other side of the bench is already growing. Within ten minutes or so of the goal, Chippa pick up two separate cheap yellow cards. One goal isn’t going to be enough, not against the league’s blowout top scorers, but despite several more chances we can’t find the net again before the half.
Hoping to atone for my many team talk missteps throughout the season, I flipped everything on it’s head and kept it simple. All we needed to do we keep our concentration through the second half and the glory would be ours. We had them on the ropes, composure on our part would weather the storm of unorganized desperation. Finally, I’d pushed the right button at the right time. Even Sibaya looked reassured and focused.
The storm of desperation came on strong and fast after the break. Everyone expected their manager to light the fire under them in the locker room, and that he did. Gone was the pressed, controlled match of the first half. Possession is becoming more even and the chances are coming at both ends. After not registering a shot on target in the entire first half, Chippa’s front trio have kicked into high gear. Our goalkeeper is forced into action and in a big way. A moment of pure madness in the box sees an acrobatic double save with a third shot cleared off the line by none other than Andrew Sheppard. Fifty four minutes; a cross finds a wide open Habib Elukaga, scorer of 19 goals in 19 games, in the middle of our area. The ball nearly kisses the crossbar on the way over, our entire defense flat-footed and staring. This near miss finally gets through their post halftime fog, and the ball is quickly up at the other end with Jonas Nangombe forcing a diving fingertip save from Felizatto.
Chippa United start to push us back again. We gain two yellow cards in two minutes, by central defender Hlela and defensive mid Mokoena. I’m going to need to make a change early. There’s too much pressure to have two key defenders on yellows. Hlela is the more troublesome of the two by far and makes way for our brand new youth team defender. The pressure is immediate, with Roland Toe sending a curler a whisker outside of the top corner on sixty minutes and Elukaga skimming the outside of the post two minutes later. Five minutes after the hour, it became obvious I made the wrong choice regarding the sub. Mokoena, without even being put under pressure, leaves his shoulder out to catch a runner and the referee is left with no choice but to go to his pockets. Yellow Card. Red Card.
Unbelievable. Right as the pressure turns fully against us, a needless foul leaves us a man short for the second time in three games. The second goal I wanted looks miles away now, and drop one of the center mids back to take over at DM. Sibaya will stay in midfield by himself and do, well, everything. We’ll drop off some and look to play the counter. To my delight, Pule and Elukaga are both withdrawn due to fatigue. The minutes tick off and the match loses it’s edge. I’ve gone against all my beliefs and pulled a Wengerian turtle maneuver. Chippa’s replacement attackers aren’t anywhere near the quality of the players they replaced. Despite being a man down, we’ve pulled together spectacularly. No one can get a good shot on target; we aren’t trying to, and they can’t find a way through our ten man wall. Three more yellow cards are shown, two to them and one to us. The 4th official’s board goes up. Four minutes of added time. I pull the team so far back even Nangombe rarely gets as far as the center circle. Ninety three minutes; an Andrew Sheppard clearance deflects off a Chippa player’s back and falls to a spinning Roland Toe. He was clearly watching our match with Santos and went for the Dhlamini wondergoal. Instead of landing gently in the back of the net, the shot hooks wide left and high into the stands. I’m urging glue into our keeper’s veins. We need the world’s slowest goal kick. The seconds are ticking by and Chippa’s manager is screaming to the fourth official about time wasting and yellow cards. A look from the referee finally gets the ball in the air, arching down towards midfield. Peep. Peeeeep. Peeep.
(The league record actually came after the penultimate match, so it sits at nineteen now.)
How Dhlamini’s goal didn’t win goal of the season I’ll never know. Obviously the match engine rendered it much more spectacular than it thought it was.
Expectations exceeded. Promotion secured without the nightmare of a playoff. In South Africa, the 2nd and 3rd placed clubs in the NFD get placed in a playoff mini-league with the second bottom team from the Premiership and they all play each other home and away. Chippa went on to win and will be joining us in the top flight next season. It’s always good to have a nemesis.