You know when your team’s fixtures come out for the new season and you see that in your first few fixtures you’re playing Chelsea away, or Barcelona away, or Paris Saint Germain or Bayern away? At first glance you see that and think “Oh no, how unlucky, what a terrible start”. But then you think “Well we are more than likely going to lose, so we may as well get the toughest match of the season over and done with right at the start so we don’t have to dread it all year”. That’s how I feel today. I feel like that because today I oversee the 100th match of my career, and we’re playing Kaizer Chiefs. Away.
When I realised that this was my second match, did I think “Oh my god”? Yes. Did I predict a riot? Sure. Did I sit down for far too long and try to work out how to work the word “Ruby” into a question about my hundredth career match? Most definitely. But the thing that really matters is the match itself and how we intend to set up against arguably the best team in Africa on their own turf.
The safe, and some would say sensible thing to do would be to park the bus. Maybe play a flat 5-4-1 or a 4-5-1 or a 4-1-4-1. Or maybe replace the nomadic striker at the heart of my defence with an actual defender. The thing is though that my faith in Project: CO as a system that we can use at home to dominate a match has been so violently shaken by our smash and grab battering against an average side like Cape Town City that I’m just about ready to pull the plug on it already. The only thing that’s stopping me from doing so is the thought that maybe, just maybe it can be a good counter attacking formation. We have men behind the ball when we don’t have possession, we have outlets on the wings, so why not? And what better match to test out my theory than right now? We’re as unfavoured today as we will be all season so let’s have one more go at making it work.
So that’s what we do. We play a counter attacking variant of Project: CO. We keep the same lineup from our last match.
The match starts slowly, and while the Kaizer Chiefs keep possession for the first half hour they’re unable to break us down. Promising stuff. I tell the boys to stick to their positions to make us even more difficult to break down and play at a slightly higher tempo when we get the ball.
The first warning sign comes 3 minutes later when Mahlangu tests Visser with a shot from the edge of the box, but Dino Visser catches it comfortably.
3 minutes after that, Morena skips past Jenniker skilfully on the right and swings a fantastic cross to the far post. Khutlang gets there but his close range shot is tipped onto the post impressively by Visser and cleared by Paro.
A further 3 minutes passes before Kaizer Chiefs start going through the gears. A brilliant passing move ends with Khutlang playing a nice through ball to Mekoa inside the box. He has a go but once again the shot cannot beat Visser.
Seeing that they’re cutting through us using the channels, we go slightly narrower and I tell the isolated Emil Sambou to close their defence down much more to try to force a mistake.
We’re only a minute away from half time when out resolve is broken. Mahlangu’s corner is headed away at the near post by Sinbad, Morena takes the ball down on the edge of the box and shoots through a crowd of bodies. Visser sees it too late and has no chance. The home side leads.
At half time, I tell the team to speed up play even more when on the ball. Exploit the flanks and pass into space to give our wingers a chance of breaking. In defence we go much narrower, drop the defensive line deeper and close down much less to stop them from passing through us.
10 minutes after the restart, Gogotya plays a direct ball up to Sambou, who turns, drives forward to the edge of the box and shoots, but he puts it wide.
For a few fleeting moments I think that we may be able to put together a few more chances like that and maybe bag an equaliser, but less than 5 minutes later Mekoa’s low cross deflects off Moe and falls perfectly to Abraw on the edge or the 6 yard box. He buries it for 0-2.
I opt for a triple sub, to give a few players a chance to impress more than anything else.
Gertse, Japhta and Sambou are replaced by skipper Philani Cele, young winger Saileg Richards and last match’s winning goalscorer Carl Lark.
7 minutes later, Mekoa toe pokes a brilliant deep cross towards the far post and Abraw’s there again to tuck in the third. Khat joins Lark up front for the last 20 minutes as we change to a 4-2-4 formation, but the match ends 0-3.
I’m OK with that to be honest. We knew realistically that we’d be comfortably beaten and for now at least I can put Project: CO to bed secure in the knowledge that I gave it a shot both home and away, but the performances have been pretty awful. Or… I might give it one more try. One more. Next match is Highland Park at home so it’ll be a good to see if we can dominate now that we’ve had a couple of matches practice. Can you tell that I really want this to work?
The South African Knockout Cup (SA Cup) draw is made midweek, and we draw Bidvest Wits, but I can’t be thinking about them now. By the time that match rolls around I want us putting in good performances and getting results to match. That starts against Highlands Park.
Before that though, Santos agree an Affiliate link with the wonderfully named “The Magic Football Club”, or just “The Magic”.
They’re a Western Cape Division 2 side and we’ll share our training facilities with them them and play a yearly friendly in exchange for having first dibs on any young South African stars that push through their youth system.
Speaking of stars, our International contingent are in action before the next League match. Issouf Paro comes on for the last 13 minutes of Burkina Faso’s friendly loss against The Ivory Coast, preferred to Lassina Touré and facing the likes of Mainz’s Wilfried Zaha, Atalanta’s Emmanuel Latte and Besiktas’ Jonathan Kodija. Good experience for him I’m sure.
Emil Sambou plays the last 35 minutes of Gambia’s 4-2 friendly win over Libya, scoring instantly from a Modou Barrow assist and scoring again with a deflected shot 15 minutes from time, earning him the man of the match award. I intended to give Carl Lark his first start of the season against Highlands Park as Sambou’s not really offered anything in our first 2 matches, but I’ll give him one more chance after that performance.
And then comes a hammer blow. A few days before the match, Dino Visser picks up a gashed leg in training and will miss the match. Not only that, but his frustrated understudy Keenon Blignaut rules himself out 2 days later with Achilles Tendonitis and will miss 3-4 weeks. As much as I’ve lamented the quality of my 2 senior goalkeepers, Visser actually had a really good first half against Kaizer Chiefs, and it leaves me scratching my head wondering who I’ll play in goal for the match. I think Khat’s worried that it’ll be him.
But no, say hello to 17 year old local lad Sthembiso Nkomo. He’s a bit wet behind the ears, but he has tonnes of potential. He seems nervous and excited when I break the news to him, after all this is every youth goalie’s dream: All of the senior keepers getting injured at once, thrusting them into the first team.
“It’s just for this one game”, I tell him after training one day. “The physios say that they should be able to rush Dino back for the next one, so don’t worry.”
“Do I get a nickname?” He blurts out. “Like Khat and Moe and Sinbad?”
“You’ve got to earn that, mate” I grin, “I don’t just go around handing them out to everyone.”
I sort of resent the fact that after a 15 day gap we now have 2 games in 3 days. The physios do say that Dino should be fit enough to get through the next one away at Golden Arrows, but it’ll be close.
Marothi Diale replaces Gogotya in midfield as I want to give him a chance to steal the ball winning position, but otherwise we go unchanged.
24 minutes in, Shellar receives the ball on the right hand side of our box, and lays the ball off for Shikweni, who places it perfectly into the bottom corner of our net. To be fair to the debutant Nkomo, he had no chance with that and I doubt that Dino or Keenon would have got to it either. 0-1.
I tell the lads to retain possession and get a foothold in the game. We’re the home side after all and we need to start controlling the play. Just 2 minutes after the goal however, Senamela wriggles into space on the edge of our box and shoots towards the bottom corner, but Nkomo gets down well to catch the ball, drawing a great ovation from the home support.
His goal kick reaches Sambou, but the striker’s dispossessed and Highland Park come forward again. Senamela plays a great ball through for Sekola, who has a go, but Nkomo catches it again, prompting another great ovation.
Over the next 10 minutes, we do indeed get a foothold in the game. We keep possession well and play some nice football. 10 minutes from the break a brilliant move culminates with Japhta whipping a cross to the near post and Emil Sambou, fresh from his heroics for Gambia, glances a header past the keeper to equalise. I punch the air. This is more like it.
Unfortunately half time comes and goes and the match gets a bit scrappy again. Both teams look pretty even and you get the feeling that it could go either way. With 25 minutes to go we hand a debut to Project: Foxy, but we’ll keep trying to retain possession, and play a fluid controlling game. We also make a double sub; Paro tweaks his hamstring slightly and is replaced by Cele, and Sullie comes on for Khat to play behind the striker Sambou.
With 10 minutes to go, Mavimbela releases Thobela on the counter attack. He plays a pass through the centre backs for Thobela to chase and he goes through on goal, but luckily Gertse’s pace allows him to recover, getting back in time to block Thobela’s shot and sending the ball out for a corner. We drop our defensive line back slightly because frankly I don’t want that kind of thing to be a recurring theme between now and the final whistle.
With 5 minutes to go, Carl Lark comes on for Emil Sambou, who gets a hearty clap from the home fans. I’m hoping that Lark’ll be the difference like he was on opening day, and with 3 minutes to go, we get a corner. Ryan Moon swings it in towards the near post and Jenniker meets it, nodding it towards goal. The keeper dives and can’t reach the ball, but Thobela’s on the line to head it away. It only goes as far as Lark 8 yards out though and he swings his left foot at the ball, mis-kicking it, but still doing enough to make it pea-roll into the net. Get in.
All out defence time. We go to 4-1-4-1 and I tell the team to get it into the corners and waste time. 3 minutes of injury time are given as the clock ticks towards and then passes the 90 minute mark.
Jenniker’s throw in goes to Japhta on the left wing, who takes it straight over to the corner flag. “Good lad”, I mumble under my breath, throwing a nervous glance the way of the clock on the North stand. 1 minute of the 3 added on is nearly up. Japhta looks penned into the corner by Mendes and Senamela, who are keen to win it back before he can run down the clock too much. Just then though, our left winger steps over the ball and skims it across the turf towards Sinbad, who looks up, picks his spot, and hits it first time with his left foot. The keeper gets a glove to it, but he can’t keep it out. 3-1. That’s Sinbad’s 1st goal since October 2016 and the 2nd goal ever in his 12 year, 175 game career.
As the final whistle blows and the 8 and a half thousand Santos fans erupt in jubilation, I stand for a moment on the edge of the pitch, soaking it all in. This is what I’ve missed. A good well earned win that sends you, the staff, the players and the crowd all home with smiles on your faces.
I shake hands with Highlands Park boss Kosta Papic before jogging over to our young debutant keeper. He’s trembling and beaming, the relief plain to see on his face. I’ve searched all through the Summer for a first team goalkeeper, but why on Earth shouldn’t Sthembiso Nkomo get a chance to keep his place now?
I wrap an arm around his shoulders and we start to walk towards the tunnel. “Well played tonight, Komo”, I shout over the noise of the fans. “Same again on Tuesday please”.