“We’ve gained a lot of new faces since the last time we sat in this changing room”, I say to my players, before gesturing vaguely around me. “This is the Cape Town Stadium and it’s a significant place for all of us. It was built for the 2010 World Cup and to this day it remains the venue that hosted the worst match of football that I’ve ever endured as a fan; England 0-0 Algeria.” I look around the room studying the faces of the players, a lot of whom seem to be wondering where I’m going with this. “It’s also a significant place because it’s the home ground of our opponents today and of our fiercest rivals, Ajax Cape Town. Now I don’t care whether you’ve been here for 2 weeks, 2 years or 2 decades, you understand this: This is your Cup final. This is the big one. Being new will not be an excuse if any of you come off that pitch with anything left in the tank.”
I mean it. Playing The Old Cape Town Derby away on opening day can either go very very well or very very badly. I won’t accept a 3rd consecutive 0-3 loss. This time we aren’t a team I inherited, we’re a team I’ve built. We’re still gelling, of course we are. Half of my lineup today have been Santos players for less than a few months, but the fixtures are what they are and we need to go at Ajax today with all the ferocity of a team of lifelong Santos fans. Aptly, today will see lifelong Santos fan Captain Komo given his first appearance with the armband.
Protecting the new captain in our counter attacking Project: Foxy Mk II are a back 4 of Tlou Molekwane, Mike Kakuba, Roscoe and Siyabonga Zulu. I’ve chosen Zulu over Japhta today because as good as Japhta’s been in pre-season, Siyabonga’s the more defensive of the 2. I don’t think it’s the right match to choose a flying wing back who’s still learning the ropes over a defensively minded natural full back. Our holding man is young Juno, who’s impressed me in pre-season, mostly as a centre back but defensive midfield is his most natural position. Our midfield is particularly creative today with Sinbad partnered by Sony Norde, who will try to emulate what Joseph Ekwalla gave us last season, although I don’t think he appreciates playing so deep. Ryan Moon and Yanga Baliso will be our wingers with King Carl up front.
As you might imagine, the focus of my attention in the opening stages is on last years PSL Player of the Season Sameegh Doutie. We keep him fairly quiet for the first 20 minutes but when Ajax win a corner, there’s nothing we can do to stop Doutie from putting in a peach of a cross. Nyambi arrives to meet the ball at the near post but thankfully heads it against the bar.
Half time passes with the scores encouragingly still deadlocked. We can’t keep it that way for too much longer and there’s no prizes for guessing who opens the scoring. When Lebusa crosses into our box from the left, Doutie steps away from his marker Zulu and has a free header that he tucks into the net.
I bring on some fresh legs in the shape of Marothi Diale and Sello Japhta, replacing Juno and Yanga Baliso, and we go Project: Meatloaf with Norde playing in behind King Carl. 10 minutes later and still trailing, I hand a debut to Mandla Masango, bringing off Siyabonga Zulu and dropping Japhta to an attacking wingback role, while instructing Masango to cut inside from the left to make room.
We go all out attack with 10 minutes to go but still struggle to create anything of note, that is until the 91st minute: Ryan Moon passes the ball to Carl Lark on the edge of the Ajax box and the King smashes it viciously towards the bottom right hand corner, but the keeper Peterson gets down brilliantly to push it away with his fingertips. Moon keeps the ball from going behind for a corner though and chips it across to the far post where Masango’s arriving. The debutant heads the ball at goal but Peterson scrabbles back across to tip it against the post and complete a remarkable but heartbreaking double save. 0-1 it ends.
I thought we were unlucky there. We certainly looked more solid defensively and our new Ugandan centre back Mike Kakuba was the Player of the Match, which is pleasing. Despite soaking up Ajax’s pressure and only having 39% of possession we actually ended up creating more chances than our victorious rivals, which is pretty annoying but also promising. For a first game back it wasn’t a bad performance at all.
The eagle eyed among you will notice that nothing ever came of transfer listing Emil Sambou during the Summer break, and it really just comes down to a lack of interested buyers, with the ones who were interested asking for us to pay too hefty a chunk of his wages. He might well be on his way after all though to Cape Town City, whose year long loan offer I’ve accepted.
And it’s a good job he’s on his way too because we need to make room for our new striker. Moroccan centre forward Hicham Aidir’s work permit has been granted and he completes his move to Santos FC. I am frankly amazed that we’ve managed to get this deal over the line. According to my scouts he does need to work on his consistency a bit, but Hicham’s overall quality is outstanding and I think he’ll be absolutely terrific for us. I do wish we’d managed to get him in before the derby though.
If that wasn’t enough good news, Joël Soumahoro’s work permit is granted a few days later and he too completes his move to The People’s Team.
Emil Sambou then completes his loan move to Cape Town City, but frustratingly Ekedi’s work permit is rejected. He’s now the last piece of the puzzle and the only one I’m waiting on. I appeal the decision and it’s actually granted the next day, only for me to realise that I’ve overstretched my budget and can’t afford him after all. I cancel the deal, disappointed but also pretty happy with the work we’ve done this transfer window.
You’d think that’d be the last twist in this crazy Summer, but on a whim I request another work permit for Isaac Sohna – And it’s granted. Isaac Sohna, the centre back who’s currently made 4 appearances for Israeli side Hapoel Ra’anana and been sent off once, is recalled to the Santos squad in time for our second match. Our foreign player limit is reached and our Summer transfer business is done. The Great Cull has claimed 14 victims and replaced them with 9 far more suitable footballers, for a profit of £452k.
So we go into our first home match of the season as a complete team. Bidvest Wits are our opponents, who I still blame for our losing Joseph Ekwalla in the summer after their insultingly low-ball bid made his feet get all itchy. A win here would not only get us up and running for the season but it would also be very therapeutic to watch their manager Gavin Hunt get his arse handed to him.
As the home side we’ll be going for Project: Meatloaf today, with Sello Japhta in for Zulu as a flying left wingback and a first start for Mandla Masango on the left wing, who’ll replace Yanga Baliso and again make room for Japhta’s overlapping runs by cutting inside. In theory this should be one of the most dangerous and well balanced lineups I’ve ever put out. New signings Joël and Hicham are on the bench.
7 minutes in, Alexander whips a cross into our box from the right wing and opposition striker Yende is left unmarked to side foot it home. I’m fuming. Both of my centre backs see the cross coming in and seem to decide that 5’8″ Dutiro is the one to double mark… And not 6’8″ Yende.
We’re quiet once again and our first decent chance doesn’t come until a couple of minutes after half time, when Norde plays Moon into the box and the winger shoots, but goalkeeper Keets parries it behind.
With 25 minutes to go I hand out 2 more debuts: Joël Soumahoro and Hicham Aidir run onto the pitch to replace Mandla Masango and Carl Lark. Soumahoro moves behind Aidir and Norde goes out onto the left.
Again, we go on the attack with 10 minutes to go, but this time with a quicker response. With only 7 minutes left to play another Alexander cross is headed clear by Roscoe. Moon gets to the loose ball inside his own half and controls it, before looking up, spotting Aidir’s run and launching the ball into the left channel for him to chase. The Moroccan has the beating of centre back Khumalo as he chases the ball into the Wits penalty area, and from a tight angle he wraps his left foot around the ball first time and absolutely twats it – Finding the near top corner and almost bursting the net.
I leap out of my seat, punching the air furiously like a boxer who just found out that Nitrogen was cheating on his sister. This is what it’s all about. This is football. The drama, the “narrative”, the ecstasy…
… The last minute winning goal brings me back to Earth with a thud.
It’s Mkatshana that gets it, after Yende chases a long ball and cuts it back from our right byline. Mkatshana is left with a mere tap in to restore his team’s lead. The final whistle blows at 1-2.
There’s no getting around the disappointment of 2 losses in our first 2 matches. Of course it’s encouraging to see Aidir bag a goal on his debut, but the goal counts for nothing if it doesn’t earn you any points. There are definitely positives to take from the match though. Once this team gels I genuinely think we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
With our transfer business done, deadline day passes without much fanfare in Lansdowne. I do start studying for my Continental C license though, which is obviously exciting for me personally, and after those 2 straight defeats, I’m understandably in the mood for a good win to clear away the cobwebs, which is why it’s probably a shame that it’s time to travel with the Liechtenstein squad for my first competitive International matches. Wish us luck, we’ll need it.