STUART Baxter, take a bow. The new Kaizer Chiefs coach produced a consummate performance on Thursday Night Live with Robert Marawa and Mark Gleeson, good enough to convince the estimated 15 million Amakhosi that he is, indeed, a worthy appointment.
Blessed with that flat Wolverhampton accent, the 58-year-old glided through a reasonably low-heat grilling from the smooth Mr Marawa and his 6ft 5in sidekick Mark Gleeson, a man I first introduced to the intricacies of South African football some 27 years ago when we were working together in Durban.
In fact, Baxter has done the rounds very nicely. Appearing in all the right places, talking to all the right people.
Going on Marawa was a master-stroke, especially when Mandoza is providing top quality musical accompaniment.
Neatly introducing himself as a coach with more in common with the usually successful Sir Alex Ferguson rather than the sometimes competent Roy Hodgson, he told us: “Like Sir Alex, I enter every competition believing I can win it. With Kaizer Chiefs I will be disappointed every time we don’t win a trophy.
“I am used to working under pressure.”
He followed that with this neat assessment of player power at Naturena, where Vladimir Vermezovic fell prey to the connection between chattering Chiefs and their general manager, Bobby Motaung.
First he dealt with the incumbent coaching crew, including the ever-popular Doc Khumalo and Donald “Ace” Khuze: “From what I saw in the win over Ajax Cape Town on Wednesday, I am happy with the technical staff. We have to keep a balance, I won’t be shooting from the hip.”
Phew! Imagine if he thew Doc and Ace to the wolves!
As for the revolt which ultimately sent VV back to Serbia, where he belongs: “A big word for me is respect. I respect what I’ve seen from the players so far. When it comes to the erm… more experienced stars, I will respect them if they work hard. We have to enjoy working together. That is important.”
Baxter also revealed that his role at Chiefs will be “two-pronged”. He explained: “I haven’t been given any targets but I do have to pay attention to youth development too.
“In my discussion, it was made clear that a big part of my job will be sorting out the academy over the next two years. You can’t turn round to the fans when you have won nothing and say: We have a couple of good youngsters coming through. But you also can’t win a trophy and then it’s over. You have to improve. Development of young players is important at a club like Kaizer Chiefs.”
In Soccer Laduma, there are encouraging words from Baxter too. The man who coached Bafana Bafana without great success a decade ago admits: “I feel I have unfinished business in South Africa. I don’t think the ending of my last job here was right. I have a chance to change that.
“I am talking to a lot of people, finding out things. I’ve got about 25 DVDs to go through. I want to hit the ground running.”
But hold on, what about his captain and goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune going public with the popular craving for a local kingpin in Soweto? Baxter produced a neat deflection around the post: “The coach who gets it right gets support from everyone, no matter where he’s from. Players want to win things. I know and understand that.”
And as for the actual approach to take perhaps the biggest job in South African football, Baxter was able to balance his desire for a top job – he was “assisting the coach” at AIK in Sweden since leaving the Finland national role over a year ago – and the great Kaizer’s need to go overseas for yet another unspectacular appointment.
Baxter said: “Let me put it like this. In the modern world of football, you get to hear from people. I was made aware that Kaizer might want me for the job and I made it clear I’d be interested. That’s how it happened.”
All pretty slick from a man who has travelled the footballing world, from England’s Under 19s to South Africa’s Bafana, from Japanese hopefuls to Scandinavian champions – repeatedly – much like new England boss Hodgson.
On what we have seen so far, I like him; so do most of the Amakhosi who have seen and heard from the man since his appointment. But here’s my problem. When it comes to the nitty-gritty, the signing of top class players, the extent of Baxter’s glib deflection becomes apparent.
Though under reasonable pressure from Gleeson and Marawa, he went unchallenged when he gave this answer regarding new players: “I am having an important meeting tomorrow regarding that.”
Clang! That’s when the alarm bells started going off. Surely, if this widely experienced coach had done his homework he would have heard that South Africa’s biggest, richest club failed to make a signing in the January transfer window – unless you count the re-signing of star man Siphiwe Tshabalala on a new contract.
And he might have heard that Bobby “I didn’t need a CV” Motaung proclaims himself the orchestrator of transfers at Chiefs – as well as the judge and jury on coach versus player tiffs.
It was at this point, I would have asked Baxter just how he intended to deal with the dad-and-son, Kaizer-and-Bobby situation. How he intended to assert his personality where so many others have failed.
And I would have asked him why he was waiting for “a meeting tomorrow” before hearing about how much buying would take place during the off-season. Surely he would have received reasonable guarantees before he took the job… unless he was desperate for gainful employment and took the job on the cheap, promising to create a new generation of Chiefs while simultaneously winning titles.
Gleeson, sharp as always, said Baxter must produce a top three finish in his first season – and the title in his second. He appeared ruffled by that, apparently unaware of just how rare a Chiefs championship has been of late.
Baxter gives off the air of a man for whom words are inexpensive. An journeyman football coach eager to get his hands on one of Africa’s biggest franchises.
He makes promises he hopes to keep. Not firm Amakhosi-warming guarantees. His message: “I want to bring bragging rights back to the Chiefs fans. Arsenal fans are in the same position. They’ve had those rights taken from them. I can’t promise that I will bring 10 trophies in the first few season, but what I can promise is that every player who wears the jersey will do it with pride.”
Another great line, Stuart.
There’s no denying Baxter, in the space of less than a week, has reassured a lot of black-and-gold guilded followers.
Those – like me – who suggest he’s the cheap option next to some worthier, more famous candidates, must accept it’s unfair to carp before a ball has been kicked in Baxter’s name.
But in football, as in life, talk is cheap. I remain unconvinced. But, as with Roy Hodgson being over-promoted to England boss, we live in hope. Baxter could yet bring the glamour back to the Amakhosi brand. He certainly talks the talk. But can he walk the walk?