|Starring role: Cavin Johnson|
CAVIN JOHNSON. Took me a while to get the hang of that name. Not Kevin. Not Calvin. Not Gavin. CAVIN. It simply doesn’t feature on any list of popular South African names.
But with his Platinum Stars unexpectedly competing for the double of Premier Soccer League and Nedbank Cup at the squeaky-bottom end of the season, Cavin says: “We started badly, we weren’t quite ready - but now we’re super fit. We can climb the mountain.”
I saw Cavin last Sunday when two late goals sealed a Nedbank quarter-final win over his old club Mamelodi Sundowns at Loftus. I told the tiny band of Dikwena fans they’d win 2-1 (I have Brazilian witnesses), remarkably they did with seconds to spare. They’ve got SuperSport United in the last four. I predict a similar outcome.
And after the come-from-behind 2-1 win over Wits this week, they are now two points ahead of Orlando Pirates in second and just four points short of favourites Kaizer Chiefs at the top of the league.
The top two meet on April 28 in Polokwane with Johnson well aware that his side is the only club to down the AmaKhosi in the league this season. And football analysts are finally starting to talk about Dikwena, the crocodiles snapping at the heels of the lumbering Soweto giants.
Johnson accepts: “The League is there for Chiefs to lose. They have the best side and – in Stuart Baxter – the best tactician in the country. It’s up to them to make mistakes – that would open the door for us.
"My challenge is to make this team peak at the right time – I’m happy we’re doing that.”
Then he issues the stock: “For us it is one game at a time and we cannot get ahead of ourselves and put players under unnecessary pressure.”
In the old Gaelic, Cavin is spelt Caoimhan, it means “beautiful at birth”. It’s listed as the 18,267th most popular name in the USA and apparently one in every 351,102 Americans is called Cavin. So the bloke who has taken South African Premier Soccer League by storm this season is fairly unique.
But we knew that. Perhaps Cavin’s greatest claim to fame is discovering a lad called Steven Pienaar in Cape Town. Now 54, Johnson came across the lad from Westbury in 1994, when the Everton star was a mere 12-year-old.
At the time, Pienaar was playing street football (for R5 a goal) and Johnson had just set up the Transnet School of Excellence. Johnson recalls: "There were other players around just as good but Stevie's attitude
stood out, not just his technical quality.”
And perhaps that’s the key to Johnson’s rise. His ability to spot attitude. He soon added Dillon Sheppard and Brent Carelse to his finds and he became youth coach when Ajax Cape Town emerged from the merger of Seven Stars and Cape Town Spurs in 1999.
Then he took a similar role at Sundowns before rising to assistant coach under a bloke called Gordon Igesund when Msandawana won the PSL in 2007. Those were heady days in Mamelodi.
Both Johnson and his current Platinum-plated star Thuso Phala soon found themselves struggling to stay afloat in Patrice Motsepe’s money-no-object environment.
But they have reunited just outside Rustenburg after Owen de Gama’s controversial reign - and the club is finally fulfilling King Leruo’s ambitions in the kingdom of the Bafokeng (more of that later).
Phala came to prominence as Igesund’s surprise Bafana Bafana package at the African Cup of Nations earlier in the year and Johnson grins: "Thuso is just reaching his peak at 26. His first touch has improved, we do a lot of technical work in training. His decision-making has improved too.”
Benson Mhlongo is another former Sundowner who has found his feet under Johnson. The former Orlando Pirates centre-back is the fulcrum for Dikwena with Johnson confessing: "Benson was told he would never play again when he injured his knee at Pirates.
“But I knew him from Sundowns and I bought him mostly to offer his experience to our youngsters. But it turned out much better than I thought it would. He won't play 35 games for us, but he's made a huge difference."
There are gems only Johnson could unearth in the mineral-rich, 14,000 square kilometre kingdom of the Bafokeng. Players like Vuyo Mere, the fullback from Chloorkop, another former Pirate in winger Patrick Malokase - and he spotted the former Leopard, Robert Ng’ambi.
Up front, Botswana’s Mogakolodi Ngele (9 after his brace against Wits this week) and Namibian Henrico Botes (7) have scored 16 between them to form one of the most-feared dynamic duos in the country this season.
And then Cavin offers this secret behind his success: "Kabelo Rangoaga does our fitness and Godfrey Sepuru is my physio. They are vital. We have not had a strained groin or hamstring for 18 months."
Or is it this? He wears TWO wristwatches – a posh one and a cheap digital - to keep Ferguson-like tabs on the referee’s time-keeping. He grins: "It's my only muti!”
There’s a toughie too. Used to be Silver Stars. The name first came up, for me, in 2009. A bloke called Martin Bekker, spokesman for the Royal Bafokeng family, told me all about King Leruo’s plans for the little team that started out as Khakhu Fast XI in 1937 in the eponymous town 170km east of Polokwane.
A couple of months later I watched England and Wayne Rooney beat them 3-0 in a pre-World Cup friendly. Steve Komphela was in charge then. I saw nothing special, though Gavin Hunt told me at the time: “England aren’t going to win the World Cup!”
But the memory stuck. Bekker showed me a 35-year plan for Leruo’s Bafokeng nation which included shoving Platinum Stars to the top of the footballing tree in South Africa.
But I could find little evidence of impending success back then. And precious little record of Platinum Stars’ footballing feats until 1998 when the club’s then-owner Joseph “Tycoon” Mapfulagasha moved his team to Mapate, 30km south of Khakhu. They changed their name to the Mapate Silver Stars and were promoted from the Vodacom League to the National First Division in 1999.
Then came a link with the old white National Football League titans Highlands Park, when a Sandton businessman called Larry Brookstone purchased half of the club and linked them with his juniors at Highlands North, though “HP Silver Stars” continued to play their games just over 300km north of Johannesburg.
After four seasons in the NFD graveyard, they came to life in 2004 and were promoted to the PSL. They finished 11th, 7th and 5th – and that’s when the Royal Bafokeng Nation took an interest.
It started off with a sponsorship deal, closely followed by a provincial border-crossing from Limpopo to
North West. In December 2006, they beat Ajax Cape Town 3-1 in the first-ever Telkom Knock-Out final and they finshed the season as runners-up in the PSL.
That encouraged Royal Bafokeng Holdings to buy 51% of Silver Stars’ shares in May 2007 – and the name was changed to the local mineral, Platinum.
The catalytic benefits are obvious. This week Botes, the 33-year-old who was voted the best PSL player in Q2, signed a new deal, joining Ng’ambi, Msomi, Kagiso Mlambo, Lindokuhle Mbatha and Solomon Mathe as long-term investments. But the club has already lost Phala and Enocent Mkhabela to Nedbank Cup rivals SuperSport next season.
There are further problems as the club struggles to attract decent crowds at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium for their home games, despite being the only PSL club in the Northwest province.
Johnson is working on that: "We have to create a brand of football that pulls more supporters. We want to compete with well-supported clubs like Bloemfontein Celtic - but it's difficult to change footballing loyalties. So we have to attract a younger generation. It's a long-term thing."
Claiming the Nedbank Cup or the Absa Premier League title – or both - might help.
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