|Cup-lifting: Chiefs have had the upper hand this season|
IF Kaizer Chiefs were to do the unthinkable and LOSE 1-0 to SuperSport United tomorrow night, the PSL title would still be in the balance.
Then, IF the mighty AmaKhosi were to lose 1-0 to AmaTuks on Saturday, and IF Platinum Stars crush SuperSport by say, 9-0 in their final League game, the side from Phokeng would actually lift the title by a single goal.
Those aren’t just three mighty improbable IFS. In footballing teams, for all three of those results to come to pass is, of course, impossible.
The truth is, Stuart Baxter has achieved what no other foreign coach has managed in the history of the PSL. The man from Wolverhampton has won the league title at his first attempt.
It hasn’t always been pretty, it’s had a lot to do with the failure of his rivals – Roger de Sa’s Orlando Pirates have been mis-firing since the African Cup of Nations (when Ironman Siya Sangweni got injured) and Cavin Johnson’s Stars somehow contrived to lose to 2-1 to Golden Arrows on Saturday.
No doubt, in his title-winning speech tonight, Baxter will mention “transitions” and “pride” before finally being able to write the words “championship” on his much-debated CV.
Good on him. Baxter arrived to replace the no-nonsense Vladimir Vermecovic after a brief spell where the AmaKhosi were coached by a bunch of trusted former players.
Few expected the former Bafana coach to achieve what Chiefs haven’t since 2005. But the signings of Tower Mathoho and Morgan Gould – between injuries – certainly helped. Bernard Parker’s burst of four goals in the opening game against AmaZulu saw him and his side stay ahead of the bunch all season.
But the unquestionable star of the AmaKhosi’s reclaiming of this lady Gloria was one Itumeleng Khune. The One. Consistently near-perfect in his shot-stopping and distribution, the Bafana goalkeeper starred for his nation in Afcon and – apart from a Vampire-like fear of crosses and a couple of glitches against Ajax Cape Town down the closing stretch – he has been responsible for the riiiiiiise of the Zebras.
When Khune went AWOL for much of last season, the damage was always apparent.
For the crocodiles from the North West there can be only a toothless smile of “what might have been” as Johnson’s Dikwena finish closest in the League and accept extra-time elimination from the Nedbank Cup at the semi-final hurdle against Gavin Hunt’s stubborn SSU.
It’s Orlando Pirates who must harbour the deeper sense of grievance. Shock defeats against Chippa-Choppa United and Mamelodi Sundowns after the “Drawlando” stretch of six stalemates leaves coach Roger de Sa with the African Champions League as his only, distant hope.
Judging from the SMSes that fly between us, I’d say Roger is only a step short of the Sea Robbers’ plank. Shakes Mashaba is touting himself as a replacement, but I suspect Irvin Khoza is thinking big with former AFCON winners Herve Renard of Zambia and Nigeria’s flighty Steve Keshi on a long short list.
Manchester United fans were signing “We’ve got the title back, and Mancini’s got the sack” against Swansea on Sunday. Chiefs fans might be excused for inserting De Sa’s name in to that catchy little number tomorrow night. As far as he knows, Roger remains employed, insisting: "I've got a three-year contract, you can see it if you want."
So after their inevitable crowning at Polokwane or Mbombela this week, the Zebras move on to the double, where the Hunt – it’s always him – stands against the mighty AmaKhosi in the Nedbank Cup final on May 25.
Few doubt Chiefs, and their patient following of a reputed 15million, are serious favourites to add the pre-eminent knock-out trophy to their league title. And for that Baxter – and Khune – must take the plaudits.
Unexpected? A little. Deserved? Yes, though they needed a little prompting from their rivals.
The question now is: can Baxter build a legacy, a tradition? Like Sir Alex at United, Chiefs deserve – need – a long-running coach. One who can pull the club together from bottom to top.
Is Baxter that man? Will De Sa and the rapidly rising Pitso Mosimane at Mamelodi Sundowns get the chance to do the same with a full season in charge? We'll soon find out.
A story similar to this will appear as my "Neal and Pray" column in The New Age tomorrow.