|Title winner: Stuart Baxter|
THE opening sentences of my post-championship chat with Stuart Baxter were, as I promised, the most difficult. An apology. Here’s how it went.
ME: “Stuart, how’s it going? Must have been hectic after Polokwane! Well done mate, never in doubt!”
BAXTER: “Yup, it’s been busy. Hey, I had this guy here, think you know him, keeps asking another question. And another! We’re on the road to Mbombela. It’s been great… all the fans…”
ME: “Look, before we say anything, I’ve got to apologise Stuart. We’ve spoken a couple of times during the season but there’s something I have to say. At the start, all that stuff about your CV and the 4-1 defeat against Mamelodi Sundowns, I jumped on that bandwagon. And you proved me wrong.”
BAXTER: “Not a problem, honestly. You’re always very positive. I always like positivity. Forget it, we’ve done the job. No problem at all.”
After that, it was fun. The current PSL is blessed with a number of articulate, easy-to-chat-to coaches. Roger de Sa, Steve Khompela, Clive Barker, Gavin Hunt, Zeca Marques. Baxter’s right up there.
“Look, it’s been brilliant. I was locked in the presidential suite because I was suspended at the Peter Mokabe (where Chiefs drew 1-1 to clinch the title on Tuesday against SuperSport United) so I couldn’t soak up the atmosphere until the end.
“But once I got down there, it was magnificent. The AmaKhosi (pronounced in the British manner) are wonderful people.”
I mentioned the gathering of Motaungs. How, finally, the family business had got together for the nation with Jessica, Bobby and Kaizer Junior taking it in turns to heap praise on their father, coach, team and fans. Is there another club anywhere in the world like that, I asked the man who has coached in Britain, Scandinavia and Asia?
“It’s a special club this. Talented people. Good people. In some ways it’s better than where I’ve been before. I some ways it’s been tough, but I expected that.
“Some of the dealings with SAFA are difficult, strange things happen. And the officiating is still concerning… some of the decisions…
“But for me the best thing, the bit I’ve enjoyed the most, is working with the players. I’m not going to put them through boring drills and put them in position. I'm not that kind of coach. We watch videos, discuss what we’re doing… and then go out and play small-sided games. Love it. We all do.
"These players are called Glamour Boys, but they responded so well to my methods.
“We started off just showing the players the Manchester United stuff on video, the coaching videos with footage from Europe, South America, Africa. But then we started to change it. Show some local stuff. Recent action. We ended up watching Bayern Munich.
“They’re the side of the moment, we watch and learn.”
And the surprise player? The hidden gem in the first championship team at Naturena for eight years? Surely, I said, that has to be Tefu Junaid Mashamaite, the 28-year-old born, ironically, in Bochum, the most German-sounding town in Limpopo?
“Good spot,” laughs Baxter, the first foreign coach to win the PSL in his first season, “He’s been a revelation. Always up for it, hard, knows what’s expected of him.”
I made the point: “Pirates fell apart when Siya Sangweni got injured after the African Cup of Nations, but when Tower Mathoho and Morgan Gould got crocked, you had Mashemaite.”
Baxter responded: “Exactly. When we needed him, Tefu was there. All season. It’s players like that who win you championships.
“But you have to mention Itu Khune too. Before I got here, some people told me he wasn’t really a captain, but something must have changed.
“He talks well, he motivates, he cares. Great goalkeeper, great captain.
“Look Neal, I’m here for the long term. I said when I got here I would address the structures at this club, not just the first team and the first season.
“We’re doing that. We haven’t just won the title, we’ve got the Nedbank Cup to come on May 25 – and we know how tough it will be against Gavin Hunt.
“But we’ve also put other things in place. We have exciting things happening at Naturena which I’d like to talk about after the final.
“Our young players will have a way forward, our academy is about to be reborn. I have nutritionists, a university, sports psychologists working with me to produce the next generation of Chiefs.
“This doesn’t end here. This is, I hope, just the beginning. Call me after the final, come down and see what we're building at Kaizer Chiefs. I think you'll be impressed.”