Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Reconciliation day for KINGSTON NKHATHA and the Kaizer Chiefs boo boys: Baxter keeps the runaway train firmly on track

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Kingston the first: Nkhatha and Parker celebrate the opening goal
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THERE are days in every footballer’s life when things go according to plan. They are not to be sniffed at in a career where Madam Fortune can mess you up in a moment.

Kaizer Chiefs striker Kingston Nkhatha had one of those days at the soggy Peter Mokabe Stadium this afternoon. With his faithful coach Stuart Baxter putting his career on the line to defend the 29-year-old Zimbabwean from booing “fans”, Nkhatha back-heeled his second goal of the season in the 35th minute to ease the pressure all round.

And it was Nkhatha who produced the cross for Siya Nkosi’s second goal as the AmaKhosi went on to beat a lively Free State Stars 2-1 to equal the record of 17 games unbeaten set by arch-rivals Orlando Pirates. Chiefs are currently 16 points clear in a footballing world where only Bayern Munich, nine ahead in the Bundesliga, can hold a candle to Baxter’s men.

That’s why Nkhatha’s goal – amid a typically hard-working performance against a side playing well above their normal relegation-threatened level – was so important. Baxter had come out publicly (see my two previous posts) and said he would quit if the booing of his striker didn’t stop.

That was a significant step to take. A brave one, especially when you’re on top of the world. And Nkhatha repaid the debt in full. As he held the Man of the Match award tightly afterwards, the typically modest Kingston said: “This is a team award. We are always telling each other: keep pushing. That is what we do.”

Baxter, his jubilation marred only slightly by Tower Mathoho’s late own goal, said: “I work with Kingston, he knows I've got confidence in him. It was nice to see Nkatha going to his team-mates, they feel for him.

“That sort of camaraderie sees us through the storm. We can beat any team is this league but any team can beat us. If we don’t prepare properly for every game, we’ll be stepping on a landmine."

Baxter has been tip-toeing around landmines ever since he arrived back in South Africa 30 months ago. He started with an awful 4-1 defeat against Mamelodi Sundowns in the MTN8 and a storm over his CV. But he went on to become the first foreign coach to win the PSL in his first season, was 11 points clear last season before a cataclysmic collapse let Sundowns in to snatch the title.

This season, with Knowledge Musona walking away and Bernard Parker recovering from ankle surgery, he has had to rely on Nkhatha to lead the line. Incredibly, Chiefs won their first 8 League games…took R1.5 million for Q1 and the R8m MTN8 trophy. Miraculous stuff.

Take that: Nkhatha's back heel beats Verbauwhede
But even as he produced another footballing miracle, Baxter came under pressure for his continual selection of Nkhatha.

We don’t see the lads in training. We don’t see the tactics on the board. We don’t appreciate the genius involved in going 17 games unbeaten when your strikers have scored five goals between them.

But the boo boys let rip anyway, and Baxter decried his errant fans, particularly in Polokwane, as “idiots”. It wasn’t clever. Heat of the moment stuff. I told Stuart he should apologise on Sunday. Baxter refused. He took me back to his school days, remembering when his father Bill was over-looked for the Aston Villa job in England: “It’s all about respect, Neal” he said “This team deserves that respect. My players deserve respect. Kingston deserves respect. I will not accept the booing of my players when we are top of the league.”

And with that stance, Baxter went in to yesterday’s game at a venue he doesn’t enjoy. He stuck with Nkhatha. He was without his defensive midfield talisman Willard Katsande (who has just SMSed me to say he’ll be back at the weekend after a stomach muscle injury) and the suspended pair George Maluleka and Morgan Gould.

To win despite those changes, to have Nkhatha score, pick up his sixth assist of the season AND win Man of the Match, to triumph against a Free State Stars raising their game for Chiefs, was little short of a fairy tale. Amid torrential rainfall, they defied the conditions on the same pitch where in-form Polokwane City had crumbled against struggling AmaTuks and lost 5-1. Incredible.

By my calculations, including the two games they didn’t lose at the tail-end of last season, Kaizer Chiefs are now NINETEEN unbeaten in the PSL. If you include their four-match MTN8 triumph and a penalty-shoot out defeat in the second game of the Telkom KO (which counts, statistically, as a draw) plus the second African Champions League game against AS Vita last season, I make it 28 games unbeaten.

Can anybody, anywhere match this at the moment? Yet there was Baxter afterwards, cheerfully telling Carol Tshabalala: “We are not finishing off games that are there for the taking. We have to improve on that. There is work to be done.”

This morning a relieved Baxter said: "It seems what happened on Saturday helped. That small section (we had trouble with) tried to cheer Kingston tonight, whatever happened on the field.

"They supported him even when he missed. The atmosphere was brilliant and Kingston deservedly won the Man of the Match award."

Amazing. And there are people out there who say Baxter can go if he doesn’t like the boo-boys. Look back on this day, AmaKhosi fans. And realise just how good it is to support a side capable of invincibility. No side has ever gone through a PSL season unbeaten. The record is two defeats. Chiefs are more than halfway there. Five more wins out of 13 should do it.

My teams Arsenal and Amazulu can only dream of such heights. Forever Fearless. The train is on track. And Baxter is in the driving seat. He deserves a little more respect.

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