Wednesday, 18 February 2015

South Africa's new footballing ritual: the annual Kaizer Chiefs post-Christmas slump. WHO IS TO BLAME?

Pardon me? Kingston Nkhatha mocks the boo boys
IN three short years, it has become one of South African football’s most curious rituals. Ever since Stuart Baxter arrived at Naturena, we sit scratching our heads around this time of the season asking: “What’s happened to the AmaKhozi since Christmas?”

Wolverhampton-born Baxter hasn’t done badly of course. Ever since that crushing MTN8 defeat – 4-1 at the hands of Johan Neeskens’ Mamelodi Sundowns in 2012 – he’s had Chiefs near the top of the PSL. He became the first foreign boss to win the title in his first season, finished runner-up last summer and remains 10 points clear of Bidvest Wits this term.

But the annual slump in fortunes appears to be unavoidable. The rumble of grumbles signals the end of summer almost as surely as the autumnal chill.

Baxter’s post-match interview after the 2-0 loss to SuperSport United on Tuesday night was remarkable, given the history. He opened with “Errrr… I really don’t know how we lost that game” and claimed his side had been strong in an awful first half for both teams.

He failed to explain why he started Matthew Rusike ahead of new signing David Zulu and once more we heard nothing of the fate of Katlego Mphela, the one-time “Killer” who has played so rarely since his expensive switch from Mamelodi Sundowns over a year ago.

There was no explanation for his return to the much-derided “Three Towers” system with Morgan Gould, Tower Mathoho and Tefu Mashamaite at the back in a 3-5-2 formation. We’ve seen it several times and it’s never worked.

He ended with: “It’s strange, I like this performance much more than our last two” referring to the 0-0 draw against Bloemfontein Celtic and the scrappy 2-1 win over Botswana’s Township Rollers in the African Champions League on Saturday.

It was after that game against the Gabarone outfit that Baxter admitted: “That’s the flattest I’ve seen us all season,” returning us to where we were this time last year: questioning where the Chiefs will-to-win had gone after Christmas.

With Bidvest Wits crushing Moroka Swallows 2-0 – I do hope somebody is watching the Birds goalkeeper Greg Etafia carefully – the gap is down to 10 points despite a Clever Boys performance neatly summed up by Gavin Hunt thus: “That wasn’t pretty was it? Sheez, I’d have asked for my money back if I was a supporter!”

Masked avenger: SSU goalkeeper Ronwen Williams
If Pitso Mosimane’s Mamelodi Sundowns win their two games in hand, the reigning champions can cut that lead to just SEVEN, threatening a repeat of the KaboYellow come-from-behind triumph of last season.

And still here we are, scratching our heads: for 20 games this season (and two at the end of last season, when it was too late to catch Masandawana) Kaizer Chiefs have avoided defeat despite a chronic lack of strike power.

Now, with Bernard Parker on a paltry three goals all season, Kingston Nkhatha having scored more goals than Chiefs in the League this year (one) and Matthew Rusike taking over the mantle of “Booing 747”, the apparently unavoidable slump is back.

Ronwen Williams, wearing a mask to protect the cheek he fractured before Christmas, was unbeatable as Jeremy Brockie - the New Zealand striker I warned Stuart about on twitter and via SMS - scored the first and Dove Wome added a late second, his sixth of the season.

We can talk about derailed trains and jittery juggernauts all we want but the question of WHY Kaizer Chiefs can’t sustain their form is a vital one.

Over-confidence must be a part of it when you get to the halfway point with a big lead every season. Having a star midfielder arrested for alleged assault won’t have helped. And the transfer window came and went with Zulu arriving from Chippa United complete with a medial knee ligament injury.

These are all contributory factors.

Warning: My Brockie tweet 12 hours before the game
But surely the greatest problem Kaizer Chiefs face is their fickle fans. They transmit their nerves to the arena and the players feel it. Nkhatha claimed after playing his first game against his old club: “The booing simply makes me dig deeper” but in truth the men in gold live their life in fear of being picked out by the 15-million strong AmaKhosi army.

Before the season had even restarted the social networks were awash with critiques of Baxter, Rusike, Yeye and the Khune/Khuzwayo conundrum during the Celtic clash. And at that point nobody looked likely to catch the train.

Those howls of disapproval rose to fever pitch before Polokwane on Tuesday night. And almost like a self-fulfilling prophesy, it came to pass (though Chiefs passing on the night was awful).

It’s time for the AmaKhosi to get behind a troubled train that is rapidly running out of steam. Time to support not detract. Before it’s too late.

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