|CONTINENTAL CHAMPION: Neil Tovey in 1996|
NEIL TOVEY in 1981? Skinny teenager. Great shot. Good engine, could get up and down, box to box. Rarely lost possession. Won his first South African League title when he was still a teenager.
Neil Tovey today? South Africa's most qualified coach. Has done the rounds. Has had his share of personal challenges. Still has much to offer.
When he was announced as the South African Football Association's new Technical Director on Saturdayaround 5pm, the old nostalgia kicked in. I first came across Neil on the training ground outside the now-demolished New Kingsmead in Durban 35 years ago.
He was a year younger than me but made me look like a novice at training on a ground which now lies buried beneath the new Moses Mabhida Stadium. I'd generally fall over when he went one-on-one with me. At the time, Neil Tovey was an 19-year-old just pushed in to professional football by a chap called Clive Barker. He made the transition to the paid ranks with barely a blink.
Neil’s big brother Mark was the frightening one back in 1980. He had a big job with Puma, handed out the kit and barked when I lost possession. Though my primary role was as a football writer at the local newspaper, the Natal Mercury, I played for Durban City’s reserves while the blue-and-white hooped first team dominated the early years of non-racial football in South Africa.
My first year in Durban after university was quite a season for City, a team established in the old white NFL by Norman "Silver Fox" Elliott in 1959. Incredibly, smooth manager Butch Webster and his diminutive coach Barker created a side to match the NPSL giants from Soweto and they won Abdul Bhamjee’s newly founded NFL in 1982 (when we used to play football throughout the winter) against all expectations.
Paid peanuts and held together by a huge Scottish defender called Andy Stanton who worked as an advertising executive on week days, the Tovey brothers were integral in Barker’s plans. Sometimes they played one behind the other in central midfield, though both contributed goals. Neil could shoot from distance, Mark was the terrier mopping up. Both could play a mean through ball. A chap called Kevin Mudie got most of the goals.
City, with tiny crowds and no funds, went on to win a second successive title in 1983 before Barker led a mass-break-out to Umlazi’s gold-and-black Bush Bucks in 1984. Under the astute eye of Lawrence “Big Bear” Ngubane, the cunning mixture of City champions with talents like Daniel Ramarutsi and Mlungisi “Prof” Ngubane went on to win the championship in 1986.
By then, older brother Mark was the centre-back, Neil was more of a midfielder. He was tall and slight, and had followed Barker from local amateur club Juventus, based on Durban’s Berea.
But Neil emerged from the shadow of his big brother with aplomb in 1996, when he captained Barker’s Bafana to the African Nations Cup on home soil, a triumph rich in post-democratic fervour and Rainbow Nation unity. Now 34, Tovey was now a veteran, anchoring Kaizer Chiefs and the national squad from centre-back with the captain's armband now an immovable feature.
When he retired in 1999, aged 37, Tovey had played 341 games for Chiefs and 52 for Bafana Bafana. He smoothly transitioned to player-coach in the latter days of his playing career at Chiefs and went on to boss Mamelodi Sundowns, AmaZulu, Hellenic, Mpumalanga Black Aces and, most recently, Thanda Royal Zulu.
In 2011, when I was working in Abu Dhabi, I tried to get Tovey a job in the lucrative (but not particularly strong) United Arab Emirates Pro League, and after a recent health scare (he’s fully recovered) there were fears his greatest days were behind him.
But Saturday’s announcement of Tovey as South Africa’s new Technical Director came as a welcome relief. Since Ephraim Mashaba was handed the Bafana job nearly a year ago, Danny Jordaan had been promising a Technical Director to help Shakes, not known for his tactical acumen and clearly struggling to keep things together.
Tovey and Steve Komphela were the only qualified South Africans to do the job. Danny Jordaan and I agreed on that a year ago. But with Tovey doing television work and Komphela engrossed in pushing Maritzburg United to their highest PSL finish, movement was slow. SAFA’s technical committee chief Nataschia Tshiclas told me week after week: “We are still looking.” I waited week after week, month after month, for Tovey to ride to the rescue as Bafana struggled through AFCON and the COSAFA disaster... culminating in the awful 0-0 home draw against Gambia a fortnight ago.
With various foreign names bandied about, the appointment of Tovey – who scored top marks when taking both his UEFA A and Pro badges - is another welcome local appointment for South African football. I phoned him on Saturday during the Orlando Pirates game and he was quick to re-assure Mashaba: “I won’t be telling Shakes what to do. It’s going to be a tough job. I can't just go in there and tell people what to do.
“There are so many areas for me to look at, I don’t even know if I’ll be going to Mauritius for the second leg of the CHAN qualifier. I don't think that's a priority in my new role.
“I won’t be getting involved that much in the national side. That’s not the job. It’s my task to make things easier for Shakes. To work in the background, on development. My main task, as I see it, is to ensure younger players coming through to the national team.”
SAFA's R65m plan for a new Technical Centre south of Johannesburg will give Tovey a base for his empire; his grasp of modern UEFA techniques will soon begin to percolate through our game. As long as he can work with Mashaba, surely there's a long-awaited improvement on the cards for Bafana Bafana.