Saturday, 1 October 2016

THE HUNT IS ON: MTN8 final triumph is just the start of Bidvest's master plan for Wits

JUST BEGINNING: Hunt and Joffe
“Philosophically if you don’t have getting bigger in your DNA, then you need to quit. If you stop growing you’re actually going backwards” BRIAN JOFFE, CEO, BIDVEST

FOUR years ago, the directors at BidVest made a ground-breaking decision to lift their football club Wits University out of the doldrums. The board, which included Brian Joffe and Cyril Ramaphosa. two of South Africa’s most powerful men, had had enough of mid-table mediocrity. 

On Saturday night we saw that project begin to blossom, with BidVest Wits crushing African Champions League finalists Mamelodi Sundowns 3-0 in the MTN final at Mbombela. Did I say crushing? Masandawana hardly had a sniff of th R8m winners’ cheque.

The background? For years, millionaire Joffe had put up with the banter from Irvin Khoza and Kaizer Motaung at football gatherings. Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs had shared the PSL title between them from 2011 to 2013, Bidvest’s Clever Boys weren’t even in the picture.

No-nonsense Joffe isn’t used to being second-best. The son of a South African dad and a Lithuanian mum, he bought a pet-food business for R49,000 in 1978. With his wife driving the forklift and moving the pallets of dog-food cans, the company grew… and he sold if for R1m two years later.

And so the Magician of Melrose Arch began his rise… and rise. With his company last year breaking through R200 BILLION in sales, he can afford to indulge his footballing fantasy. I have no idea how much has been spent, but it’s not peanuts.

There will be talk of white privilege, obviously. Ironic really when his football club translates, literally, as Whites University. But this is football. It’s about the race, not race.

The background? Today’s Clever Boys emerged from a student club established by the SRC long before the days of #feesmustfall in 1921.

Half a century later, Wits University took their place in the top flight of South African football in 1975, where Manchester United goalkeeper Gary Bailey and Tottenham Hotspur centre-back Richard Gough were among the big names.

During those formative years, trophies did come the way of the students: the Nedbank Cup in 1978 and 2010 (Wits’ last trophy); the Telkom KO in 1985 and 1995 and the MTN8 in 1984 and 1995.

But in truth, Wits were never big-hitters. They have NEVER won the PSL, their best finish coming in 2003 when they came third under Roger de Sa.

So four years ago, with ANC big-hitter Ramaphosa as his chairman, Joffe launched the big push for his football team, now officially known as Bidvest Wits with little or no connection to the university, apart from their tiny three-sided home ground at Milpark (now the Bidvest Stadium).

Vitally, Joffe and pals grabbed CEO Jose Ferreira from SuperSport United, who had won the PSL title three years in succession under a certain Gavin Hunt. Spaniard Jose Antonio Habas took the club in to contention after the bizarre departure of De Sa, who ended up at Orlando Pirates.

But patience is not a Joffe virtue. Habas was cruelly sent home to run the youth teams at Atletico Madrid and Clive Barker, older than Brian, took over for six months, ending a creditable fourth, Wits’ best finish since 2004. But The Dog was never a long-term option.

And then, on the 28th of May, 2013, Ferreira managed to extract Hunt from his old club SuperSport FC. Serious rebuilding began, huge sums were spent, often on veterans like Zimbabwe’s Benjamin and Namibia Henrico Botes.

Last season, Hunt’s Wits finished second behind Mamelodi Sundowns, where Patrice Motsepe is perhaps the only man spending more than Joffe on football. Pitso Mosimane’s men won with a record 71 points with Hunt 14 points behind.

But on Saturday night, at a soggy Mbombela, Mosimane’s Masandawana were finally cut down to size. With KaboYellow headed in to the African Champions League final against Egypt’s Zamalek, perhaps the mighty Downs were distracted. Pitso claimed the pitch suited Wits. And it did rain a bit.

But from where I sit, Wits have come of age. After three years of investment - not always as cunning as Joffe’s Bidvest itself - Gavin Hunt has built himself a side capable of winning the PSL at last. Third in his first season, 2nd last season, there is a logical progression.

Daine Klate, 31, added the MTN8 title to the
FIVE PSL championships and SEVEN cups he
has already won in 12 seasons of PSL action
Saturday’s night’s lucrative 3-0 win, spearheaded by two goals from 31-year-old Daine Klate, formerly of SuperSport United and Orlando Pirates, was a masterpiece in the art of catching the opposition by surprise.

Pitso droned on about “Wits deserved it” and how many times he had won the MTN8 but in truth Hunt - often linked with the Bafana Bafana job - had done more than just win a final.

“I’ve been here a few years now, I’ll do it my way, your way, the Frank Sinatra way. But we’re getting there. This is just the beginning.”

Hunt is not a big man, but he is a force to be reckoned with, face to face or bench to bench. Just the beginning? No argument here.

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