Monday, 28 May 2012

Nomvethe or Sangweni: let's have Siyabongas all round for South Africa's Footballer of the Season, thank you

Siyabonga very much: Nomvethe receives
his award from Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula

THE row over the PSL Footballer of the Season award handed to Moroka Swallows veteran Siyabonga Nomvethe on Sunday night refuses to go away.
Orlando Pirates fans are adamant their own Siyabonga - Sangweni - deserved the ultimate accolade on a night when the 34-year-old "Bhele" won FOUR awards, picking up cheques worth R600,000 in slightly less than an hour. While prospective gamblers at the surrounding Gold Reef City were desperately prospecting for a few rands around them, South Africa's footballing fraternity were left open-mouthed as Nomvethe - fresh from scoring a hat-trick on his return to Bafana Bafana in a friendly against club side Impala Warriors earlier in the day - was forced to use his aching legs to get to the stage time and again.
Three of those awards were won without serious debate.
The R50,000 PSL golden boot, named after the late Buccaneer Lesley Manyathela, was a matter of mathematics. Nomvethe reached 20 League goals this season and ended eight clear of his rivals, including the 34-year-old Benni McCarthy.
He also scooped the R150,000 PSL Player of the Season accolade ahead of team-mate David Mathebula and Sangweni.
And a quick count of votes among his peers saw Nomvethe take the Player's Player of the Season cheque for R150,000.
But it was the R250,000 Footballer of the Season - awarded by Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula to the best player in all competitions, not just the PSL - that got the Ghost's goat.
While Nomvethe shone in the League and failed with coach of the season Gordon Igesund's Swallows in the cups, Sangweni played 28 League games for the Buccaneers, scoring vital goals against Bloemfontein Celtic and Golden Arrows in the title-clinching final two games.
He also played in EVERY knock-out match, where Pirates won the MTN8 trophy and the Telkom Knock-out, where Sangweni was voted defender of the tournament.
Just like last year, when Ajax Cape Town's Thulani Serero won the award - voted for by the 16 PSL coaches - ahead of Andile Jali, Augusto Palacios was making Ruud Krol-style waves.
Pirates' Peruvian caretaker coach - still not sure of his future next season - told "I think our man deserved it on merit. Of course Sangweni is disappointed.
"I respect what Nomvethe did, but I feel Sangweni deserved this one. Sangweni was also a part of the national team throughout the season, so for me personally this was his award. 
"I don't dispute what Nomvete did, but Sangweni did well in ALL competitions."
And of course he's right. With seven goals in all competitions, the 30-year-old from Empangeni, whose younger brother Thamsanqa has just left Amazulu for Sundowns, did do the business.
But here's the problem. There were so many other prominent Pirates who did well in all competitions during another historic treble-winning season for the Sea Robbers.
Benni McCarthy, who won the ABSA-lutely stunning goal of the season for his overhead kick, also picked up the Telkom Knock-out goal and player of the tournament awards. And he produced the two late goals which won the title in Durban just over a week ago.
And then there's the captain, Lucky Lekgwathi who, at 35, scored what was eventually the most important goal of the season, the last-gasp effort which overcame stubborn SuperSports United a month ago.
The 35-year-old from GaRankuwa would have been my choice as South Africa's best player this season - but he wasn't nominated for ANY award on Sunday night.
Perhaps Sangweni's failure shows just how much talent the Pirates had on show rather than how much other Premier coaches dislike the black-and-white.
Sangweni himself, of course, showed no sign of discomfort. He told Soccer Laduma: “Nomvethe deserved the big award. Honestly, Bhele worked hard this past season - I’m happy for him, which is why I congratulated him and would like to congratulate him once again.
“I can’t blame anyone because those who selected him believed he was more deserving. We see things differently, as some people think I should’ve won the award but that’s how football is. I have no hard feelings about it because being nominated in almost every award means I did well and I’m happy about it.”
So Siyabongas all round it is. And for my money, Nomvethe's goal glut was THE story of the season. He scored more goals in percentage terms than Robin van Persie scored for "one man team" Arsenal, and the man from KwaMashu almost single-handedly propelled the Dube Birds from relegation fodder to championship contenders.
For that, Bhele deserved everything he got on Sunday night, which was a thoroughly enjoyable occasion.
But one last question: Where was the voice of the PSL, Robert Marawa of MetroFm, SABCtv and SuperSport? I know, but I'm afraid I can't tell you.
You can follow me on or watch my regular Monday morning appearances on eNews and eTV Sunrise. And read every Tuesday for my "Neal and Pray" column.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sundowns fall prey to Gavin Hunt and his little big guns... AGAIN

Breaking the dreadlock: Thabo September
It remains one of the great mysteries of football. How unloved SuperSport United just keep getting one over their illustrious Tshwane rivals Mamelodi Sundowns.
Today's 2-0 Nedbank Cup Final win for the miracle worker Gavin Hunt is a case in point. Sundowns put out all their stars. Elias Palembe, South Africa's highest-paid footballer. Teko Modise, twice South Africa's player of the year when he was at Orlando Pirates. Wayne Sandilands, the best goalkeeper in the country.
I could go on. And I should mention the fact that the Dutch legend Johan Neeskens opted to leave the alleged Killer, Katlego Mphela, on the bench once more as Sundowns oozed class in the opening minutes.
And Hunt? He had teenaged goalkeeper Rowen Williams as his last line of defence, Morgan Gould captaining on the verge of a move to a more affluent club... and the veteran Thabo September next to him.
Incredibly, the penny-pinching Matsatsantsa (The Swanky Boys, apparently) didn't just beat the Gauteng Brazilians, they crushed them. After spending last week moaning about the size of the R1bn five-year sponsorship deal handed by Vodacom to Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, the little guys proved once more than money can't match passion.
Clearly, Sundowns will feel aggrieved. Teko Modise, who left the Buccaneers just before their six-title spree to join the Brazilians, had his chances of ending that personal trophy jinx ruined by last-minute replacement referee Gabriel Sekopo's decision to send off Clayton Daniels.
At half-time, Robert Marawa's SuperSport analysts backed the team named after their broadcasting company, insisting Daniels had to go for denying a clear goal-scoring chance. Rubbish. Goalkeeper Williams and a further defender remained to be beaten when the foul was committed.
Interesting that. Sekopo was only named as the final official at 9am this morning. Zolile Mthetho was announced as the referee on Friday night but mysteriously lost his whistle.
The legendary Dutch master Johan Neeskens, who saw both his league and cup campaigns derailed this season, could barely muster enthusiasm before the match.
He told Carol Tshabalala his side hadn't prepared any differently for the final. Yet for the last two months they've been awful. He appeared dismissive, uninterested in offering his views to the fans. There was a chaotic moment after the red card when his efforts to throw on a substitute and change the shape failed to materialise amid much gesticulating.
Then, after the match, Neeskens said: "It was impossible for us after the sending off. It would have been a better final with 11 against 11. But that is the way football is here."
Sadly, SuperSport (their television interviewers rather than their players) failed to push Neeskens on that. Might have made interesting listening.
Still, after the sending off, Thabo September produced the first-half goal the final needed, thundering in to find a path past my goalkeeper of the season Wayne Sandilands as the man with the Rastafarian hairstyle broke the dreadlock with his first goal of the season.
SuperSport added a second through Kermit Erasmus - was he named after the Sesame Street character? - and it was game over.
Even adding a knock-out cup to the three successive PSL titles they won from 2008 to 2010 won't help SuperSport United's paucity of fans, outnumbered 5,000 to 20,000 in Orlando yesterday. The R6m winners' cheque won't help them to buy top stars.
The Brazilians, backed by billionaire mining magnate Patrice Mtsepe, will remain the megabucks option in the city once known as Pretoria. Hunt will continue to defy the odds.
And even the arrival of the alleged Killer as a second-half sub couldn't alter the balance of power. Modise said afterwards: "It was difficult for us after the sending off. It was a good season for me, but I've got nothing to show for it again. Hopefully things will change."
They certainly will. With Zimbabwean Benjani now available free from cash-strapped English Championship strugglers Portsmouth, Sundowns are sniffing. And that will allow Mphela to switch to Kaizer Chiefs and their new coach Stuart Baxter, the man who recommended Killer to Glasgow Celtic last year, probably with SuperSport captain Morgan Gould, though Sundowns could yet keep him in Tshwane.
And Neeskens, who failed to stop his team's dramatic post-Christmas slump after the 24-goal win over Powerlines in the cup, must surely be considering his future.
Hunt meanwhile will be trying to find a replacement for his key centre-back and leader Gould, just as he did in January 2011 when Bongani Khumalo went off to hibernation with Tottenham Hotspur.
The little man was close to tears afterwards: "That was a great performance. That's one thing this team has. Plenty of heart."
With that he was off to celebrate before tomorrow's PSL Awards ceremony at Gold Reef City, where he will challenge Gordon Igesund for coach of the season. Promises to be some do. And by then we will know where Gould's gold lies.
Ultimately though, this was a fitting climax to the South African season. Though Igesund's Swallows failed narrowly to edge out the Sea Robbers in the League, Hunt's men did the business.
As Thabo September grabbed his green Man of the Match jacket, it struck me - having refereed five Under 7 games this morning: I'm still in love with this game.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Moeneeb Josephs and Benni McCarthy: the facts. If you want the truth, ask Benni

Finders keepers: Khune and Josephs
BENNI McCARTHY has had a hard time this week. Surprising really. Last Saturday his two superb goals – a thumping header and a devastating free-kick – won the ABSA Premier League title for Orlando Pirates at a throbbing Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban.
But just when you thought Benni, who arrived back on these shores last winter after perhaps the most horrific West Ham career in history, was ready to be crowned a hero, here he is, tweeting: “Unbelievable how much stick I’m getting for Moeneeb pulling out of Bafana. Why do people hate so much? Just respect his decision please.”
Well, yes, of course we will respect the international retirement of one Moeneeb Josephs, the Orlando Pirates goalkeeper. In a statement released on Wednesday morning, the 32-year-old from Cape Town proclaimed: “It is with a heavy heart, and after careful consideration and discussion with both my family and manager, that I have elected to retire from international football with immediate effect.”
 “At the age of 32, keeping in mind the injuries that I have sustained, together with my desire to prolong my career, and considering the fantastic young goalkeepers in our country, I believe that it is the correct time to ‘step aside’.
“In addition, I have spent very little time with my family in recent years, and I believe this decision will give me the opportunity to do so.”
It’s that kind of moving, selfless explanation of his shock retirement from Pitso Mosimane’s World Cup qualifying squad which might reduce the average Ghostly Sea Robber to tears.
If… and it’s a big IF… you hadn’t read team-mate McCarthy’s quotes early on the same day.
Remember, Josephs made his Bafana debut against Zimbabwe in 2003 – but he’s only won 22 caps in the last nine years as Itumeleng Khune blocks the path to Pitso’s No1 jersey.
Even when he turned out against the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe last year when everyone else was pulling out, “Slimkat” found himself dumped for the Nelson Mandela Challenge in Port Elizabeth at the end of February when Kaizer Chiefs stopped Khune returned from injury (not just any injury, he had four months with pneumonia and a “groin strain”) against Senegal.
With those facts clear in our minds, here’s what Benni told the Star’s Jonty Mark as the Buccaneers bus whizzed around Johannesburg showing off the latest Piratical haul of PSL, Telkom Cup and MTN Supereight trophies.
“Moeneeb is my roommate and he was asking me for my input, and I said ‘You are on your own, I don’t want to advise you, make your decision, and whatever you decide I am behind you’. When he explained his reasons the man just broke down crying.
“I tried to put myself in his shoes, and if I was in his shoes I would have done exactly the same thing. If I feel I am doing more than enough to at least earn a chance to be number one, and I am not being selected as the number one striker… I would pull myself out of the race as well.
 “You do everything possible to fight for the number one spot, but you know yourself you are never going to get the number one, because it’s fairly clear it’s Itumeleng Khune.
 “Khune’s a great goalkeeper who’s worked hard but you have to make it open for everyone to fight for the No1. It’s clearly not like that, it’s plain to see that the manager has his ideas of who is the No1, irrespective of other great goalkeepers around.
“So, in an act of frustration, you retire. It is better to continue to do what makes you happy, to play football, club football. I think it’s sad Moeneeb has pulled out of the national team, he’s an absolute gem. I hope people won’t hate him.”
Of course, with Benni’s quotes having appeared on Wednesday morning, the Josephs statement fell flat. It didn't help that "Slimkat" had blundered so badly for the Dylan Sheppard goal in their title-winning 4-2 against Golden Arrows last Saturday.
As a result, the social networks launched various assaults on McCarthy, suggesting he’d “persuaded” Josephs to quit his country, that he should keep his mouth shut and stay out of these things.
Benni, who often let Bafana down during his career in Europe, found himself under huge pressure – so much so that he volunteered to appear on Robert Marawa’s Thursday night live tonight on SS4 to set the record straight.
I’ll add those quotes later. But for now, let’s have a bit of sanity here. Benni didn’t lie. He simply outlined Moeneeb’s difficult situation and the reasons for his international retirement with far more honestly than Josephs’ statement did.
Benni, appearing on Marawa’s Thursday night live, made light his exclusion from Pitso’s latest squad. At 34 he was left out while another striker of the same age – PSL top scorer Siyabonga Nomvethe of Moroka Swallows – enjoyed a recall.
He chose instead to offer this: “Coming from a place like Hanover Park and to go to Ajax Amsterdam, such a great club, that has to be the highlight of my career.”
Then, asked if he influenced Moeneeb’s decision, Benni said: “I can’t even influence my own little kids! How can I influence an adult? Bafana has got nothing to do with me. I don’t talk about that to anyone.
“I’m always there to support. He came to tell me the situation. Moeneeb explained what happened and that was it.
“My advice? Whatever he decides, the team will stick with him. I didn’t say he did the right thing or the wrong thing. That’s not my place.
“He’s one of my closest friends in the team.”
Frank. Honest. Typical of Benni. Look, McCarthy doesn’t deserve criticism for revealing his pal Moeneeb’s agony. He deserves a medal. If you want to know the truth about South African football, listen to Benni. He tells it like it is.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Lucky Lekgwathi exclusive: How Orlando Pirates made history

NEO MONYETSANE, eTV Sunrise's news reader and sports editor, is the man I have to thank this morning. Not only did Neo and his flat-mate Sephiri Molusi entertain the gang royally on Saturday night, Neo also managed to sneak in a text to Orlando Pirates between their epic title defence and Chelsea's streaky Champions League win.
As a result, when I turned up to do Classic Play in the pre-dawn darkness, Neo came rushing over: "Lucky Lekgwathi is coming in!"
And that was it. After over a year of great broadcasting with the Sunrise crew, we were off to our best Monday morning ever. The first South African broadcaster to interview the champions' captain with the coveted trophy.
The 35-year-old Bucca-Bucca hero was superb. Quietly spoken, modest, knowledgeable, frank.
Our session with Stacey Holland and Lenn Moleko on Classic Play oozed inside information and from-the-horse's-mouth detail.
Lucky, scorer of the first goal in Saturday's 4-2 win over Golden Arrows at a packed Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban, told us: "When we went 2-1 down, we didn't panic. We were nervous but we knew we had to concentrate on our game. We knew a win would see us retain the title. We showed character, we have that at Pirates. We did the job."
Did they. After Lekgwathi's diving header - a classic in reading the game before the defenders - Pirates goalkeeper Moeneeb Josephs blundered to let Dylan Sheppard's soft effort under his body, then former Buccaneer Katlego Mashego curled home a beauty to blow the South African title race wide open, just as I'd hoped for the past seven weeks.
Pirates responded through the excellent Siyabonga Sangweni and we were level at half-time. Lucky recalled: "We knew what we had to do. Go out and win it in the second half. For the family, for the fans."
Ironically, as Moroka Swallows desperately sought the winner at the Harry Gwala stadium against Maritzburg United 40 minutes away, Benni McCarthy was beginning to tire. Just like that other 34-year-old Didier Drogba in Munich a few hours later, Benni looked finished.
But then, just as Swallows produced the Lefa Tutsulupa goal that would have won them the title on goal difference, McCarthy got his head on a long throw to put Pirates in front. Stunning.
But still, Pirates were one accurate Arrow from disaster. Until Benni struck again, his tenth goal of the season, this time another stunning free-kick. Game over. Title over. Season over.
Gordon Igesund, who will be named ABSA coach of the season this week, and 20-goal top scorer Siyabonga Nomvethe, who will be named player of the season, both slumped when the news filtered through. Like Manchester City's epic title triumph over old rivals United the week before, Swallows had to accept the runners-up spot. Not bad for a side of rejects, alcoholics and veterans who narrowly avoided relegation last season.
For Lekgwathi and pals, McCarthy had sealed a sixth trophy in less than two years. Lucky, born in Ga-Rankuwa north of Pretoria, grinned: "When I joined Pirates in 2002 Augusto Palacios was my first coach. We didn't win a trophy for nine years. Now my arms are tired from lifting the cups!"
And what of McCarthy, the hero of the hour while his former club West Ham were propelling themselves back in to the Premier League? He arrived in South Africa at the start of the season with Upton Park's chairwoman Karren Brady calling him a fat failure. Has there ever been a more complete recovery?
Lekgwathi grinned: "Benni has been an inspiration since he arrived. He motivates on the pitch. And he still scores goals. He's been brilliant for us."
For Lekgwathi, at 35, there is talk of retirement. I pointed out Ryan Giggs is still going at 40. Lucky smiled: "I will try to do that. I'm still in good shape. There are more seasons left in these legs."
Throughout the two appearances on eTV and eNews, we were plagued by eager workers trying to get a picture of the Pirates skipper and the silverware he lifts with such panache. He never shirked a fan, never stopped smiling.
The man is a giant. His last-gasp goal against SuperSport United was the strike that scuppered my prediction that Moroka Swallows would come from nowhere to snatch the title. Yet, as I pointed out last week here, his name appears nowhere on the list of ABSA nominations.
My player of the season? Lehlohonolo “Lucky” Lekgwathi. But he can't win it if he hasn't been nominated, so Nomvethe will sweep the boards with his epic 20 goals for Swallows.
And on the thorny question of caretaker boss Augusto Palacios remaining in charge next season? Can Pirates really send him back to coach the juniors after firing championship-winning Ruud Krol last season? For the answer to that, you'll have to read my Neal & Pray column in tomorrow. It's not long to wait...

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The final countdown: Pirates and Swallows battle it out LIVE on SABC

Pirates booty: will it be V for Victory for Augusto Palacios?
WE can ask only one thing of the Golden Arrows in Durban this Saturday. That they give as much as Queen Park Rangers did in Manchester last Sunday.

The build-up to the final weekend of South African Premier League fixtures holds just as much excitement as it’s English counterpart – enhanced by last night’s announcement from SABC Acting COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng that the two big games will be screen simultaneously on Saturday at 3pm - SABC 1 will show the Golden Arrows vs Orlando Pirates while SABC 2 will televise the Maritzburg United vs Moroka Swallows.

It’s not as if there hasn’t been enough excitement already this week. Roy Hodgson and Pitso Mosimane announced their international squads – how Woy could pick John Terry and not Rio Ferdinand is beyond me – and I was scrambling to get to eNews last night when Kenny Dalglish finally parted company with Liverpool shortly before Jomo Cosmos were officially relegated from the PSL after a 2-2 draw with Black Leopards.

This morning, it’s eTV Sunrise, where I will be refereeing a meeting of PROs – Moroka Swallows and Orlando Pirates will be represented and my old friend Neo Monyetsane wants me to keep the peace before we all get together on Saturday to watch the final showdown in South Africa followed by the monumental match up in Munich: Bayern v Chelsea for the Champions League.

And all this on top of the closes ever finish in the English Premier. History records that drama thus: QPR needed a point to ensure survival in the Premier League. Manchester City came to London needing a win to guarantee their first title since 1968. QPR went behind, then levelled - then they had Joey Barton sent off for elbowing Carlos Tevez.

Even as Barton's ugly departure - featuring further assaults on Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany - was dying down, QPR went 2-1 ahead, leaving City needing two goals to win it.

That Edin Dzeko and the same Aguero produced those two injury-time goals - the clincher came exactly 14 seconds after United thought they had won the title when the final whistle went in Sunderland - will go down as one of the greatest finishes ever recorded to an English season.

And South Africa can look forward to something similar on Saturday as the much-maligned Absa Premiership goes down to the wire in much the same way.

For the Etihad Stadium, read Moses Madhiba. For City read Orlando Pirates. For United at Sunderland, try Moroka Swallows at Maritzburg United. The Buccaneers need a win to confirm a record second successive treble. A draw or a defeat against the Arrows coupled with a Swallows win would take the title to Dube for the first time since the 1960s - a championship drought familiar to those other noisy neighbours, City.

And just as England's Premier was decided for the first time on Sunday by goal difference, a similar prospect looms in KZN on Saturday if Pirates draw and Swallows win. But can the Arrows really threaten to do a QPR and leave the nation on the edge of their seats?

Like the London Hoops, Durban's Arrows are hardly razor-sharp. Founded on the the streets of Lamontville in 1943, they first popped up in the old National Professional Soccer League thirty years later, before relegation in 1976.

The Arrows went back in the quiver after that, reappearing in 1996, when the Madlala family - today the club is run by Mato, the nation's only footballing chairwoman - bought a Second Division franchise called Notokozo FC and named themselves after the old Arrows.

Over the years, Ernst Middendorp, Zoran Filipović , Manqoba Mngqithi, Khabo Zondo and now  Muhsin Ertugral have tried to sharpen things up, but - despite finishing 5th in 2009 - on Saturday they play mostly for pride, standing safely in 12th position on the table.

Ironically, they come up against their own most experienced player ­- Siyabonga Sangweni  played a record 173 games for them as a youngster - when the desperate Sea Robbers come to town on Saturday on the final day of the 2012 season.

It was Sangweni who scored the winner against Bloemfontein Celtic last Saturday as the Pirates produced yet another veteran-inspired come-from-behind 2-1 win. It left the increasingly popular caretaker coach Augusto Palacios cooing: "We still have to win that last game in Durban. Not any other results we will accept. If we draw we are out, it is clear we need to win that game.

"Until we do that, then we can say we are champions, I can't say anything until we play that game against Arrows, which is a difficult game."

Swallows boss Gordon Igesund, threatening to win the title with a record FIFTH club, said at this week’s PSL press conference after his side's 2-1 win over Platinum Stars: "The pressure is all on Pirates going in to Saturday. Nobody expected Swallows to be here. Even if we don’t make it, will have achieved more than anybody expected."

Nobody doubts the Pirates SHOULD win retain their title. I believe they will, despite being the first sports journalist in South Africa to tip Swallows to emerge as shock contenders months ago. Palacios has shown surprising tactical nous and predictable Peruvian passion and deserves to have his caretaker contract extended.

Benni McCarthy and Tokelo Rantie are overdue a goal but the  still troublesome trio of Lucky Lekgwathi, Oupa Manyise and Sangweni have also shown an ability to score when the going gets tough.

But on behalf of all the neutrals - as well as Birds and Baxter-fearing Amakhosi fans - let's  Siyabonga Novethe adds to his magnificent 20 goals for the Birds at Maritzburg. And please Arrows, score first on Saturday. The football-speaking nation deserves a fitting finale.

Some of this article appeared as my Neal and Pray column in You can catch me on Monday morning on eNews and eTV Sunrise, or follow me on twitter @nealcol.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The 2012 ABSA Premier awards... and the winners are...

THIS is moment we've all been waiting for, off the field, as the climax to the South African football season approaches on the pitch. The ABSA Premier awards nominees for 2012. Fascinating. It's never easy to decide these things but these are the glaring ommissions.No mention of Siphiwe Tshabalala, the handsome Bafana Bafana hero of the 2010 World Cup who has worked so hard amid the chaos of Amakhosi's political problems this season.
No mention of Lucky Lekgwathi, the veteran Orlando Pirates captain, approaching 40, who works tirelessly and produced THAT last-gasp goal against SuperSport United a fortnight ago.
No mention of Kenney Mweene, so vital in Zambia's 2012 AFCON triumph and the rise of the Free State Stars, the little stars of Bethlehem who are threatening to finish right up the top of the Premier League this season, among the big boys.
No matter, we must accept these things, just like we have to accept Irvin Khosa and Kaizer Motaung launching their precious Charity Cup rubbish right in the middle of the Premier League melting pot and before the Nedbank Cup final. Ludicrous.
I have no bias. Though I am taking flak from Orlando Pirates Ghosts as the final round of Premier League fixtures approaches, my loyalties remain with the now-defunct Umlazi Bush Bucks, champions way back in 1986.
Though I have been predicted Moroka Swallows would rise from the ashes of relegation contenders last season, I believe the Buccaneers will triumph this week against the Golden Arrows in Durban and retain their title.
Without further ado, let's have a look as the nominees... with my suggested winners and why... please feel free to debate by adding your comment below.

Absa HOT Young Player:

  • Lucky Baloyi – Kaizer Chiefs
  • Ronwen Williams – SuperSport United
  • Lehlohonolo Masalesa – Bidvest Wits
Toughest category of all. Baloyi has certainly impressed during a troubled season. And next season promises to be even tougher with Stuart "Dodgy CV" Baxter in charge of the Amakhosi. I spotted Masalesa earlier this season, but Wits have been terrible of late. Williams has been impressive  but he operates behind Gavin Hunt's stingy back four, and I guess Bloemfontein Celtic's Tower Mathoho is out of the age range, so it has to be LUCKY BALOYI.
    Absa Premiership Goalkeeper of the Season:

  • Wayne Sandilands – Mamelodi Sundowns
  • Ronwen Williams – SuperSport United
  • Moeneeb Josephs – Orlando Pirates
There's no questions Josephs has offered a lot for Pirates. I believe he spoke for the players during the campaign to get rid of coach Julio Leal and his glowing affirmation of caretaker Augusto Palacios was fascinating on Robert Marawa's Thursday Night Live last week. But as a goalkeeper, while superbly vocal, he lacks the reflexes of Williams, the distribution of Kaizer Chiefs' oft-injured Itumeleng Khune and the presence of Free States Stars' AFCON winning No 1 Kennedy Mweene. Taking all those factors into account, the best all-round goalkeeper and a classic shot-stopped? WAYNE SANDILANDS.

Absa–lutely Awesome Goal:

·         Clifford Mulenga – Golden Arrows vs Bloemfontein Celtic
     ·         David Mathebula – Moroka Swallows vs Orlando Pirates
      ·         Benni McCarthy – Orlando Pirates vs Maritzburg United
Personally, I was looking for Bernard Parker's superb free-kick in the first Soweto Derby this season but Goal of the Season will always throw up too many contenders. For me it has to be McCarthy, on as a subsitute for the Buccaneers, raising his creaking 34-year-old body in to position for an overhead kick which matched that of Wayne Rooney's classic. It was late in the game and secured three points against Arrows which may just be the ones that matter by Saturday night. BENNI McCARTHY.

Absa Premiership Coach of the Season:

  • Gavin Hunt – SuperSport United
  • Gordon Igesund – Moroka Swallows
  • Steve Khompela – Free State Stars
For me, Hunt ruled himself out of contention with his anti-referee rant after the Unlucky last-gasp defeat against Pirates a fortnight ago. Too much Sir Alex Ferguson. Igesund has, as I've said so often, taken his Birds from relegation fodder to championship contenders in a year with a carefully composed collection of rejects, alcoholics and veterans. This weekend, he could well clinch that title. But for me, the talkative Khompela takes the cake. His little Stars of Bethlehem have been on my agenda all season. A small-town side without much money have pushed the big boys all the way. He should have been offered the Chiefs job ahead of Baxter and I suspect his elevation to Pitso Mosimane's assistant with Bafana will only be temporary. He has all the attributes to lead his country at AFCON here next year. STEVE KHOMPELA

Absa Premiership Player of the Season:

  • David Mathebula – Moroka Swallows
  • Siyabonga Sangweni – Orlando Pirates
  • Siyabonga Nomvethe – Moroka Swallows
Mathebula, rejected by the glamour clubs, has been immense this season. Goals, distribution, tracking back. Sangweni, scored of a vital winner at Celtic last week, has been equally important for Pirates, in a category where his captain Lucky Lekgwathi also deserves a mention. But how can we look beyond a 34-year-old whose 20 goals have single-handedly propelled the Swallows into contention and put him ahead of all the big name top scorers in the ABSA Premier League in recent years? SIYABONGA NOMVETHE.

Absa Premiership Player’s Player of the Season:

·         Teko Modise
      ·         David Mathebula
      ·         Siyabonga Nomvethe

There were glimpses of the old Buccaneering Modise this season under Johan Neeskens at Sundowns. A brilliant engine, an eye for the defence-splitting pass. But it all fell apart for Downs and their Dutch master at the crucial point of the season. We have talked about Mathebula and Tshabalala in this category, and no doubt the players cast a few votes for McCarthy, Lekgwathi and Sangweni too. But for me, the old gunslinger stands supremer once more. SIYABONGA NOMVETHE.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Nerves, nails and underpants: all you need to know about the final round of Premier League action today

Gunner be tough: How I may look on eTV tomorrow morning
For those frantically chewing nails before the Premier League finale, some facts:
1 If QPR hold Manchester City to a draw today and United win, Sir Alex takes his 13th title.

2 If QPR fail as expected and Sunderland lose to United, City take it on goal difference.

3 If both Manchester giants win (or lose), City win the title for the first time since 1968.

4 If Arsenal beat West Brom, they take third and a guaranteed Champions League spot.

5 If Spurs finish fourth, they must wait and see if Chelsea win in Munich.

6 The Blues will qualify for Europe if they lift the Champions League against Bayern.

7 Robin van Persie needs one goal to equal Alan Shearer’s record of 31 goals.

8 If Bolton win and QPR lose, the Hoops are relegated with Blackburn and Wolves.

9 If Spurs and Arsenal lose and Newcastle win, Alan Pardew completes his dream.

10 If Arsenal lose, I will wear underpants on my head on eTV Sunrise tomorrow.

Yes, d-day has dawned. At the top, middle and bottom of the most watchable football league in the world, fans are currently gathering with frayed nerves around the world.

In Manchester, as Nick Hornby might say, things are at fever pitch. Roberto Mancini’s expensive gathering of international stars, spearheaded by Yaya Toure, must win against QPR at the Etihad Stadium to guarantee their first championship since 1968, when Santa Claus was a lad.

Anything less than that – a draw or an unthinkable defeat – will leave the door wide open for United and Sir Alex Ferguson, who has won 12 of the 19 Premier League titles since the old First Division succumbed in 1992.

This morning, the BBC carry these quotes from City’s Argentine full-back Pablo Zabaleta: "We're only 90 minutes away from making history. If we succeed it is probably the start of a new era for this club."

More worrying than my underpants, Robert Mancini has promised to get a tattoo if City succeed.

United have dominated the Premier era, with Arsenal and Chelsea winning three each and Blackburn one since the dark, distant days of football highlights and terrestrial television coverage.

QPR are, of course, managed by one Mark Hughes. Sparky thrilled Old Trafford in his playing days and will be intent on producing the ultimate spring surprise against City, the club responsible for his unjust sacking and replacement by Mancini.

If the former United striker and City reject does the job and wins a point against City today, it will be perhaps the greatest shock in modern footballing history. But don’t bet against it.

A point will also secure Premier League status for QPR, who change managers more often than I change my Spiderman underpants.

If Bolton win against Stoke and QPR lose, the Hoops will join hopeless Wolves and Blackburn in League One next season.

Then we come to the battle for Champions League qualification, where a point could mean R200m today.

Arsenal are in poll position to take third place despite their woeful 3-3 draw against Norwich last week. Arsene Wenger has been unable to shore up his dodgy defence at the squeaky bottom end of the season and he faces a West Brom side saying farewell to new England boss Roy Hodgson today.

To find out my views on my old coach Woy, simply google “Neal Collins Roy Hodgson”. It’s gone global.

My desperate attempts to call Woy, who coached me when I was 13, have failed. He has no idea what a Baggies win will do to me. As a sideshow, Robin van Persie needs just one more goal to equal the Premier League record of 31.

And of course, if Spurs beat Fulham – and they should at White Hart Lane – Harry Redknapp and the Gooners’ arch-rivals will snatch third if Arsenal draw or lose. Lurking behind the pair of North London wannabes are Newcastle, who could take that third spot if they win at Everton and Spurs and Arsenal lose.

It’s all too much for some. I have promised to wear my nearly-unique and often-admired Spiderman underpants on my head tomorrow on eNews Sunrise’s Classic Play if Arsenal fail. If Mother’s Day prevents you from watching the action this afternoon at 3pm (4pm in South Africa) tune in tomorrow at 7.30am, DSTV channel 134 to find out. The underpants will be on my head. And I will be thoroughly miserable.

Should you miss that, try eNews and Collins Corner at 8.15am on DSTV 403. And read Neal and Pray in The New Age on Tuesday for the full extent of my misery. Arsene Wenger, please don’t do this to me.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Everything you need to know about the final round of the ABSA Premiership

Up for grabs: eNews presenter Sandile Nkosi and I with the trophy

After a frantic penultimate ABSA Premier League Saturday, here's the facts:

1 Only Orlando Pirates or Moroka Swallows can now win the title.
2 If the Buccaneers win their final game at Arrows, they retain the title.
3 If the Sea Robbers draw and the Dube Birds win, Swallows snatch it.
4 If Pirates lose, Swallows must still win at Maritzburg United.
5 Siyabonga Nomvethe is FIFTH player to reach 20 PSL goals in a season.
6 Moeneeb Josephs wants Pirates caretaker Augusto Palacios to stay.
7 SuperSport United, despite beating Sundowns, are out of the race.
8 Dutch legend Johan Neeskens is under huge pressure.
9 Kaizer Chiefs produce late winner to end Free State Stars’ challenge.
10 Jomo Cosmos are relegated. Barring a miracle.

Yup, what a day of drama it was. Sponsors ABSA certainly got their money’s worth. And we’ve got another week of nail-biting still to come.
Champions Orlando Pirates, 1-0 down to an early Bloemfontein Celtic goal, looked like they’d thrown it away at the Orlando Stadium. Letladi Madubanya silenced the Ghost, who barely had an attempt on goal to celebrate in a dire first half.
But the Ghost were brought back to life by Thulasizwe Mbuyane’s equaliser after an agonising 73 minutes following a cross from Ndumiso Mabena.
Then along came Siyabonga Sangweni with the header which means the Buccaneers just need to win at Lamontville Golden Arrows in their final match to successfully defend their ABSA crown.
Sangweni’s goal means Bucca Bucca remain two points ahead of Swallows but the Birds have a narrow advantage on goal difference.
If the Birds fail to win at Maritzburg United next week, they’re gone. But if they win and Pirates draw or lose, the title goes to Dube.
Siyabonga Nomvethe, the veteran striker I wrote about in The New Age last week, scored twice for Gordon Igesund's Birds at Dobsonville, which was enough to see off Platninum Stars 2-1. That takes the 34-year-old from KwaMashu to 20 goals this season - only the four others have ever achieved that in nearly two decades of Premier League action in South Africa.
With Pirates 90 minutes away from a historic title defence, caretaker coach Augusto Palacios refused to go overboard. Through his big Peruvian smile, he told "The last game we have, we need to win that game. Not any other results we will accept. If we draw we are out, it is clear we need to win that game.
"Until we win that came, then we can say we are champions, I can't say anything until we play that game against Arrows, which is a difficult game."
"I'm very happy with the character we put in after we made an early mistake by conceding an early goal.I must credit the players; it was not an easy game. It was very difficult game, Celtic for six games were unbeaten and had a very solid defence, but we knew the goal would come and we continued to put pressure and we got it."
Few expected Palacios to achieve glory after the departure of Julio Leal, but he will be difficult to dislodge now. Pirates chairman Irvin Khosa may be the Iron Duke, but even he would surely struggle to axe a second successive championship winning coach if three points are secured next Saturday.
Those wins for the two oldest top flight clubs in Soweto saw the other four contenders fall away in the title chase. Free State Stars were looking like possibles until Kaizer Chiefs produced a late winner, with caretaker coach Doc Khumalo looking like he's won the World Cup when the whistle went to confirm a come-from-behind 2-1 win. Quite what Brazilian Leal and Ruud Krol must think, who knows?
Perhaps he was cheered up by the news that Chiefs will keep their technical team intact despite the arrival of new coach Stuart Baxter with his dodgy CV.
SuperSport’s 1-0 win over Mamelodi Sundowns wasn’t enough to keep them in the (Gavin) Hunt.
Quite what happens at Sundowns now after their alarming late season slump is hard to say. The great Dutch master Johan Neeskens simply failed to come up with anything when it mattered.
Sibusiso Zuma's 79th-minute goal was enough to decide a League clash which previews the all Tshwane Nedbank Cup Final showdown.
Elsewhere, Santos grabbed a 2-2 draw against AmaZulu to keep survival hopes alive while Ajax crushed Arrows 4-1 in Cape Town. Jomo Cosmos - held 1-1 by Maritzburg - now need to beat Leopards and Santos with a combined goal difference of +5 to avoid the automatic drop spot.
So we go in to the final Saturday in South Africa just like they are in England. If QPR can hold Manchester City or Arrows can deny Pirates, everything changes.

You can follow me on or read my Neal and Pray column every Tuesday at I'll be on eTV Sunrise Classic Play at 7.30am on Monday, followed by eNews (DSTV 403) at 8.15am with Collins' Corner.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Stuart Baxter has proved he talks the talk, but can the new Chief walk the walk?

STUART Baxter, take a bow. The new Kaizer Chiefs coach produced a consummate performance on Thursday Night Live with Robert Marawa and Mark Gleeson, good enough to convince the estimated 15 million Amakhosi that he is, indeed, a worthy appointment.
Blessed with that flat Wolverhampton accent, the 58-year-old glided through a reasonably low-heat grilling from the smooth Mr Marawa and his 6ft 5in sidekick Mark Gleeson, a man I first introduced to the intricacies of South African football some 27 years ago when we were working together in Durban.
In fact, Baxter has done the rounds very nicely. Appearing in all the right places, talking to all the right people.
Going on Marawa was a master-stroke, especially when Mandoza is providing top quality musical accompaniment.
Neatly introducing himself as a coach with more in common with the usually successful Sir Alex Ferguson rather than the sometimes competent Roy Hodgson, he told us: “Like Sir Alex, I enter every competition believing I can win it. With Kaizer Chiefs I will be disappointed every time we don’t win a trophy.
“I am used to working under pressure.”
Nice line.
He followed that with this neat assessment of player power at Naturena, where Vladimir Vermezovic fell prey to the connection between chattering Chiefs and their general manager, Bobby Motaung.
First he dealt with the incumbent coaching crew, including the ever-popular Doc Khumalo and Donald “Ace” Khuze: “From what I saw in the win over Ajax Cape Town on Wednesday, I am happy with the technical staff. We have to keep a balance, I won’t be shooting from the hip.”
Phew! Imagine if he thew Doc and Ace to the wolves!
As for the revolt which ultimately sent VV back to Serbia, where he belongs: “A big word for me is respect. I respect what I’ve seen from the players so far. When it comes to the erm… more experienced stars, I will respect them if they work hard. We have to enjoy working together. That is important.”
Baxter also revealed that his role at Chiefs will be “two-pronged”. He explained: “I haven’t been given any targets but I do have to pay attention to youth development too.
“In my discussion, it was made clear that a big part of my job will be sorting out the academy over the next two years. You can’t turn round to the fans when you have won nothing and say: We have a couple of good youngsters coming through. But you also can’t win a trophy and then it’s over. You have to improve. Development of young players is important at a club like Kaizer Chiefs.”
In Soccer Laduma, there are encouraging words from Baxter too. The man who coached Bafana Bafana without great success a decade ago admits: “I feel I have unfinished business in South Africa. I don’t think the ending of my last job here was right. I have a chance to change that.
“I am talking to a lot of people, finding out things. I’ve got about 25 DVDs to go through. I want to hit the ground running.”
But hold on, what about his captain and goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune going public with the popular craving for a local kingpin in Soweto? Baxter produced a neat deflection around the post: “The coach who gets it right gets support from everyone, no matter where he’s from. Players want to win things. I know and understand that.”
And as for the actual approach to take perhaps the biggest job in South African football, Baxter was able to balance his desire for a top job – he was “assisting the coach” at AIK in Sweden since leaving the Finland national role over a year ago – and the great Kaizer’s need to go overseas for yet another unspectacular appointment.
Baxter said: “Let me put it like this. In the modern world of football, you get to hear from people. I was made aware that Kaizer might want me for the job and I made it clear I’d be interested. That’s how it happened.”
All pretty slick from a man who has travelled the footballing world, from England’s Under 19s to South Africa’s Bafana, from Japanese hopefuls to Scandinavian champions – repeatedly – much like new England boss Hodgson.
On what we have seen so far, I like him; so do most of the Amakhosi who have seen and heard from the man since his appointment. But here’s my problem. When it comes to the nitty-gritty, the signing of top class players, the extent of Baxter’s glib deflection becomes apparent.
Though under reasonable pressure from Gleeson and Marawa, he went unchallenged when he gave this answer regarding new players: “I am having an important meeting tomorrow regarding that.”
Clang! That’s when the alarm bells started going off. Surely, if this widely experienced coach had done his homework he would have heard that South Africa’s biggest, richest club failed to make a signing in the January transfer window – unless you count the re-signing of star man Siphiwe Tshabalala on a new contract.
And he might have heard that Bobby “I didn’t need a CV” Motaung proclaims himself the orchestrator of transfers at Chiefs – as well as the judge and jury on coach versus player tiffs.
It was at this point, I would have asked Baxter just how he intended to deal with the dad-and-son, Kaizer-and-Bobby situation. How he intended to assert his personality where so many others have failed.
And I would have asked him why he was waiting for “a meeting tomorrow” before hearing about how much buying would take place during the off-season. Surely he would have received reasonable guarantees before he took the job… unless he was desperate for gainful employment and took the job on the cheap, promising to create a new generation of Chiefs while simultaneously winning titles.
Gleeson, sharp as always, said Baxter must produce a top three finish in his first season – and the title in his second. He appeared ruffled by that, apparently unaware of just how rare a Chiefs championship has been of late.
Baxter gives off the air of a man for whom words are inexpensive. An journeyman football coach eager to get his hands on one of Africa’s biggest franchises.
He makes promises he hopes to keep. Not firm Amakhosi-warming guarantees. His message: “I want to bring bragging rights back to the Chiefs fans. Arsenal fans are in the same position. They’ve had those rights taken from them. I can’t promise that I will bring 10 trophies in the first few season, but what I can promise is that every player who wears the jersey will do it with pride.”
Another great line, Stuart.
There’s no denying Baxter, in the space of less than a week, has reassured a lot of black-and-gold guilded followers.
Those – like me – who suggest he’s the cheap option next to some worthier, more famous candidates, must accept it’s unfair to carp before a ball has been kicked in Baxter’s name.
But in football, as in life, talk is cheap. I remain unconvinced. But, as with Roy Hodgson being over-promoted to England boss, we live in hope. Baxter could yet bring the glamour back to the Amakhosi brand. He certainly talks the talk. But can he walk the walk?

Monday, 7 May 2012

Komphela? Matthaus? Gullit? No, the new Kaizer Chiefs boss is... Stuart Baxter.

SO much for a little bit of excitement at Kaizer Chiefs. Lothar Matthaus’s CV has been submitted, Ruud Gullit’s shadow has been lurking over Naturena. But today, back to earth with a bump; we are told former South Africa boss Stuart Baxter is set to be named as the new coach.
The 58-year-old Scotsman is not confirmed, but both of the major South African football websites, and seem convinced – and the Wolverhampton-born journeyman has been spotted with Amakhosi founder Kaizer Motaung and his son-cum-mismanager Bobby in recent weeks.
Darn. Steve Komphela, a former Chief and local, has had a great season with Free State Stars and looked a great choice to take over from the current caretakers Doc Khumalo and Donald “Ace” Khuse. Clearly Komphela’s new role as assistant to Pitso Mosimane took precedence. Or did Kaizer just not fancy a local coach?
A new chief for the Chiefs appeared a must after the string of defeats which followed the departure of hard-line Serbian Vladimir Vermezovic a month ago. The upset win over leaders Mamelodi Sundowns last week was never going to be enough, though Chiefs could conceivably still finish in the top three.
So what do we know of Baxter? Is he better than Komphela… or Germany’s 1990 World Cup winning captain Matthaus? Or even the smooth-talking Gullit, generally unimpressive as a coach but a clear rival in the fame stakes when it comes to Sundowns’ own Dutch boss Johan Neeskens?
As far as I can tell, Baxter was last employed as “an advisor to the coach” at Swedish club AIK after ending his Finnish international connection last year.
Born in Wolverhampton but claiming kilt-wearing Scottishness through his dad, Baxter played for Preston North End in 1973. He later moved north to Dundee United before returning to England with Stockport County. Baxter then moved to Australia, Sweden and the United States with South Melbourne FC, Helsingborgs IF and San Diego Sockers to extend a playing career which ended in 1983 at the tender age of 30.
Much like new England boss Roy Hodgson (more about me and him here Baxter went to Viking country for his first adult coaching experience. And the Hodgson connections don’t end there.
After working with Örebro SK's youth team he became manager at Idrettsforeningen Skarp (don’t ask me to spell that) in Norway in 1986 but moved up in the footballing world pretty quickly when he went to Portugal’s Vitória de Setúbal a year later.
By 1988, he was back in Sweden, where Halmstads BK were still recovering from Hodgson’s departure. In his first year with Halmstad he guided them to promotion but two seasons later they were relegated and Baxter decamped to Japan’s Sanfrecce Hiroshima before joining Vissel Kobe days after the earthquake of 1997. He worked out of a caravan as the club’ headquarters had been destroyed.
A year later, he was back in Scandinavia, this time with some success, winning the title with AIK before taking on Barcelona, Arsenal and Fiorentina in Champions League qualification. Sadly, they finished bottom of this particular group of death.
By the turn of the Millennium, he was with Norwegian side Lyn Oslo. But interesting times loomed.
Baxter took his first coaching job in England in 2002, when the Football Association asked him to coach England’s Under 19s; he was doing okay back in Britain... then South Africa made him Bafana Bafana boss.
He looked a fair appointment; experienced, FA backed, urbane. But qualifying proved fruitless, South Africa failed to make the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, and Baxter left in the autumn of 2005 after just over two years in the Rainbow Nation.
True to form, Baxter found himself back in Scandinavia, after another short spell with Vissel Kobe in Japan. This time it was another former Hodgson club, Helsingborg. He got them to the knock-out stages of the 2007 UEFA Cup/Europa League, and then resigned to take over as Finland’s national manager, another job title he shares with Hodgson.
Throughout the post South Africa years, Baxter kept in contact with players and agents in the PSL, and – using his Celtic connections – he secured a trial for Mamelodi Sundowns striker Katlego “Killer” Mphela amongst others at Parkhead.
He was rumoured to be headed for Glasgow as Celtic’s technical director during the 2010 World Cup but chose to extend his contract with Finland, promising to lead them to Euro 2012 later this year.
Defeats against Moldova and Hungary dented those hopes. Finland slumped in the FIFA rankings from 33 to 86 - and in November 2010 they parted “by mutual consent” after an acrimonious fall out with the local media. He told them: “You don’t have the footballing knowledge to have a go at me.”
Though linked repeatedly with major Swedish club Malmo FF – the only Swedish side ever to reach a European final - Baxter and his goakeeping son Lee were last employed as “advisors” back at AIK in Sweden before establishing contact with Kaizer and Bobby Motaung.
Though there are highpoints on that lengthy multinational CV, Baxter’s appointment – like Hodgson’s – will not stir the imagination. A lot depends now on what happens to Doc and Ace… and who is brought in at Naturena to help Baxter in his bid to rebuild after the VV era. Personally, I’d have gone for Komphela. A former Chiefs and Bafana captain, as articulate as they come and tactically astute, he is the local choice most South Africans seemed to favour.
But as usual, Kaizer – and Bobby – have steered the family business in a cheaper, safer direction. I hope the nation’s estimated 15 million Amakhosi will be happy with Baxter. Like Hodgson, I wish him luck in his new venture. He too will need plenty of it.
You can read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in Watch eNews (DSTV 403) every Monday morning at 8.15am for my weekend round-ups. And you can follow me at