/ 9 September 2008

In the Hunt for the title

The race for the premiership title has become a hotly contested one with five teams there or thereabouts but only three with a realistic chance of winning. 

Among the real contenders are Moroka Swallows, back in the big time after years of underperformance. In their heyday Swallows were the team to beat from Soweto and boasted a number of great players.

They earned the name the ‘Dube Birds” with their slogan, ‘Don’t follow me, follow the Birds” seen on the back of countless vehicles. 

Swallows often flattered to deceive, but have had a recent meteoric rise from obscurity. This began when they employed the coaching skills of Russian-born Victor Bonderenko, who led the transformation of the birds in the 2001/2002 season.

Bonderenko got the Birds into the top eight and then resigned to coach Sundowns. This infuriated the Swallows supporters and they cried for the return of the Russian. 

But Swallows management had to accept that ‘Bondas” was gone. They then employed the services of the youngest coach in the premiership, Gavin Hunt, who had caused a football revolution in Limpopo when he took newly promoted Black Leopards into the top eight in their first season in the top division.

Hunt was not an immediate hit with the Birds faithful. The fans were furious that their team lost the charity cup, and threatened the coach with violence when Swallows suffered a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Orlando Pirates in the BP Top 8 semifinals. Supporters demanded that Hunt be axed but the club’s management stood firm.

It is a move that has paid dividends as Swallows are now back to their best, fourth in the log and four points behinds leaders Pirates. 

With five games to go, Hunt says the team has a great chance of winning the championship. He thinks 60 points will win the league title and they will get 61 if they win their remaining five games.

Hunt had coached three other teams before taking on Swallows and has established his credentials.

His coaching career began at the now-defunct Seven Stars, then he moved on to Hellenic and finally Black Leopards, where his coaching skills were rewarded with a number of Castle premiership coach of the month awards and a spot in the Top 8 for the premiership newcomers. 

At Swallows, Hunt says, he wants to ensure the team is stable, with the soccer development academy providing up-and-coming quality players. 

The young coach has a great belief in his players, saying they can win themselves the league title.

He does not believe his team will have an easy run-in in their quest to win the championship crown and the first-prize cheque of R2,2-million.  Hunt says: ‘Every team will be difficult to beat as we chase for the title.” 

This statement proved true earlier this month as Swallows took a 2-0 lead against fellow title chasers Wits University at Milpark.

The Birds saw their lead evaporate in the second half as the Clever Boys scored two late goals to end a thrill-a-minute game 2-2. Each team got a point but would have preferred all three. 

Hunt talks about his move to Swallows as one that needed to happen, although sometimes he longs for the quiet of being with Black Leopards. ‘Lifestyle wise, I would go back to Venda — for there were not many reporters there questioning my every move.”

But the coach believes that he needed to prove himself and Gauteng was the place to do that. 

Moroka Swallows, who had a four-week break from league action before the Wits match, had to wait another fortnight before playing another Premier Soccer League game, against Dynamos this weekend.

Hunt was not happy having to wait four weeks before playing Wits. ‘It has been difficult to keep the players focused, but during that four weeks out of action we had practice matches.” These games are coming in handy in their current break. 

Hunt’s benchmark of 60 points winning the league title will put pressure on his team. Swallows’s remaining matches are against three teams they beat in the first leg — Dynamos, Santos and Golden Arrows — and two that beat them, Kaizer Chiefs and Jomo Cosmos. 

If Swallows and Hunt are to realise their dream of winning the championship they will have to pray that their competitors lose or draw all their remaining fixtures.

Chiefs and Cosmos pose the greatest threats to Swallows’s title hopes as they have convincingly defeated the Dube Birds in the first round.