/ 3 December 2010

Birds must fly back to their roots

He was known as “The Golden Boy” of the Premier League for his unique achievement in guiding four different clubs to the Premier League title.

But when Gordon Igesund took over the reins at Moroka Swallows earlier in the week in place of besieged and seemingly bewildered German-born coach Rainer Zobel, his objective must have been to resuscitate his own dimmed reputation as much as to guide the ailing “Birds” away from bottom place in the Premier League log — and then to restore a semblance of the Soweto club’s old glory.

The last four seasons have not been a piece of cake for the one-time Durban United blond flier in the now defunct National Football League, who also made his name as a player of some note in the Austrian first division in the 1970s.

Since his sudden departure as coach of Mamelodi Sundowns in 2007 — only months after they followed in the footsteps of Manning Rangers, Santos and Orlando Pirates, all coached by Igesund, as Premier League champions — “The Golden Boy” has fared more moderately with less fashionable clubs such as Free State Stars and Maritzburg United.

He was once mooted as an ideal choice to take over Bafana Bafana, even the technical committee entrusted with appointing a new national coach chose him as their man. But Safa, for one reason or another, opted for Trott Moloto instead.

Now Igesund has emerged from a six-month coaching sabbatical — with his batteries recharged, he said, and “raring to go” — to turn the tide for the club that once ranked alongside Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates in the popularity stakes. The Birds are now performing in empty stadiums after remaining winless after nine Premier League games this season, with seven defeats and a meagre two draws.

“It won’t be an easy undertaking,” said Igesund when his appointment for a six-month provisional period was announced by Swallows chief executive Leon Prins. “But it is an exciting challenge being associated with one of the oldest and most respected clubs in South African soccer — and the only way for the Birds right now is in an upward direction.”

Swallows started the slide from their lofty pedestal more than 20 years ago, with only sporadic periods of success. The club was wallowing in a crisis similar to the present one until late German business impresario Dieter Bock bought it eight seasons ago and steadied the ship with a much-needed financial injection.

Mario “The Godfather” Tuani, the famed former Swallows coach, said he was lamenting with a “broken heart” when he was informed that Swallows were occupying bottom position in the Premier League log table.

It was Tuani who assembled the club’s most exciting and formidable combination in the mid-1980s. It included legendary players of the likes of Ace Mnini, Thomas “Who’s Fooling Who?” Hlongwane, Aubrey “The Great” Makgopela, Samuel “Happy Cow” Mnkomo, Aaron “Roadblock” Makhathini, Chippa Molatedi, Raul Gonzalez, Mario Varas, Congo Malebane, Sulie Bhamjee and Gavin Easthorpe.

It was, one can safely say, the greatest combination Swallows have produced in a colourful 63-year history.

So what advice does The Godfather now offer the Birds in their abject plight, with their glory days only a memory? “What I knew of this club and what I have heard since,” says Tuani, “is that Swallows have changed their whole approach and are flying in the wrong direction. They no longer play the kind of soccer that thrilled fans and foes alike and have lost their character.

“The only advice I can offer is for the club to do a U-turn and return to its roots. Seek the old invention, passion and flair and, in the process, bring back the support that was the club’s birthright.”

Tuani believes the character and style of the Swallows he knew has gradually been diluted over the years. “I know it is easy to offer advice from a distance,” he says, “and starting all over again is not easy. But the way for this club to regain its old glory and support is by learning from the past. That is what the supporters demand. Nothing less.”

To which Igesund responded: “I knew Mario well as a friend and a colleague — and that wonderful team he had at Swallows in the 1980s is still fresh in my memory. But players like Mnini, Hlongwane and Makgopela don’t fall off trees and are a rarity. Give me players of that ilk and I’m sure we could produce wonders.

“But the reality of the situation is that the club is facing the spectre of relegation and I’m here to eradicate that dilemma. Once that is done we can look at ways and means of restoring the past glories.”