/ 24 May 2012

Nedbank Cup final will test Hunt’s combative style

Gavin Hunt.
Gavin Hunt.

It figures that SuperSport United coach Gavin Hunt was a right-back in his playing days with Hellenic. The position attracts the sort of character who could start a fight in an empty room: think Gary Neville, Sergio Ramos and Dani Alves, to name just a few abrasive greats from the brotherhood of the number 2 shirt.

This week Hunt denied reports that he attacked the R1-billion sponsorship deal that cellphone company Vodacom had signed with Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.

Both Kaizer Motaung and Irvin Khoza responded furiously to Hunt’s reported remark that the deal would shut down competition in the Premier Soccer League. “I never said anything about their sponsorship deal,” said Hunt. “All I said was that it’s tough to lose a player like Morgan Gould to a bigger club who can pay more than we can.”

The Nedbank Cup final against Mamelodi Sundowns on May 26 will be Gould’s last for the club. Chiefs are the defender’s next destination. The final promises to be an absorbingly tense derby, not least because Hunt will face a platoon of his former players in the Downs ranks – Teko Modise, Elias Pelembe, Katlego Mphela, Hlompho Kekana and Anthony Laffor.

As Khoza pointed out this week, SuperSport had profited handsomely from the sale of such stars to the Gauteng giants. And they were hardly broke, being wholly owned by MultiChoice, a R50-billion subsidiary of media conglomerate Naspers.

Common sense and good leadership
Hunt does not deserve anybody’s pity, as he happily admits. “This club is very stable,” he said. “There’s a lot of common sense, good leadership and good infrastructure.”

That said, Vodacom’s largesse does promise to alter the financial ecosystem of the PSL, whether or not Hunt said as much. Both Chiefs and Pirates will receive R100-million a year for the next five years – three times more than their previous deal of R30-million a year. To put it in global perspective, the Vodacom moolah would cover the annual salary of one Yaya Toure, or three Steven Pienaars.

Factor in the Soweto giants’ lavish merchandise income, several other major sponsorships, gate takings of as much as R10-million each and the annual PSL grant of R12-million and you have a rosy financial picture.

Bucs and Chiefs are now able to match Downs owner Patrice Motsepe’s voracious chequebook in the local transfer market and will surely begin to raid more aggressively for players in the debt-ridden European leagues. Already, the PSL’s generous salaries are luring younger South African players back from careers abroad, the latest example being 28-year-old Siboniso Gaxa, who will turn out for Amakhosi next season after two promising seasons with Belgian side Lierse.

Some of the young returnees, such as Bernard Parker, Kermit Erasmus and Bryce Moon, have struggled to make an impact in Europe – but it is no longer the case that ambitious players cannot wait to escape the PSL. It is no longer a financial dead end.

Compliment to the league
Hunt conceded that the homecoming trend was positive. “Look at the impact that Benni McCarthy has had this year – he’s been a fantastic signing for Pirates,” he said. “The more we can get our players back the better. It’s a compliment to our league.”

But Khoza and Motaung have reason to be annoyed by suggestions that the Vodacom deal is anticompetitive. They pointed out this week that the Soweto giants in effect subsidised all the league’s other clubs, because they supplied the compelling theatre of passionate rivalry that propels the league’s brand and business model. Mamelodi Sundowns, Bloemfontein Celtic, Amazulu and Moroka Swallows are the only other clubs with sizeable (though often dormant) support bases.

If you are looking for anti-competitive leagues, look no further than the cellphone industry, which garners R100-billion in turnover every year from an economy suffocated by poverty and underinvestment. The struggling education and arts sectors are less than charmed that Vodacom is willing to splurge so much on backing a sport that would survive perfectly well on its broadcast income. But it is unreasonable to blame the PSL, which has excelled in branding an often mediocre product.

However, it cannot create a support base for SuperSport United and Hunt claims the empty stands cost him points every season. “The big clubs have got five to 10 points from crowd support. That’s why they have got such an advantage.”

Hunt has a volcanic temper, as many a battered cooler can testify – a trait that may have proved a career asset in more ways than one. He gets plenty of compliance and discipline from his players at Matsatsantsa, translating into an even flow of good results.

Lavishly paid coaches
But Hunt’s reputation for combativeness may have also deterred approaches from any of the Gauteng giants, even after he proved his exceptional coaching ability with three successive PSL championships.

As a result, he has been given the time and job security to build a fiefdom in Pretoria, refining his methods and entrenching his fast, open style. Meanwhile, at Sundowns, a stream of lavishly paid coaches have come and gone.

The first half of this season was calamitous for SuperSport, but they recovered brilliantly to challenge for the title until the final round of matches, with excellent seasons from youth products Ronwen Williams and Thabiso Nkoana.

“We’ve got a formula, like all the most succesful clubs,” Hunt said. “Ajax Amsterdam do it and Barcelona do it. Even at our level, good football relies on consistency. We like to have width and we like to create opportunities. Sundowns have an array of technical players and Johan Neeskens plays a good brand of football. We play our way. It’ll be tough.”