Brave bets pay off for Cavin Johnson

Cavin Johnson wears two watches at once on match days: an expensive; chunky one on his left wrist and a cheapo digital on his right, for scrutinising the referee's timekeeping. But the unusual combo also has superstitious value. "It's my muti," laughs the affable Platinum Stars coach.

Johnson should treat himself to an armful of watches if his less-than-fashionable Rustenburgers win a shock Premier Soccer League title this year. He has done a magnificent job, whatever transpires in May.

On Wednesday night, "Dikwena" lost 1-0 to Orlando Pirates in an even, bruising encounter, thus failing to seize top spot on the table – they currently lie third, five points behind Kaizer Chiefs.

But if Johnson's career is any guide, a late-season collapse is not on the cards; the 54-year-old has shown impressive resolve over two decades in the local game.

His first coup came in 1994, in spotting the precocious footwork of a 12-year-old Steven Pienaar on the bullet-strewn streets of Westbury in Johannesburg, Johnson's own neighbourhood. "Schillo" was playing street football at the time for ­bounties of R5.

Johnson was a founding coach at the then flourishing Transnet School of Excellence and his decision to give Pienaar an apprenticeship set in motion a career that now earns the Everton midfielder R5-million a month. "Pienaar's attitude stood out, more than his technical quality," he said. "There were 10 or 11 other players from Westbury who were just as good, but they didn't have the right mental quality." Some are gangsters now and some are dead.

During six years at the School of Excellence, Johnson and his colleagues groomed Dillon Sheppard, Brent Carelse and Brett Evans, who all moved with him to the newly formed Ajax Cape Town in 2000, where he became youth coach. He later took over the Mamelodi Sundowns academy and served as assistant to Gordon Igesund when Downs took the 2007 PSL championship.

Newfound self-belief
There are no players of Pienaar's calibre at Stars. The closest Johnson has to a maestro is Bafana winger Thuso Phala, whose rebirth this season has been dramatic. In his years at Sundowns, Phala was an unusually quick player without purpose or poise.

Having made his name at Stars and then at Kaizer Chiefs, he lost conviction in the toxic environment of Chloorkop. But now Phala's rare pace seems harnessed to newfound self-belief and game intelligence.

"Thuso is reaching the peak of his career at 26, and he's such a natural talent," said Johnson. "He understands his position better. We do a lot of technical work in our training and his first touch has improved a bit since he came here. He has also improved his decision-making and he is commanding the space around him."

Benson Mhlongo was a risky signing but in a different way. Johnson worked with Mhlongo during his Sundowns peak and brought him to Phokeng when most fans expected his time on the field was up, a gamble that has paid off spectacularly, with the seasoned centreback anchoring the side's unlikely challenge for glory.

"Benson had a very bad knee injury during his last year at Pirates and people said he would never play football again," said Johnson. "But I based my decision purely on our relationship at Sundowns. I bought him only to back up the younger players. But it turned out much better than I thought it would. He won't play 35 games for us, but he's made a huge difference."

Paying punters
Fullback Vuyo Mere completes the Downs connection at Dikwena and Johnson has shopped astutely for undervalued talent from other sources, such as the gifted Botswana midfielder Mogakolodi Ngele, former Black Leopards playmaker Robert Ng'ambi and the fiery former Bucs winger Patrick Malokase.

"I also have one of the best physical trainers around in Kabelo Rangoaga, and one of the best physiotherapists, Godfrey Sepuru," said Johnson. "We have not had a hamstring, groin or calf injury for the past 18 months."

Although the Royal Bafokeng nation has invested generously in the side over the years, the paying punters of Rustenburg are now not as forthcoming. Johnson is philosophical about the tiny home crowds at Phokeng.

"We have to stick to our motive, which is to create a brand of football that attracts as many supporters as possible," he said. "We want to compete with the likes of Bloemfontein Celtic, but it's difficult to change people's loyalties. So we have to get through to a younger generation. It's a long-term thing. You have to play football of the kind we've been trying to play."

And in a region riven by mine layoffs and violent labour strife, the brave exploits of Dikwena are a lonely bright spot. "If football provides some comfort here, then we'd like to play every day."

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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