Celtic's Larsen out to 'steal' another cup

Clinton Larsen. (Gallo)

Clinton Larsen. (Gallo)

In the mayhem of the PSL coaching kennel, the “old dogs” are puppies. Larsen will soon complete his third season in charge at Bloemfontein Celtic — and that makes him the joint longest-serving occupant of any head coach position in the domestic top flight, a title he shares with Steve Komphela of Free State Stars.

Dugout churn is a global trend, but the PSL is a pathologically impatient league. There seems little chance that South Africa will ever harbour a walking institution like Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, Arsene Wenger or Thomas Schaaf, who has steered Werder Bremen for 14 years.
And the price of that insecurity is chronic institutional amnesia. Because no coach is given time to build an enduring foundation, nobody can deliver sustained results. So virtuous eggs keep laying vicious chickens, which keep cycling home to roost.

But Larsen isn’t complaining, perhaps because he has yet to be fired in his short PSL career. “It shows how volatile this industry is, with coaches getting fired left, right and centre. But keeping your job is simple. It’s based on your team getting the desired results. I’ve kept my job because we’ve been more or less consistent. We’re never out of the top eight. For a team like Celtic, that’s a decent achievement.”

Maybe, but top eight finishes alone won’t ward off the guillotine. Cups will — and it was Celtic’s Telkom Knockout triumph this season that won Larsen the relative security he now enjoys. Tomorrow night he can bolster his position even further by ousting log leaders Kaizer Chiefs from the Nedbank Cup. It’s the pick of the weekend’s quarterfinals, not least because Celtic are out to avenge a recent 3-0 home loss in the league to Amakhosi.

Like any coach worth his salt, Larsen is not shy to indulge in a bit of spin, and he’s quick to point out that a fortnight ago Siwelele bested Chiefs in every stat in that clash except the scoreline, from possession to shots on target. “In every aspect except goals, we dominated Chiefs. We did the same with Maritzburg United, and with Tuks. So we’re due for a very good result. I’ve got a good feeling about this one. Our last three performances have been very good, even though we only got two draws.”

Injuries will deprive him of the services of his top scorer Lerato Manzini and the gifted Malawian rightback Limbikani Mzava.

Four-man rearguard
But Amakhosi’s list of absentees is longer — playmaker Reneilwe Letsholonyane is suspended, while regular centrebacks Morgan Gould and Mulomowandau Mathoho are both out injured. That means Chiefs coach Stuart Baxter is set to pick Lincoln Zvasiya alongside Tefu Mashamaite, reverting to a four-man rearguard. Larsen claims he is not rubbing his hands in glee about this.

“Since they won’t be using three in the middle, we will go with two out-and-out strikers to put them under pressure,” he says. “But Zvasiya is a decent defender, and Mashamaite has been exceptional all season, so Chiefs will still field a strong defence.”

Having borne the brunt of the log leaders’ counterattacking game, Larsen has high praise for Baxter. “Stuart didn’t have enough time with the national team. What he has brought to Chiefs is directness and pace, where previous Chiefs sides used to concentrate more on holding possession. There is good discipline, they are defensively solid, but with a much quicker passing game. With the quality at Baxter’s disposal, he was always going to build a formidable team.”

The question bothering many Celtic fans is why their beloved club — founded in 1969 as Mangaung United — is not able to put a comparable array of quality at Larsen’s disposal. The likes of Thabo Nthethe, Joel Mogorosi, Kurt Lentjies, Mzava and John Arwuah are good enough to mix it with the giants, but the squad as a whole is still not strong or deep enough to challenge for the league.

Given Celtic’s large and passionate support base, which should mean rich commercial potential, modest transfer policy irks some Phunya Sele Sele fans  and attendances have fallen this season. Larsen blames the recent PSL ticket price hike for that dip, and defends the ambition and commitment of long-time owner Jimmy Augousti.

“I think management are trying to do everything in their power to attract more sponsorships and funding,” says Larsen. “As things stand, we have one national team player and Kaizer Chiefs have got nine. So there’s a big difference in depth and quality, but games are not won and lost on those stats. We believe in our work ethic. And the brains trust of myself, Mich D’Avray and Boebie Solomons has enough football knowledge to build a cohesive, strong unit that can win the league.”

It won’t happen this year. Thanks to a patchy defensive campaign and plenty of ropey finishing, Celtic are lying tenth on the table — though that’s a slightly deceptive position, as they’re only three points away from fourth spot.

An inferiority complex is always hard to shake off. But two gongs in one season may just do the trick.

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