Gordon Igesund has a jauntier look these days; his broad grin and zippy energy are back after the relentless pressure of the national team job that ended in disappointing failure.
Back in the buzz of club football, working daily with players and managing the rigours of an increasingly stiff schedule makes the 58-year-old a happier-looking coach.
His impact on SuperSport United has been immediate, with seven wins from nine matches since his not unexpected arrival at the club as the replacement for Cavin Johnson, who was sacked after a mediocre start to the season. It was a coaching switch much anticipated after SuperSport looked unconvincing last season, even though they finished a credible fifth in the Premier Soccer League standings and had assembled a potent-looking squad.
Igesund’s reputation at club level has been restored by the way the players have responded to his methods and the results achieved, including a place in Saturday’s Telkom Knockout final against Platinum Stars at Orlando Stadium.
Ironically, the status and reputation of the grey-haired coach have been forged more in the consistency of league championship success than in the rapid-fire nature of cup competition – certainly an added notch to his prominent place among the most successful coaches in South African professional football history.
In cup competition, this is a rare occurrence for Igesund, who, in some three decades of coaching, has won just a pair of cup trophies in the 2000 and 2007 Top Eight competitions. It is a surprisingly paltry return when compared with four championship titles with four different teams (Manning Rangers, Orlando Pirates, Santos and Mamelodi Sundowns) as well as runners-up finishes with Ajax Cape Town and Moroka Swallows.
Distracted top contenders Igesund’s ambition will be to write further history and upset the odds by taking SuperSport to the league crown in May, even though he suggested this week he did not believe they were a squad capable of finishing ahead of Kaizer Chiefs, Pirates and Sundowns. That does not preclude the fact they will “give it a go” and maybe benefit from the fact that the top contenders will be distracted in the second half of the season by competing in African club competition on top of a rigorous domestic league and cup schedule.
But if SuperSport are perhaps one or two more seasons away from a return to their pre-eminence of old, then a cup trophy on Saturday will be a perfect hors d’oeuvre for Igesund’s greater ambitions.
Even though Stars are the holders, and eliminated Chiefs and Sundowns in the previous two rounds, Igesund’s side start as favourites. It is a team well put together by his predecessor Johnson, who had an astute eye for talent but was let down by not having a firmer hand on the training field.
Igesund did not have much more to do since arriving than lifting morale, tightening organisation and tinkering with combinations. It has a hardy spine with Clayton Daniels and Michael Morton providing the muscle, and plenty of pace out wide with Thuso Phala and Lebogang Manyama, each a match-winner in his own right.
The depth of the squad was displayed last Sunday when Igesund could afford to rest several key players and still outplay Pirates for long periods of their league game, even though SuperSport ultimately let it slip by conceding a last-gasp winner.
“No damage at all. The players are very focused, they knew what we were doing against Pirates by making the changes. We did and it won’t have any effect,” Igesund said in response to a question about a possible blow to confidence, having let slip a lead over Pirates, losing 1-2.
SuperSport’s opponents are something of an enigma. Stars’ league form has been far from convincing over the past 18 months, yet they won two cup competitions last year and now play in a second successive Telkom Knockout final.
It is a decent football side with talented players, although behind the scenes it is a club in discord with wholesale changes to their administration in a power tussle that ultimately must have an impact on the playing side.
Stars are also becoming a selling club with their best players moving on to loftier climes. Sundowns have already signed last year’s cup hero, Mogakolodi Ngele, but loaned him back to Stars for the season. In January, they are set to swoop for Luvolwethu Mpeta, recently called up by the national team, and Tshepo Gumede.
If the current turmoil continues, this might be a last chance for glory in a while.