It was at the end of February that Orlando Pirates finally seemed to put the disappointment and fatigue of their African club competition campaigns behind them and settled into a rhythm in domestic action.
Eight wins in nine matches, including a glorious away triumph over log leaders Mamelodi Sundowns in the Nedbank Cup, held out the promise of a strong finish that could see Pirates end as high as third in the Premier Soccer League standings, above their old nemesis Kaizer Chiefs, despite spending most of the season well off the pace.
Ultimately, though, it did not come to pass, for almost as quickly as Pirates produced their revival, so they reverted to type and completed the campaign with much inconsistency. Had they failed to get a point in their final match of the league season, they would have faced their worst league finish in 30 years.
A 2-2 draw with SuperSport United last Saturday ensured a seventh-place finish but still left the overriding impression of a team punching well below their potential. It is against this backdrop that Pirates go into Saturday’s Nedbank Cup final in Polokwane seeking a compensatory piece of silverware.
It is also likely to be the last game for Eric Tinkler, who has been holding down the Pirates coaching role since December 2014 but pointedly has never been given a permanent appointment. He is a keen student of the game, praised for the quality of his preparation and his training sessions, and has done well under trying circumstances, not least because he has to work with backroom advisers such as Screamer Tshabalala and has no control over the acquisition or sale of players.
This is how Pirates have operated for years — a “technical committee” working in tandem with a coach. Ceding complete control of playing matters to a coach is not common among South African clubs and the concept of an all-powerful manager, as in England, is alien. But if Pirates are to be a force in the league again, they need a strong coach of independent mind-set to bring about fundamental change. Coaching by committee is a recipe for mediocrity, at best.
Tinkler has yet to win a trophy as a coach, so to bow out with the Nedbank Cup would enhance his chance of continued employment elsewhere. Opponents SuperSport also scraped into the top eight after a season in which Gordon Igesund was fired and another former Bafana Bafana coach, Stuart Baxter, was brought in to revamp an ailing squad.
Baxter has seen out the past five months with as much of an eye on results as he has on the future. He has taken time to adapt the squad to his preference for the counter-attacking game. This will be the last game for many players because SuperSport want to be immediate title contenders. A major cleanout is expected, and new talent brought in. The defence will be overhauled; already Reneilwe Letsholonyane and Reyaad Pieterse have been brought in from Kaizer Chiefs. Multiple changes will follow.
The cup final appearance is something of a bonus for Baxter and his boys. They have had a season best forgotten but can still go out on a high.