It’s hard to imagine that only a few weeks ago Steve Komphela was the victim of regular maulings by Chiefs supporters. A flop, a pretender, a “moegoe” even — these insults, and more, were thrown at the mentor of the black and yellow.
Such are the trials you must endure when you lead one of South Africa’s blue-chip clubs.
But when his team trots out for the headlining Soweto derby tomorrow, it will be to a decidedly different reception as his team is well placed in the tight battle for top honours in the league.
Sitting pitch-side in the other dugout will be the latest unknown entity to the Premier Soccer League. There have been calls for the Ghost to give Kjell Jonevret time to rebuild the Sea Robbers. But, sadly, in an unforgiving league and with the Soweto derby rated among the top 10 contests worldwide, there is little time for that. And there is no time for understanding when it comes to Kaizer Chiefs against Orlando Pirates.
Jonevret, the new Bucs coach who arrived in the country little more than a week ago, is well aware of the demands of the passionate Ghost and how deeply they hate losing against their traditional rivals.
Jonevret says he watched the derby even while in Sweden and he admires the passion. It’s a cauldron he’s eager to jump into and he says he’s looking forward to being part of the game, despite the pressure.
“I have seen the derby,” said Jonevret. “I watched the 0-0 while I was in Sweden and I know it is a huge game. We have been working very hard and I am particularly happy about the shape of our defence. We are showing signs of getting solid and that pleases me …
“I know it is the biggest game of the calendar and it is not just an ordinary game. I can only say to football supporters: ‘Come to FNB Stadium on Saturday and you will enjoy lovely football’.”
Pirates have been like a sieve in defence and, for a team that once boasted of hard-as-nails defenders such as Siya Sangweni and Rooi Mahamutsa, it is a mystery how they conceded six goals in a game that forced former mentor Muhsin Ertugral to call it a day.
“In all honesty, I think, in our last game, Polokwane only had three shots on target and, although I do not know how strong they are, and aware that I cannot judge my team after only one game, I think we showed a lot of character and were pretty solid.
“Of course, we have conceded quite a lot of goals in the past and that can knock the confidence out of most teams … Most players kind of try to show me that they really want to play for me and I am quite satisfied about their application.”
Towards the end of last year, Komphela was subjected to a torrent of abuse from supporters unwilling to accept the team’s poor results. Although severely tested, he insists he never thought of quitting during his nearly two-year reign.
A suave, well-spoken and articulate gaffer, who turned unfashionable Maritzburg United into a formidable outfit, Komphela found himself holding a tiger by the tail — he had to parry verbal shots from impatient supporters who expected more from a limping Kaizer Chiefs side going through a transition.
“I knew I represented a lot of coaches out there, coaches that also harboured ambitions of one day coaching Chiefs,” Komphela said. “And if I just upped and quit, what would that say about local coaches?
“In any case, I have never been a quitter. I wanted to finish this project that I had started and hence I soldiered on. I look back today and, even though we are not there yet, I am nonetheless glad that we have gone through the storm and have hit a semblance of consistency.
“Seven matches without dropping a point, except against Ajax Cape Town. It kind of sends some message of hope.”
While Chiefs are riding the crest of a wave, largely because of a midfield combination marshalled by veteran Siphiwe Tshabalala and skipper Willard Katsande, Pirates have lacked that creative spark from their usual playmaker and captain Oupa Manyisa.
“I have heard from a lot of people that many people expect a lot from him,” said Jonevret. “So the first thing I did on my arrival was to speak to the captain, and I know for sure that he is a very good player and I saw against Polokwane that he worked really hard and that gave me confidence. I never doubted his abilities and he will play a crucial role tomorrow.”
Before kick-off, Jonevret and Komphela agree on one thing — there are no higher stakes for both players and technical staff, who require extreme mental strength for the highly charged and emotional affair at FNB Stadium.
“It is about pride, and anything that is emotional overpowers rationale,” says Komphela. “All logic goes out of the window.
But emotions need to be controlled in such a high-intensity match. Forget the history or being successful against Pirates. Players need to acknowledge they are facing a huge side both in the country and on the continent.
“They must acknowledge that they face a team with a rich culture and tradition. The derby is a definition of what South African football is all about.
“We must play this match like our lives depended on the outcome. We will not make wholesale changes, perhaps one or two changes here and there, but that is all …
“We are starting to find ourselves. The more players play together, the better the level of understanding. Chiefs is all about team play and there is a nice spread of goals among the players, where even defenders chip in with goals now and then, which is a good sign of teamwork.
“But, above all, we need to defend sensibly against Pirates and, although we have not been able to score more than three goals in a single game, at least the goals are flowing and that is what pleases me. We aim to play the kind of football that is pleasing to the eye — to such an extent that even those watching at home will applaud.”