As the bubbles from the celebration of the night before subsided, triumphant Wits coach Gavin Hunt knew what he wants next.
“To win our next game,” he said.
His turn at the top of the league has finally arrived after three oh-so-close previous attempts.
His drive for more typifies the hard-working gaffer, who lauded several individuals who played a massive role in Wits’s success this season. And although he would very much like to put his feet up on a beach with a cold beer in his hand, he admits there is still a lot of work waiting for him.
Fans anticipated a battle likely to last until the final day of the league season but it ended dramatically in mid-week when defending champions Downs choked at a critical moment. The Brazilians found themselves trailing 2-0 until the 87th minute, when substitute Yannick Zakri netted a quick-fire brace against Maritzburg United. But, in the end, it proved too little too late.
“They [Wits] deserved it,” said Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane. “It was never for us. We never really held on to it [the league lead] for more than three days.
“What make me most happy, though, are the fans — they were singing the whole way. Unbelievable. They understand you can’t win everything.”
A clinical, business-like Wits built a solid 2-0 lead against Polokwane City at Milpark and defended stoically, with Bongani Khumalo and Phumlani Ntshangase uncompromising in defence.
“I think the turning point of this championship was when we secured six points against both Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates within a space of four days,” Hunt said. “Those were massive results against very top teams in the country and I think the success kind of brought back the belief in the players that we could go all the way.”
Mosimane was gracious in defeat, saying he had taken some positives from their failure to defend the championship.
Downs will no doubt be raiding the transfer market to strengthen and freshen up the squad for next year. Several big-name players are already linked to Sundowns, among them Lebo Manyama and Aubrey Ngoma (both Cape Town City), as well as Rivaldo Coetzee, the rising Ajax Cape Town superstar central defender, but Mosimane wouldn’t be drawn into discussing the future just yet.
Downs must now collect maximum points against Highlands Park in their final match to ensure they end as runners-up and get another chance to play Champions League football next year.
Hunt, besides breaking the duck for Wits, has now joined the illustrious band of coaches, including Gordon Igesund and Ted Dumitru, who have won the championship four times — and that after scoring a hat-trick in successive years with his former club, SuperSport United.
Mosimane added: “You know, we have got seven titles, so it’s about football, it’s like that. That’s how Barcelona or Real Madrid will feel in the last match as well. One of them will be feeling like that after the last match [of the La Liga season]. But it’s okay.”
For the astute Hunt, the success ended four painful years of near misses. His Students never seemed good enough to pass their ultimate examination, as both Kaizer Chiefs and Sundowns dominated the domestic championship.
“When I arrived at Milpark, I looked at the squad we had and, quite honestly, the team was not good enough,” admitted Hunt, who was recruited from SuperSport by billionaire Brian Joffe to turn the fortunes of the team around.
“I knew that we needed to overhaul the team, change how we were going to play, change the mentality, change how we wanted to do things, and we came fourth, then third and, last year, second. But, in truth, for a team like Wits to win the championship is unbelievable.”
It no longer seems to matter that Hunt was severely criticised during the season, especially when he bombed out of both pan-African club competitions, much to the chagrin of fellow competitors, notably Mosimane, who accused him of snubbing Africa.
In truth, it all started going pear-shaped for Sundowns when they lost 1-0 to Wits at Milpark and, despite having the advantage of several games in hand, it came to nought when Platinum Stars and Baroka both held Downs to shocking 2-2 stalemates at home.
In between, Sundowns failed to break down a game St George side in a Confederation of African Football Champions League group fixture, which seemed to indicate that the reigning African champions were getting exhausted by a punishing domestic and continental schedule.
But Mosimane refused to blame his players and commended them for their spirit, to fight even when the cause looked hopeless.
“If we finish second, it’s important for the team to play Champions League and that’s why I came to Sundowns. For you to compete in the Champions League, you have to finish first or second” was how Mosimane consoled himself.