Kaitano Tembo: SuperSport United is not here to make up the numbers

Fans in good spirits in a match between SuperSport United and Baroka FC. Mantsatsantsa a Pitori survived possible relegation and is aiming to bag more trophies. (Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Fans in good spirits in a match between SuperSport United and Baroka FC. Mantsatsantsa a Pitori survived possible relegation and is aiming to bag more trophies. (Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Coach Kaitano Tembo remains defiant when he recalls SuperSport United’s performance last season. Onlookers have scorned without looking at the whole picture, he insists.

Looking through the lens of retrospective results, it’s hard to disagree: MTN8 champions, a top eight league finish to guarantee premier league participation this year and a CAF Confederations Cup final appearance. These are not the trappings of a failed outfit.

But we know that those accolades only begin to write the full match report. Matsatsantsa a Pitori swam uncomfortably in the exhausting mire of the relegation threat until Eric Tinkler could tread water no longer. Tembo didn’t exactly set fire to their fears when he stepped in as caretaker coach but his haul of 10 points from a possible 21 was sufficient to prolong PSL participation.

Now that it’s secured, Tembo is aiming to turn the three-time champions into a league force once more.

“For us, a successful season will be finishing in the top two, top three, or even to win the league,” he says. “If we can manage to win a cup here or there, then that will be okay but I think we will need to start focusing a little bit more on the league and try and fight to finish in a respectable position and not just be a participant. That’s the direction we want to take as a club.”

It’s assumed that Tembo will remain in charge. The team has dilly-dallied on stabilising the coach’s rocking chair right up until the eve of the season’s kick-off. Stuart Baxter, Luc Eymael and Steve Komphela, among others, have had their names thrown about in the past two months but none ever looked close to picking up a pen and signing.

No compromise: Kaitano Tembo will not settle for anything but a top position in the league

You would think SuperSport would want to give a full preseason to a new coach or make their confidence in Tembo publicly known, if that’s the route they intend to travel.

The former Zimbabwe international is seemingly unperturbed by what chief executive Stanley Matthews and company are plotting in the boardroom. Instead, he has gone about prepping the side for their coming battles in a professional manner.

“Preseason has gone really well,” he says. “We’ve worked on the players’ physicality and our playing style. We’ve improved where we need to improve. In terms of signing players, we’ve brought in James Keene, who brings a different dimension to our attack. [He’s] strong, holds the ball. We can play him as a target man as well.

“In terms of our defence, we’re a little bit short at centre-back, so we brought in experience in Bongani Khumalo, whom we know, and he knows the culture of the club. It will give us steel in that department.”

Tembo has been in the club’s structures since he retired from there in 2006. He might not be as glossy as Eymael but he does seem to have the dressing room.

Captain Dean Furman has, since March, taken every opportunity, every presser and interview, to emphasise that hanging around or below mid-table is not befitting of a team of such stature. It’s an attitude Tembo will no doubt welcome if he is serious about building a team of title contenders.

“I’m a footballer; I want to win,” Furman said this week. “I’m here to win tournaments. When I first sat down with Stan Matthews he said: ‘Come to SuperSport and let’s win things.’ In my three seasons here we’ve been in five cup finals and lifted trophies on three occasions.

“We don’t see ourselves as underdogs. We have huge expectations; we don’t see ourselves as underdogs when playing anyone.”

Time to step up

Baroka FC chief executive Morgan Mammila, like Tembo, is not interested in fooling around with anybody else’s measuring stick. He and his side were staring at the prospect of a drop for much of the season but he would prefer to focus on recent progress.

The year before, Bakgaga somehow retained their PSL spot in the survival playoff, overcoming Stellenbosch FC and Limpopo rivals Black Leopards. Finishing a spot higher this term is a step in the right direction.

“From the playoffs, we managed to come back to position 15. Now we’re in position 14,” Mammila said. “For us, we’re going up; we’re not going down. From 28 points to 34 points. For us, it’s an achievement but other people don’t see it that way. Even this season, if we go to 44 points then it will be an achievement because it means we’re not going down.”

There’s a sense that Baroka are done with playing the survival game. It’s been an extensive teething period and now it’s time to act as if they belong.

Aiding them in that mission will be a host of new players. Young Kaizer Chiefs striker Emmanuel Letlotlo has been given a year on loan to prove he belongs at Naturena, and former Amakhosi player David Zulu will assist him in the attacking ranks.

Joining them will be three PSL newcomers from outside the country and six First Division players.

How new coach Wedson Nyirenda handles his bulky new squad will be fascinating to watch. Getting them to gel quickly will be vital to fulfilling his boss’s vision of improvement.

“From where I’m standing there are more positives compared with last season,” Mammila said of the team’s preseason. “You can’t say much; the first match will judge. But we’re up there compared with last season. I’m happy there’s more positives. We’ve upped our game on most of the elements that were missing last season.”

Last season was so tight that a different set of results on the last day could have seen Baroka finish in the top eight. SuperSport only did it because Ajax were forced to surrender three points. After the first two positions, the point differences begin to look incredibly dense — meaning the rungs are there to ascend the ladder.

That little extra preparation or game-time effort may be enough to shoot for a lofty league position.

SuperSport United travel to the Mother City to take on Cape Town City at 6pm on Saturday, and Baroka’s first chance to impress will be in KwaZulu-Natal, where they face AmaZulu at 8.15pm, also on Saturday

Luke Feltham

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