The players in the dressing room were surprisingly disappointed after their 1-1 scoreline against Orlando Pirates last weekend, says Highlands Park coach Owen da Gama. After leading for much of the game, only to be pegged back by a 62nd-minute Justin Shonga penalty, some felt it was two points dropped instead of one earned.
Not their coach. Da Gama has spent too many decades in the game notto appreciate the enormity of the result. A draw in the first game back in the top flight against a giant in South African football’s spiritual home? He’ll take it.
“It was about breaking the ice,” he says. “And what a game to break the ice, you know, what a game; against a team that finished second on the log. They are championship contenders. It was a great game to measure where we are.”
It will surely be a surreal first few weeks in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) for his players. Rarely do we see a National First Division team dominate a season with as muchauthority as they did last year. Affectionately known as the Lions of the North, the Johannesburg-based team blew any opposition off the pitch and had essentially secured promotion by mid-February when they went eight points ahead of second-place Jomo Cosmos. Their reward? Starting a new season at the bottom of the food chain.
Seven players kicking off against the Buccaneers were making their debuts in the league, another two did so coming off the bench. Da Gama recalls what he told them as they were about to run on to the pitch.
“I basically said to them that this must be a dream come true — to play in the PSL. And that they must grab this with both hands, make the most of it. Most importantly, go out and enjoy it.”
Da Gama has had to adapt to the new environment. He has the experience to do so, having spent more than 10 years as a manager in the division. Working in and around the Bafana Bafana coaching staff has also given him an understanding of how sides approach their matches, and how they modify this depending on the calibreof opposition.
The method of scouting will also change drastically. Given that thebulk of first division matches aren’t broadcast, the Highlands coaching staff became accustomed to not relying on video research. Now that the resource is available, they have hired two tactical analysts to help with the pre-match preparations.
The backroom additions join a host of new players who have trickled in since January. As a professional, Da Gama would never admit it but the team have evidently been preparing for top-flight life since that destination became apparent. Now that they’re here, it’s time to fulfil their ambition — to give the established teams a fight.
“We have come in and we have said we want to be as competitive as possible,” says Da Gama. “There’s no doubt about it;that’s our goal.”
Highlands’ last PSL experience ended lamely. Coming through the play-offs meant they had little time to prepare for the season. They also underestimated the competition’s intensity. There’s no danger of that this year; Da Gama knows how to prevent that.
They could always go down. But whatever they do this season it will be done all-out.