/ 31 August 2018

Luke Fleurs, destined for Bafana?

Young blood: Luke Fleurs moved to Supersport United
Young blood: Luke Fleurs moved to Supersport United, where he says he’s aiming to get into the first team. (Delwyn Verasamy)

The heat is ratcheting up and training was tough but Luke Fleurs shrugs at the idea of jumping into the pool at Gigawatt Park in Sunninghill. It’s the ocean he craves; the sand under his feet. To swim here would be dreadfully insufficient and only embolden his longing for Clifton beach.

Along with the increased altitude, a halt in those beloved trips to the seaside has been his biggest difficulty in moving up to the Highveld. Considering the arduous journey in front of him, he’ll be grateful if those remain his biggest concerns.

SuperSport United have big ambitions for Fleurs and will push to draw the best out of him in the coming months. Matsatsantsa a Pitori completed negotiations with Ubuntu Cape Town in May to bring the highly rated 18-year-old to Gauteng in a long-term deal. He has begun as a squad player but the expectation is that he’ll exceed the hardened, but ageing, defenders the team can call upon.

Making his professional debut at only 17, the centre back enjoyed a strong season in the National First Division (NFD), ensuring the Mother City club retained their spot in the league. A surprise trip to the Nedbank Cup quarterfinals accompanied that 14th-place finish, a run that included tests against two Premier Soccer League (PSL) sides — Polokwane City and Free State Stars.

Fleurs is the first graduate of the Ubuntu Football Academy, a nonprofit that aims to provide mentorship to boys through the beautiful game to enable them to move to South Africa’s top flight. Although the Johannesburg sun might be tough to bear initially, it’s not the first occasion that’s called for acclimatisation.

“I was out of my comfort zone because I’m from Westridge, Mitchells Plain, and Ubuntu is in Fish Hoek,” Fleurs says of when he first moved to the Cape club at the age of 13.

“It was difficult because moving to be around a lot of white people was different for me. But I adapted and they actually became my family.”

Having initially scouted him when he was 12, Ubuntu chairperson Michael Jenkins has attentively watched as Fleurs has matured on and off the pitch. A striker at first, his creativity earned him the No 10 role before dropping deeper into midfield.

Eventually, he filled a need at centre back and it became clear his experience had left him perfectly equipped for the position in the modern game; two-footed, comfortable with the ball and an intelligent reader of play. Given the development model of the club, they would never have blocked the move once the PSL came calling.

“We would have loved to have hung on to Luke but the reason that we ventured into the NFD was to help young players make a name for themselves,” says Jenkins. “Our
feeling is that as soon as a young player is ready to move on it’s important that we let them go.

“We didn’t want to hold him back. SuperSport was very strong in the vision they had for Luke. They just really convinced us that they were the right place for Luke to develop.”

It’s late morning on Monday and the teenager has stayed behind after training to give some insights into how he’s settling into his new club. Most of the squad ascends the steps towards the dressing rooms, and a few have been told to put in some gym work — upper body strength today. Some leave some banter for Fleurs in their wake: “You must speak proper English, ja?”

Sessions like today’s are growing in importance. For the players on the outskirts on the first XI, they’re the only opportunity to impress coach Kaitano Tembo — to prove to him that all the advice has been taken on board and a berth on the pitch is warranted.

By contrast, it’s been a relaxed morning for most of the seniors. After a short recovery session, all those who played in the entertaining 2-2 draw against Kaizer Chiefs in the MTN8 can be seen relaxing around the pitch. Dean Furman sits against the fence watching; next to him, Bradley Grobler, scorer of both goals the day before, is in a jovial mood, sharing jokes with Clayton Daniels and the others who line the sidelines. Reneilwe Letsholonyane ambles away from the field with the determination of a Sunday stroll.

Across from goalkeeping coach Andre Arendse’s drills with the shot stoppers, however, Fleurs and many of his teammates are going all-out in a half-field practice match. Tembo watches keenly and every misplaced touch and ill-timed movement is scrutinised.

“NFD is crowded. Anywhere the ball is they just want to have the ball, they are always pressing,” Fleurs says. “When you play against PSL teams you have more freedom. But once you make a mistake in the PSL, it will cost you. Today I made a mistake in training and it cost me.

“For me as a young person it’s tough because I’m not playing and I’m making mistakes and I’m trying to get into the team so I have to limit my mistakes. Every time I make a mistake the staff is on my case. It’s not nice but I have to accept it.”

That afternoon he’ll have to put that criticism behind him. Still in matric, it’s exam season and there’s a paper coming up. Once the morning comes to an end, he rushes off so he can get home and get the books out.

Three-time league champions SuperSport United believe they belong at the top and will not shy away from bringing in those they believe can help the team get there.

As a youngster in this experienced, ambitious team, Fleurs must draw on those around him while simultaneously working to usurp them and claim a regular spot in the starting line-up conversation. Growing up as a striker, his role models at the back are limited. Now, however, he is playing alongside three who are worthy of emulation: Morgan Gould, Bongani Khumalo and Daniels.

“Right now, I’m just trying to gain as much experience as I can because I know I’m competing with Bafana centre backs. It’s always going to be tough for me to break into the starting XI but I just give my all.

“If the coach sees there’s something, I know he will give me a chance because why else would they bring me here? I know they believe in me.

“Dean and Morgan are always encouraging me. Last week, Dean came up to me and he told me what I need to do, what I need to work on. I took that in and today I tried to work on his advice.”

To add to his list of achievements, Fleurs was recently called up to the U20 South African set-up. He already has experience at national youth levels, becoming an integral player for the 13 matches he represented the U17s. His Amajimbos coach insists that getting into the SuperSport side will be only the beginning of his journey.

“I can put my head on the block,” says Molefi Ntseki resolutely. “With proper development, coaching and training, if he keeps his feet on the ground, then he will make it overseas.

“Even at 16, he could kick with both feet and was very intelligent, as young as he was. I even said to him he’s our next Nasief Morris. I was not surprised to see him play in the First Division or that he’s moved to SuperSport because he’s quality.

“His progression has been very fast. It’s down to his attitude; he’s a good boy, level-headed and has a lot of respect for people that he’s working with.”

It’s a sentiment that keeps cropping up — anyone who has worked with Fleurs is quick to praise his demeanour and character. Clearly affable, it’s easy to see a country getting behind him one day.

Of course, it takes a little bit more to make it in the PSL and earn your caps for Bafana. How far, and quickly, he makes it will be an intriguing subplot in the coming season or two for SuperSport.