/ 20 September 2018

Komphela has found his home

Steve Komphela’s return to his Free State roots has been a success so far
Steve Komphela’s return to his Free State roots has been a success so far, with Bloemfontein Celtic tied at the top of the table. (Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

“There shall never be outcome without process.” — Steve Komphela

Towards the end of last season, visits to Kaizer Chiefs’ training ground in Naturena, Johannesburg, began to resemble a perverse reality show.

Ears stood pricked as answers were demanded from coach Steve Komphela about the latest weekend disappointment. What we got instead were parables, nonsensical metaphors and comparisons to livestock. Theories about Mageu satisfied no one. Until, one day, the man who had become a pariah to so many wasn’t there anymore.

Jump forward four months and no one could script a more stark juxtaposition. On Monday, the Premier Soccer League awarded him the coach of the month gong for Bloemfontein Celtic’s almost-perfect start to the season that sees them tied at the top of the table with Bidvest Wits. Komphela has restored the hope and zeal that was almost sucked from this club after a bitter relegation battle and sour reports of the club being sold. Most poignantly, considering his recent history, the Free State native enjoys the full backing of the supporters.

“When Steve was appointed we were very happy,” Mabena Pule, chairperson of the Supporters Interim Committee, says. “We would always protect one of our own.”

To understand why thousands in green-and-white are so enthused by Komphela’s appointment is to comprehend the significance of football in Bloemfontein. It’s everything in the city; Siwelele are widely regarded as being able to call on one of the most ferocious 12th players. Their huge supporter base lives every moment on the field.

That was all put into jeopardy and the future of the club was plunged into uncertainty after Max Tshabalala put it up for sale in February.

Relegation was avoided but soon after the players downed boots when their salaries weren’t paid. Rumours over the identity of the new buyer escalated to noxious heights —at one point it was speculated that the club would even move out of the judicial capital. Boycott blueprints were being drawn up in earnest. That Komphela would plunge himself into that mess at a seminal point in his career is a fact that is escaping no one.

As Pule says: “For him agreeing to come to Bloemfontein Celtic, it shows that he will not run away whenever there is a problem. He has shown us that he is a man that likes a challenge and will take any difficulties he might be facing head-on. By him agreeing, it makes us think that he is the guy that understands our problems and wants to go through them with us.”

At such a club, Pule’s role of acting as a spokesperson for the support base and as mediator for interactions with management is a vital one. He reveals that the club has asked them to be patient while the particulars of the sale are finalised —reportedly to Free State businessperson Sinki Leshabane. Pule and the thousands he represents are happy to oblige, just as long as the results keep coming and the relegation zone is religiously dodged.

Komphela is the key variable in this entire equation; he has filled stadiums and bought the boardroom time to handle their affairs accordingly. It’s not hard to see his influence on the pitch that has bred this investment. Siwelele has in the past given itself a reputation as a team that would crumble when the ball doesn’t bounce in their favour; trip and fall down when they do have the best of it.

Not so this season. Their resilience held fast for 70 minutes after Bongani Sam got an unlikely winner in the opening 20 against Orlando Pirates. Against Amakhosi, they refused to accept defeat, coming back from two goals late on to snatch away what looked like a certain first league victory for Giovanni Solinas.

The defensive heroics were repeated last weekend. Tshegofatso Mabaso netted in the 10th minute, signalling the Black Leopards’ storm. No one would have predicted they could protect such a thin lead at the predatory Thohoyandou Stadium but that’s precisely what they did. Thehard-fought three points out of Limpopo werenot enough for Komphela.

“We won and the coach was fighting us,” recalls centre back Alfred Ndengane. “We said, ‘Coach we won the game so what do you want?’ He said we need to play smart; pick moments when to do things and when not to do things. That’s something that you learn: after scoring you need to concentrate, before scoring we need to concentrate. All those things are now in our mind, so we know what to do and when to do it.”

Komphela’s demands are so far resonating with Celtic’s young squad in way that ceased during his last months at Chiefs. The Jo’burg stars simply didn’t pitch up for him too often —even when the Nedbank Cup final was in sight they decided to forego effort and co-ordination and were swept aside by Free State Stars.

As much as Komphela’s newclub has embraced himfor his performances, he spoke this week of being indebted to everyone around it for entertaining his philosophies and trusting in them to flourish.

“The world has changed, whether we like it or not,” the coach says. “You don’t change things, you cannot change things. The benefit is that we have Bloemfontein supporters that are so passionate, they are something else. They have given an identity of how to support a football club. There is a difference between a fan and a supporter. Bloemfontein supporters —I don’t say Bloemfontein fans —those guys support the team, they go there and sing their lungs out.”

Asked what is expected of the team, Pule refused to give any demands. He also says he wants no promises from Komphela. There’s no belief in the supernatural down in Bloemfontein. Instead, there’s the realist understanding that this is a team being built for the future. For many, Komphela is the shepherd that promises to guide them there.