Ertuğral has the courage to keep Maritzburg in top flight

It’s surprising just how little noise accompanied the arrival of Muhsin Ertuğral at Maritzburg United. Bar the announcement articles, no one seemed too eager to lift their heads from their Christmas slumber.

To many, this is a ship that has already taken on too much water; who stands at the helm is purely incidental at this point even if the new skipper is a mainstay of the Premier Soccer league (PSL). For the people of Pietermaritzburg, however, this is the coach that is tasked with keeping them afloat. The ambitions of last season have long been banished and attentions are completely focused on staying in the PSL.

“How massive is it? The team has really had their back to the wall but in the end there are four or five teams that are down there,” Ertuğral told the Mail & Guardian.

“I think they need to be a little bit more calm in the approach so as not to get too much in the boys’ heads and find the confidence again as quick as possible.

“We did not have preseason so your back is against the wall and you need to find a possibility to get out.”

Since taking over late in December, Ertuğral hasn’t held back from describing the shambles he’s inherited. He understands that the hard work begins immediately and even then it could be for nought unless the current trajectory is bucked.

More than anything, he’s desperate to sort out what has been a pathetic frontline. In the 14 games prior to his arrival, the Team of Choice could only find the back of the net five times — a return that earned them one win. Even the record-breaking Fadlu Davids could not survive such a cringeworthy tally.

Davids himself began the campaign backed into a corner after the club’s management failed to replenish a drained squad. Lebohang Maboe’s inevitable move to a big club hit hard and broad. His displays in a Sundowns shirt this season have been a haunting reminder of the creative instinct no longer present at the Harry Gwala Stadium.

The experience of Bevan Fransman walking out the door certainly didn’t help matters.

“Scoring five goals shows [there]is a very big problem. It’s the entries that we’re looking into — I think we had triple the entries than in previous games,” Ertuğral said, referring to his debut loss against Golden Arrows at the weekend. “The entries are there and what we need to look into in my opinion is the finishing form. We need to look into coming into the box with numbers and finding the right entries.”

He would never admit it, but it takes some bravery to even attempt the job Ertuğral has taken on. That game against Abafana Bes’thende was significant not only because it was a first for him but also for opposite number Steve Komphela at his new club. Despite Bloemfontein Celtic’s celebrated start to the season, the PSL’s favourite philosopher cancelled his stint early because of complaints about inadequate support from management. His resignation letter was disturbing, detailing how he was forced to handle menial tasks himself, including arranging player transport and even fixing the lawn mower.

It’s indicative of a broader ­siphoning of coach power this ­season. It’s not as though they’ve ever had it easy in this country, but there’s a case to be made that the past few months have been particularly cruel to club ­management. 

Damningly, Komphela and Davids are part of a group of seven coaches who left their posts in December alone. The turnover may go some way towards explaining the appointment of Ertuğral. In this time of change and fads, he comes as someone with more than a decade of experience in the league and has won too many trophies to list. As much as leaders such as Davids and Luc Eymael broke new ground, this is someone proven in the gritty side of the game — the type of ­pragmatic strategist who could find a way to get that ship above water once more. 

Kaizer Chiefs have ­possibly done the same by replacing the ­genteel Giovanni Solinas with Ernst Middendorp. The other consideration is that, despite failing to avoid relegation with Ajax Cape Town in 2018, Ertuğral stuck around as long as he could in the National First Division. Frankly, Maritzburg could well be looking that far ahead and appointed someone that would be willing to take on a long-term project at square one again.

Indeed, much of the Turk’s language revolves around building something in his own image: “Last year they had it and this year it seems to be a bit lost. You cannot fix it in five days, it is not possible. The way the boys are responding to it you can see a glimpse. But now the point is not putting too much information in their heads and put them into a situation where they doubt themselves. The quality is there, that I do not doubt at all.”

Improvement is an objective hope: the sooner this team becomes more him and less a mobile wreck, the better for anyone who has been forced to watch a United game this season.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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