/ 25 January 2019

Shakes’ return starts here

Former Bafana Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba is making a comeback of sorts
Former Bafana Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba is making a comeback of sorts, but his football future hinges on whether he can keep his offensive comments to himself. (Gordon Harnols/AFP/Getty Images)

Shakes Mashaba will never admit it, but he’s on the first step of his journey back to the top. At least that’s what we can infer from his career choices.

After a few of years in football’s equivalent of reality TV, the former Bafana Bafana coach is back in the pro leagues — if only barely. At the beginning of this month he took the head position at Witbank Spurs, a club scraping a living at the bottom of the national first division (NFD).

Appointed until the end of the season, he will in that time need to figure out how to reverse the decline the team has been in since finishing four points shy of the promotion play-offs last season. Turns out it’s something as rudimentary as fitness levels that needs to be addressed.

“What we did just before we started with the first game is we made everyone aware of the situation at the club,” he said. “We agreed that we have to work a little bit hard, meaning that we’ve got to up our level of fitness. Things like tactics need a level of fitness so that you are able to work as a team. That’s is what we’re working on most of the time.”

Throw in a few sessions on man-marking and forward runs with set-piece routines and you have a product that’s good for six points. Mashaba’s two wins in his opening three games have changed the hopes of Spurs. Such is life at the bottom of a competitive log such as the NFD.

But guiding a second-tier club from Mpumalanga to safety hardly seems like a footnote in the CV of a manager who can list the experience of multiple national team gigs.

So how did Mashaba get here? The sceptic would suggest that his latest sacking from Bafana made him a rather hard sell. (His first stint with the side also ended with the axe — swung after he struck up fractious relationships with key players Benni McCarthy and Mark Fish.) The South African Football Association (Safa) released the former South African coach of the year in 2016 after repeated public displays of disrespect and a disciplinary hearing found him guilty of gross disrespect. But it’s worth mentioning that Africa’s perennial underachievers weren’t exactly setting the world alight on the field either.

Whatever the case, we haven’t seen Mashaba in the spotlight since. His past two years have instead been spent as one of the head coaches/selectors for the Nedbank Ke Yona challenge — the outreach TV show that holds auditions of sorts for young players. At the competition’s press conferences he maintained his outspoken nature. In September, for instance, he told the Mail & Guardian how he believed Orlando Pirates coach Milutin Sredojevic had failed to protect Thamsanqa Gabuza in his row with the Ghost.

Asked whether the manner in which he left the national team affected his future job prospects, Mashaba said: “I will not comment on that because it has not been put clearly by Safa: Why did they sideline me? Until such time they come out clearly, I’ll be able to divulge and say, ‘This is what happened’ and ‘The course of their action affected one-two-three-four’.”

With regard to whether we could be seeing Shakes in the Premier Soccer League again, he was more frank. “I’m available for anything, I’m available for anyone. Anyone who needs my help, I’d be available. For now I’m with Witbank Spurs and I’m focusing on them, focusing on helping them.”

Despite his return to professional football, he found his name more often mentioned this week in other headlines. Quotes attributed to him slammed current Bafana coach Stuart Baxter for “favouritism” after the Scot recently brought outcast Thulani Serero back into the fold.

Given the average performances of the team, Mashaba’s fallings-out and his aforementioned ability to let his mouth say what his brain is thinking, it made sense that he was suspected of making the statement.

“No, no, no that’s nonsense,” he says. “I like Serero. He did very well in the game against Senegal; he scored a beautiful goal. There’s no coach that doesn’t like a player like that one. Every coach has the kind of players that he likes in his plan.”

Any hopes we had that Mashaba would be a mouthpiece for our frustration at delayed Africa Cup of Nations qualification are thus dashed.

Then again it may usher in an era of a calmer coach who is not as willing to shoot at his colleagues as we may have thought.

It’s all speculation, but what’s fact is that Mashaba has a job to do now. If he does it, perhaps we will see step two of his comeback tour executed sooner than we think.