Being at SuperSport United must feel like living through a fever dream. In the past two years, the team has bounced from title challenger to relegation candidate. No other Premier Soccer League side has swung so violently between the two poles in that time.
Now, as this season approaches its conclusion, a new battle is emerging: the fight against mediocrity.
“It’s a bad season,” Reneilwe Letsholonyane lamented this week, on the sidelines of the team’s Megawatt Park training ground. “Since I’ve been here, every year we’ve reached a final or won a trophy. This season we haven’t won anything — MTN8, Telkom Knockout, we’re out. Now what’s left? The league. We’re fighting to compete for it.”
His admission is an insight into the highly competitive mind-set of an experienced winner like Yeye (as he’s known). It’s only been a few months since Matsatsantsa nearly plunged into the National First Division. That campaign saw Eric Tinkler falling out of favour and being ushered towards the exit. This year, they have sat comfortably in a top-eight spot — rising to fourth after beating Orlando Pirates on Wednesday night. Their stated goal now is at least a top-six finish.
Yeye said: “In terms of an overall season it’s bad because we have nothing to show. We can’t say it’s good if we’ve got nothing to show.”
The win-or-nothing rhetoric is a reverberation of Supersport chief executive Stan Matthews’ demand for improvement. Similarly vexed by the lack of silverware, he has threatened that all indiscretions will be remembered at contract talk time if Supersport achieve anything less than top six. Should they fail, the “new broom” will replace any dreams of a new contract.
With games dwindling and key rivals finding the right gear at the right time, a magic resurrection needs to happen now. This will require that the team understands how things got to this point.
Coach Kaitano Tembo, who got the full-time reins after cleaning up Tinkler’s mess, seems split about the answer. On the one hand, he presents a team that has been stifled by injuries to key players such as Dean Furman and Evans Rusike, and that has also let itself down with unequal performances.
“My first year has been inconsistent, I would say,” he said a few minutes before the Monday training began. “We started very well, we reached the MTN8 final, which we lost. We were also consistent in getting results, but lost our most influential players and our team was a bit disjointed.”
On the other hand, when asked whether he’s done enough to secure himself another year in charge, Tembo pointed out that SuperSport was always going to be a team in transition — implying that a title challenge was never front of mind. He rattled off the names of the youngsters he’s given a chance to: Jamie Webber, Sipho Mbule and Kamohelo Mahlatsi.
There are other players who also promise to come good soon, he said. Think Luke le Roux and Luke Fleurs.
The transition narrative has been strengthened by the recruitment of Mxolisi Macuphu and George Lebese until the end of the season. The two have had an immediate effect and could be key if United are going to make a last bid for the league.
On their temporary status with the club, Tembo was happy to flip-flop about his long-term musings. “I think it’s key to really focus on where we are at the moment,” he said. “It’s really important because we need to try and finish strong. We are happy to have these players and we take it game by game.”
As for Lebese, the switch is an opportunity to revive his career after a nightmare few months at Mamelodi Sundowns. Matthews speaks highly of the midfielder and it seems he was specifically identified as a player who could give the squad an adrenaline shot.
Speaking ahead of Monday training, Lebese agreed that the club is not where they’re supposed to be and talked up his potential role in helping to launch that unlikely push for top spot.
“It’s something that I’ve said before, that I need to do everything that I can and work very hard so that I can repay that faith shown in me by the club and the chairman.”
With the pieces falling into place, Tembo will have no excuses should he have nothing to show for a season’s efforts.
Much promises to change when it concludes, especially if the chief executive has his way. Failure will mean that Tembo, and many others, will have a fight on their hands to survive an overhaul.