It took a little more than two weeks for the shroud of optimism wrapped around Orlando Stadium to give way to murky, ambiguous clouds.
After winning at their home ground on the first day of the season, Pirates went on to lose their next three games — including being given a 3-0 hiding by SuperSport United. But it’s what occurred off the field that was the real blow.
Late on Friday evening, the club announced on its website that manager Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic had stepped down after a productive two years in charge.
Why he would take such drastic action in this arbitrary moment has been the subject of much debate over the past week. The noise has only been turned up by subsequent events: three days after Sredojevic promised he had left to look after his ill mother in Serbia, Egyptian giants Zamalek revealed that his signature had been secured. The morning before that he had faced the ignominy of appearing on the Sunday World front page for alleged sexual misconduct charges.
Shoved into this quagmire before they could take stock of what had happened, it was little surprise that the Buccaneers tumbled out of the MTN8 at the first hurdle.
What happens next will be intriguing. Losing an entrenched leader could easily be the death knell for most clubs’ ambitions. That it is not an automatic assumption in this case is testament to the team’s prescient long-term planning of its structures.
The immediate future now lies in the palms of Sredojevic’s assistant Rhulani Mokwena. There is little doubt he was being groomed to take the big job at Bucs one day. That day has come ahead of schedule but the hope is that it’s not too soon.
There is a strong belief in the Sea Robbers’ camp that it need not be. The 34-year-old has worked his way up the rungs of South African football, honing his ability under the guidance of stalwarts such as Steve Komphela and Pitso Mosimane.
Even from a distance it’s impossible not to sense his insatiable hunger for the game. Over the past two years Mokwena has regularly stood in for Sredojevic at press conferences and other promotional events. This has given the young coach a platform to demonstrate his obvious tactical acumen as he happily evaluates the nuances of past performances. (Or plays the occasional mind game — one recalls his potshots at Giovanni Solinas’s ability to surprise.)
This continued online, where Mokwena would regularly post analysis and discuss formations and setups on his now deleted Twitter account.
Arguably, no assistant coach in the country has ever been as successful at fashioning a public persona for himself and connecting with fans to the degree that Mokwena has.
That perception, however, has also been a contributing factor to much of the scepticism that has followed his Bucs stay. Sections of the Ghost — more often than not the keyboard warrior archetype — and even prying fans of other allegiances, have taken exception to Mokwena’s touchline gesticulation.
He’s the one who’s really in charge, they say; by the end of his reign Sredojevic was a mere figurehead. Indeed, one of the more absurd suggestions in the aftermath of the Serb’s resignation is that he fled to Egypt because he could no longer bear this upstart undermining his authority.
“I think there are a lot of conspiracy theories going around and a lot of psychological experts speaking about the relationship between myself and Micho and not knowing how close we really are and how affected I was also by the news,” Mokwena has since said. “It is unfortunate that his personal issues have been going on for quite some time and they were affecting him.”
Whatever the dynamic between the two coaches, there is little denying that it worked. Pirates were remarkably well drilled last season and played some of the best football in the country. Their eventual slip behind Sundowns in the standings was close and even had a tinge of misfortune to it.
A better explanation than dissent is that the Buccaneers have taken the deliberate strategy to endow their coaching staff with responsibility and the power to influence a game. This sounds logical but it doesn’t often play out that way in a country where the manager is usually the be all and end all of strategy, style and selection.
To that end, another young, promising coach in Fadlu Davids was recruited at the beginning of the year. In the dugout since then, Davids, Sredojevic and Mokwena have taken turns to jump on the sidelines and scream orders at their players. When not tagged in, the other two would generally sit and observe the game in quiet contemplation.
This emphasis on a coaching team is not limited to in-game benefits: it has insulated the club from the effects of Sredojevic’s resignation. Instead of the head coach packing up shop and leaving the club directionless, Pirates should be able to retain their core identity and still capitalise on the last two years. Mokwena and, to a lesser extent, Davids have, after all, been integral in plotting this ship’s course.
The first half of Tuesday’s 0-0 away game to AmaZulu was evidence of that. After only a day’s training under the new dispensation, the Sea Robbers put in a coherent performance that had Usuthu regularly on the backfoot. The second half may have been more disjointed but the primary goal was still accomplished: reverse the losing streak.
“A lot of positives,” Mokwena said in his post-match interview . “A point away from home [and] a clean sheet, which is important because we’ve conceded far too many goals over the last couple of matches. So there’s a lot more positives than negatives.“We are so proud of these players when [we] watch such a spirited performance, especially because it’s so easy to give up after such difficult results,” Mokwena said. In a difficult moment, they still put their heads up and put on their fighting boots and they gave their all for the badge. It’s unbelievable. It’s enormous credit. The Buccaneers must be proud of their players.”
It’s certainly going to be an interesting few months in Orlando. The manner of Sredojevic’s departure has left Mokwena with nowhere to hide from public pressure and scrutiny. Not that he would want to: the blossoming aficionado has spent the past decade preparing for this moment and will surely begin to relish the opportunity once the hullabaloo has died down.
Mokwena’s trajectory is also one that the rest of us should pay close attention to: how often do we see a young, local coach given such a big opportunity in the PSL?