The last time Bradley Grobler played in an MTN8 semi-final he left with a piece of Itumeleng Khune’s soul. South Africa’s No 1 could do nothing but bellow at the Chiefs’ defence for allowing the precise touches that preceded the emphatic shots that flew past him.
Three goals across the two legs captured the moment for Grobler. This was his time to prove he was worthy of being consistently feared by all in the land. A lethal continuation of his father Les’s legacy.
But, much like SuperSport more generally recently, he just could not find his footing as he tried to scale the staircase to elite status. Whether down to creeping injuries or inconsistency, it’s become a familiar refrain of his career.
Fast forward a year and once more we have reason to admire his ruthlessness. Both United and their frontman are looking commanding in the early stages of the season. With a semi-final against Sundowns this weekend, there’s scarcely a better time to be finding such form.
“I’ve finished every single training session, worked harder than I’ve worked for a long time,” Grobler says, insisting that a full, uninterrupted pre-season has been key in his and his club’s good start. “And it’s been good for me. I feel as good physically and mentally now as I have been in a really long time, you know. I think the coach’s confidence in me [has helped too]. Me and the coach have always had a really good relationship for as long as I’ve been at the club. I think it’s just a combination of everything coming together.”
After slipping up in the Tshwane Derby on the opening day, Matsa-tsantsa marked their intentions by cutting through Orlando Pirates and BidVest Wits 3-0 each, the latter earning progress to this semi-final. Securing a 1-1 draw against on-form Chiefs at FNB Stadium is a result coach Kaitano Tembo would have taken before kick-off.
Of course it could have been so much more last weekend. In a crazy 10 minutes for Grobler, in particular, he found an equaliser in the 83rd minute, won a penalty soon after and then proceeded to squander the chance to snatch what would have been an incredible turnaround. “Of course I was disappointed in myself and disappointed that I didn’t get the three points for the team but, at the same time, it’s part of football,” he admits.
The support structure, he says, won’t allow him to dwell on it for long. Grobler has formed the spear tip of an attacking unit that has evidently built up a rapport with one another and the fluidity is showing in their play. It’s Sipho Mbule and Evans Rusike after all that have forcefully pried open the space for their No 9 to poach. Thamsanqa Gabuza, meanwhile, has proved a useful option in support. Enjoying a successful redemption tour so far, it was his sumptuous pass that tied up Daniel Cardosa’s legs and earned United their equaliser at the weekend.
“I think when Gabuza came on at the weekend it kind of just changed everything,” Grobler agrees. “I think it’s options like that that we’ve got that will scare teams. SuperSport has done extremely well in hand-picking players that we feel will help the team and make the team challenge for trophies. We’ve started off well and I think we’re going to get better. There’s a lot of guys in the team with the right attitude and the right mindset.”
United players have always prided themselves in their notable ability to force their way into the trophy conversation. The club has been to the last two MTN8 finals, winning one, and had a hold on the Nedbank Cup for two years prior to that. They even went all the way to the CAF Confederation Cup final in their relegation-threatened 2017/2018 season.
“What’s nice and challenging to be a SuperSport player is the club always wants to compete for silverware,” Grobler says. “We’ve done that pretty much every year. You know, as long as I can think we’ve been in finals and winning trophies. So we always want to win and the club always brings in new players that are hungry to win and it doesn’t matter what cup it is, what tournament it is, we want to have that culture of winning and being in as many finals as we can. So I think it’s just the culture that that SuperSport brings out of players.”
Teammate Rusike describes the success as a product of the club’s DNA that regenerates itself in every new generation that emerges.
“We know the importance of having silverware in the cabinet,” the Zimbabwean says. “Every game we play like a cup final. We just want results, results, results. It’s in the DNA of SuperSport. Everyone here wants to do well — when you enter cups you have the mindset that everyone has done well before you.”
It won’t be easy to continue the legacy of winning in this year’s MTN8. Sunday’s opponents are a team that know a little something about success themselves.
Sundowns have had a mixed start to the season but remain unbeaten in South Africa and are arguably favourites to retain their Premier Soccer League (PSL) title. Having already beaten United 2-0 at the beginning of August, the Brazilians will also feel they have the momentum and advantage over two legs of knockout football.
“We need to look at our mistakes. What we did wrong, where we can improve now and we know what’s coming our way. They beat us but they don’t know how we’re going to come out for this game,” Rusike says.
SuperSport has long since proven that knockout football is a different beast to the day job of the PSL. With Grobler and his cohort in a greedy mood, they could well empathise that point once more this weekend.