Before the new season kicked off, coach Owen da Gama provided an amusing description of Highlands Park’s first year back in the top flight, saying: “We paid our school fees.”
This time out — now that the lessons of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) have been absorbed — would be different, he went on to say. This time, there’s no excuse not to be No 1.
Of course, most of us dismissed the sentiment as a standard media banality; something coaches feel they’re obliged to say. Fast-forward two months, however, and it rings close to the truth.
The Lions of North are placed fifth in the league and have a chance of lifting their first trophy of the modern era. The team are undefeated since their late slip to Kaizer Chiefs in the opening game, and have proved they are comfortable in the deep end — and can challenge any team in the division. Now SuperSport United are all that stand in the way of Highlands fulfilling their dreams in the MTN8 final on Saturday.
“As a player you have to win something. To me it’s a dream come true,” midfielder Mothobi Mvala said from the club’s training base at Balfour Park this week. “To be in the final with the team … I’ve been here since 2013; this is the first time being in a final. This is a special moment for us.
“Even just playing makes me happy and I hope that I’m going to start on the field. If we win it then …” he paused as he contemplated the possibility … “it’s going into my history book as the best moment in my life”.
Highlands Park’s squad is packed with players like Mvala; players who endured the drudgery of the First Division and the anxiety of promotion. For them, the MTN8 is the treasure chest at the end of an arduous voyage.
Their opponents are at the opposite end of the spectrum. SuperSport are serial trophy winners and have made history by reaching their third consecutive final. There’s no question who enters this one as favourites.
“To beat SuperSport United is just teamwork,” leading scorer Peter Shalulile said when asked how his side intend to wrestle the cup from the trophy-greedy Tshwane side. “[It’s about] not giving up. It won’t be easy. They have won this thing, I don’t know how many times. For us we just need to work hard and take the chances we create.”
Shalulile will likely find himself on the end of most chances that do arrive. The Namibian continued his excellent start to the campaign by netting his sixth league goal in the 2-0 defeat of fellow upstarts Polokwane City last time out. His ruthless skinning of his defender on the edge of the box before placing a top-corner finish typified the goal-scoring instinct that has sparked a genuine golden boot race.
At these early stages Highlands look to have bucked a trend that has haunted the PSL’s less prestigious sides in recent years. Those that have reached beyond their station have tended to come crashing back down sooner rather than later. Maritzburg United and Free State Stars are perfect examples. Yet, somehow, Da Gama’s men look like improving on last season’s seventh-place finish.
Shalulile has a simple answer for why this might be. “It’s the foundation. We put God first — we are a God-fearing team.”
Indeed, much of the narrative that the squad portrays is couched in religious terms. It’s easy to see why. Each training session at the well-kept Balfour pitches begins with a team huddle before they are led in prayer. The routine fosters faith in the process as much as it does in a higher power.
“I think our preparations will pay off,” said Lucky Mokoena, who is likely to run out with the captain’s armband on Saturday. “We’re a humble team so we are trying our best to match our best level and reach our objective.
“I think football is simple. As a footballer, you know what is needed; what the coach needs. We have to go out there and do the job as always,” he said. “The game depends on what God wants. If he says we will win it, we will win it; if he says we will lose it, then we will lose it.”
You get the sense from watching the team muck about before warm-ups that modesty is part of the culture here. It’s a collective mindset that has been bred as much as it is a consequence of a group of people coming good together. With the First Division still so fresh in their memory, winning a trophy would be a major departure from recent objectives.
For one member of the squad, however, it will feel as natural as drinking water. Reneilwe Letsholonyane, the man we have affectionately called “Yeye” for many a year, has won everything you can think of. A week ago, Highlands Park confirmed he had signed up for another ride around the block. Now, coincidentally, the 37-year-old is in line to make his debut against the club he just left.
“For as long as I’m playing football, I want to win. I think I was born a winner,” Yeye said, half-jokingly. “I want to win things: games, trophies.”
Given his lengthy and distinguished playing career, eyes automatically turn to the former Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana Bafana midfielder, with the assumption that he will help to guide his talented but inexperienced new teammates.
“I’m happy to be part of this young group that are willing to work hard; that are willing to learn everyday. I would like to help teach these youngsters. Not by saying, but by leading by example,” Yeye said.
“These boys have worked so hard to be where they are; to be playing in the cup final. I think it’s their time and their moment that they’ve worked so hard for.”
At their cloud-covered training session on Tuesday, other members of the squad hinted that Yeye had been tapped by Da Gama to share his insights on SuperSport throughout the week. Given their opponents’ experience at this stage, every observation will be most welcome.
We know this team has a strong talent built on a vigorous work ethic; what we don’t know is how they will perform under the big lights. Figuring out the answer for themselves will determine whether dreams come true or are erased in Orlando on Saturday.