Highlands Park keep the faith

Highlands Park began their Wednesday morning the same way they do every other training session: with a huddle and a prayer. Coach Owen Da Gama, as most local followers will know, is a man of faith. On this day, his exposed gold crucifix seemed to attract extra glints of sunshine as he discussed his preparations ahead of back-to-back games against Mamelodi Sundowns — in the Nedbank Cup quarterfinals on Saturday and then a league clash a week later.

These are times when a little divine intervention would be most welcome. With Kaizer Chiefs still dizzy from a stupefying loss to bottom-of-the-table AmaZulu — who only have one player seemingly capable of even spelling “goal” — it seems perfectly rational to think there’s someone out there toying with our football and perhaps looking out for the little guy.

Of course Da Gama’s grand vision has long been that the Lions of North no longer count themselves among the minnows and stragglers. To him, challenges such as the one this week must be used to sketch a bigger picture. “These are the types of games that allow us to grow, and learn and gain experience,” he said.

“You always want to play against the best: that’s how you grow as a team; that’s how players grow as players. This experience that we’re going to get against Sundowns is invaluable. You’ve seen what happened over the weekend: bottom of the log beating top.”

It goes without saying just how much Highlands have already grown under Da Gama’s tutelage. Less than two years ago the team was lifting the National First Division trophy; in the time since, they have managed to not only qualify for the MTN8, but also to make its final. (Although, thanks to a typical Bradley Grobler cup header they were denied first prize.)

The Nedbank Cup now presents an opportunity for another deep run. Chiefs have already been taken care of via a penalty shoot-out and to collect the Brazilians’ scalp will bode well for another appearance in a knockout final. But what would failing to overcome that last hurdle again may mean to the psyche of a young and ambitious squad?

“You saw what happened after we lost in the final,” Da Gama said. “We went through a bit of a slump because that had really been a climax to the players. To recover from that is not very easy. On one hand, it’s a hell of a motivation to make it to the final. On the other, it’s a hell of a loss if you don’t. From a final to go play a league game it’s a helluva anticlimax.

“After losing the final to Super-Sport, we told the boys, ‘Stand here and watch how they receive their trophy and medals, let’s not go to the dressing room. So you can learn what it means to get that winner’s medal and to celebrate.’ You could see it in their eyes, there was a lot of pain in the boys because on the day we created more opportunities: they played very well and got nothing from it. They felt their hard work was in vain but we gave them the reassurance that it was all about experience.”

It’s not possible to inoculate players from the harsh realities of football but the hope is that this set has learnt enough to ensure the club’s trajectory remains firmly upwards. To that end, Da Gama never has a shortage of praise for players such as Musa Nyatama, Bevan Fransman and Reneilwe Letsholonyane — old heads who bring a prized balance to the squad. The acquisition of the latter especially embodies this philosophy: someone who has won everything there is to win in the country and brings a brain that has very few rivals on the pitch.

Over two games, that natural shrewdness could prove invaluable. Highlands’ bonus objective will be to turn it into as much of a slog as possible to worsen Sundowns’ battle with fixture congestion. As is custom at this time of year, it’s hard to keep up with the number of games the PSL champions are playing so dragging this one into extra time might just be the perfect preparation for the league meeting. However it gets done, success over these two games may well signal another year of improvement for the Lions of the North.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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