Lesley Manyathela will always be one of South African football’s biggest what-ifs. His death, which left a nation devastated, cruelly put an end to a career that had already produced so much and promised infinitely more. Despite being denied his 22nd birthday, “Slow Poison” accrued almost 50 goals for Orlando Pirates — 18 of which won him the golden boot in 2003, the year he died in a car crash.
In his honour, the award was henceforth named the Lesley Manyathela Golden Boot. It’s a title that goes beyond remembrance; it symbolises the calibre we expect from those who would lay claim to being the most lethal finisher in the league.
If we’re dealing with pure numbers, the PSL has fallen rather short of that standard. Particularly in recent years, competition for the award has been woefully lacking while as few as 10 strikes have been good enough to seal it on some occasions.
This year that, mercifully, looks to change. Having just passed the halfway mark, we have multiple contenders who can realistically compete for the honour and are keeping in touch with a healthy pace.
Surging to the front of the pack is Gabadinho Mhango. The Malawian is now the favourite to rewrite the tragic irony that no Buccaneer has earned the honour since the award was named after their famous No 19.
Sitting on 12, Mhango’s game has been galvanised since the appointment of coach Josef Zinnbauer.
In the past five games he’s played for the German, he’s managed to net an impressive eight times; a run that included an incisive hat-trick against Polokwane City at the beginning of January. At that fire rate, calculable at a goal every 93 minutes, murmurs are beginning to get thrown around that he might even go for the PSL record of 25, achieved by Collins Mbesuma in 2005.
“It’s possible to do that, we just have to continue working as a team,” he said last week. “I just need extra training for myself. Actually, when I’m home, I do some finishing with my younger brother.
“So, I think it’s something that can help me achieve that.”
Thanks to the influx of goals, Pirates have emphatically sailed out of the rut they’ve been stuck in for much of the season. Until Zinnbauer’s high press is figured out — which has allowed defensive solidity while not compromising attacking impetus — there’s no reason they should dry up either.
Which is not to say Mhango has a clear path to the golden boot. Especially not if Samir Nurkovic knocks them in at anywhere close to the rate he began the season with.
Signed from a Slovakian second division club no one had ever heard of, the Serbian had a fierce landing in South Africa; quickly bullying defenders and establishing himself as the best striker Kaizer Chiefs have had in years. For context, a typical near-post flick off a corner against Black Leopards last weekend was his 10th league strike; the first player in yellow and gold to reach double figures since Bernard Parker in 2014.
An almost complete target man, he has played the figurehead as Chiefs have at times threatened to run away with the PSL. Should they end up doing so on the back of Nurkovic’s exploits, he has the chance to scoop a rare league and golden boot double; a feat that, peculiarly, only Manyathela, Mbesuma and Percy Tau have achieved.
Also on 10 goals is AmaZulu’s Bonginkosi Ntuli. Despite sitting at the bottom of the log, the Sundowns loanee has been helped along by the fact that no one else at the club knows how to shoot. Quite ridiculously there has been one whole goal the entire campaign that was not scored by him. Should that pattern continue he could well end up with the wonderful distinction of being the first to get relegated with the golden boot in his hands.
There there’s a handful of hopefuls who could always sneak in. Golden Arrows’ Knox Mutizwa and Peter Shalulile of Highlands Park are both on nine: the latter in particular offers a constant and bothersome threat. Kermit Erasmus is perhaps unfortunate to only have eight because his well-behaved consistency has coincided with a drop in performance from his Cape Town City teammates. On the same number, Bradley Grobler might wish SuperSport United could play Chiefs every week based on the successful plunder he always earns in Soweto. Another three players have seven — including the elastic but underplayed Leonardo Castro with a rate of a notch every 95 minutes.
If we’re being conservative, at least four of the players mentioned in this article should finish on double figures. This is a happy ending after years of profligacy.
Whether that has any great effect on South African football — domestically or in the national team — is impossible to know at this point. Nor is that the primary concern right now: we finally have a golden boot race that is genuinely interesting and could contribute milestones to its proud legacy. Plus, it’s a heck of a lot of fun to watch.