The Hunt is on for ruthlessness

The beauty of football lies in the power of the moment; that the picture can change from black to white in a shade of a second. No one is as acutely aware of this concept as Kaizer Chiefs.

It was one Baroka header, after all, that undid an entire season’s work to spoil the title party back in September. A manager lost his job thanks to that one goal — setting the club on a new journey with Gavin Hunt. 

So far he, too, has suffered from the capricious nature of the sport, sliding to a hefty defeat against Sundowns and in the Soweto derby last weekend. 

There are few experiences more embarrassing than a three-nil loss in the derby, but more than anything Hunt will feel an overwhelming sense of frustration of moments not taken.

How different might things have been had Khama Billiat’s shot off his gorgeous, mazy run been a few centimetres lower? Or if Leonardo Castro hadn’t scuffed wide after being played into a perfect sight of the goal? 

The key difference in those hypotheticals is that the first reflected a chance created and the other a chance lost. Hunt may applaud a narrow brush off the crossbar but he will find the profligacy of his Colombian star particularly hard to forgive. 

The goals themselves were also all a result of either ball-watching or limp efforts in the 50-50. Chiefs distinctly lacked a Huntarian staple: ruthlessness.

The four-time PSL-winning coach will know he needs to find a way of injecting it into his new charges — a group that is tired and still reeling from immense disappointment. 

This Sunday’s second leg semifinal may be a near-lost cause, but a win, albeit by a small margin, could prove crucial in building a platform to launch from.

“I think it’s the application,” former Buccaneer Daine Klate explained, talking to the Mail & Guardian about the game. 

Leonardo Castro of Kaizer Chiefs and Matome Mathiane of Golden Arrows during the Absa Premiership match between Golden Arrows and Kaizer Chiefs at Moses Mabhida Stadium on January 25, 2020 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images)

“You know you look at the goals Pirates scored, a lack of communication at the back from the Chiefs defenders. Obviously, the quality that Pirates have in attack, they use chances. Chiefs have the quality as well but it was uncharacteristic for Castro to miss the way that he did. That was probably the difference.”

Hunt, before and after the game, had strongly insinuated that ideally he would be bringing in new assets to, at the very least, spark healthy competition for places in the team. That won’t be happening, of course: last week the Court of Arbitration for Sport dismissed Amakhosi’s appeal against a two-window transfer ban copped for the illegal signing of Malagasy Andriamirado “Dax” Andrianarimanana. 

The true ramifications of the decision seemed to hit home after the derby as a glum Hunt lamented his inability to effect change in the post-match press conference.

“There’s nothing we can change much,” he said. “I know what I would do but I can’t change it. There’s nothing we can do, just have to keep working with what we’ve got and try and make it better.”

This is also a window that has seen a number of his former charges available for free thanks to the death of Bidvest Wits. 

Two of them, Sifiso Hlanti and Phathutshedzo Nange, had even been training at Naturena in anticipation that the ban on registering new players would be lifted. What would Hunt have given to have Hlanti on the pitch when Vincent Pule decided to play keepy-uppy with his static backline for the second goal. 

Surely compounding his irritation was that Pirates advertised precisely how they had profited from the situation — with all four of their Wits signings playing a part in taking down their former gaffer. Most notably, it was a hungry Deon Hotto who capitalised on a stray touch and forced the third goal — exactly the type of alertness Hunt will be desperate to get out of his new team.

That is certainly something he is capable of doing. Amid the recent moans, it is easy to forget that this is a coach who has always thrived when he has commanded less glamorous outfits. Chiefs certainly don’t fit into that category but Hunt may benefit from spinning the transfer ban into an us-against-the-world underdog narrative.

“Chiefs are fortunate to have Gavin Hunt in this situation,” says Klate, who played under him at Wits. “If there’s any coach who can handle the situation Chiefs find themselves in in terms of not signing any players, I think Hunt is the right man for the job. He can turn nothing into something.”

As to whether the team can expect a rollicking after their performance? “In the modern game, players are a little fickle when it comes to getting a tongue lashing. The coach is going to have to box clever with that.”

While the deficiencies are clear, Chiefs are still an immensely talented side. It was only really when asked to enter the alien environment of the post-pandemic bubble that we saw the worst of their collapse. Until then, this squad was, for all intents and purposes, a title-worthy one. 

With Hunt at the helm, you have to feel it’s only a matter of time before they play in his image: gritty and uncompromising.

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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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