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Igesund’s Untold Stories

Age Is Nothing But A Number...

Cristiano Ronaldo’s age-defying performance against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday where he scored a record breaking 807th goal left the world in awe.

How is someone at 37 years of age still having such a huge influence on games? It got me thinking back to the teams that I have coached in my career, which was littered with experienced stars who took good care both on and off the field and played well into their 30s – some even as far as 40 in the case of Andre Arendse.

There are other great examples of this too, Zlatan Ibrahimovic who is now in his 40’s at Milan, locally we had the late John Shoes Mosheu who also went on to paly into his 40s and currently still have the likes of Bernard Parker who is showing no signs of slowing down at 36. There is also Hlompho Kekana who I believe still has what it takes to play at the highest level in any team.

In my experience great championship-winning teams are built off the foundation of a blend of experience and youth, where the senior players set the tone and lead by example, moulding the younger generation, keeping their egos in check and developing their temprement to go on and have successful careers.

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Managing the balance bewteen the senior players and youth is however a challenge in itself. The experienced players, at times, need to be handled and treated differently to the rest of the team in order to prolong their careers. We can think back to the likes of Ryan Giggs, where Sir Alex Ferguson used to send him to yoga classes instead of including him in some of the less tactical training sessions in order to give him sufficient rest between matches.

In my case, the ‘older’ players kept performing because I too knew how to manage them.

At Mamelodi Sundowns there was the likes of Michael Manzini, who at 36 played every single game to win the league championship. A 34-year-old Godfrey Sapula marshalled the midfield to be crowned player of the year that same season.

At Santos, I had the likes of Jean-Marc Ittier who was the top goalscorer at 34, Edries Burton was a stalwart in my defence, a top professional who put his body on the line for the team.

At Swallows I had Macbeth Sibaya, Lefa Tsutsulupa, James Mayinga who were all well into their 30s. This was a team that came within minutes of winning the championship in the 2011/12 season, not bad for a group of players who had been written off, eh?

That said, It must also be noted that I still hold the record for giving youngest player, Mkanyisile Siwahla his debut at 15 and played a big part in the development and breakthrough of then youngsters Tso Vilakazi, Lesley Mayathela and others.

Looking back though, as difficult as it is to single out just one player, I have to make mention of a 35-year-old striker at the time, who was rampaging through the goalscoring charts, running tirelessly, fighting for the team and setting an example for everybody – Siyabonga Nomvethe.

When we pulled off the miracle at Swallows which I alluded to in one of my previous columns, it was Nomvethe’s twelve goals and four assists that saw us collect 27 points from 15 matches to help save the club’s toflight status – surely I could not expect any more from him?

But in the 2011/12 season, I had to work out a formula for Bhele.

One - he would not need to train as hard as the rest of the team, so to ensure that he is always fresh and available. If the team did 20 sprints, he would do just 12. He would do 50% of the work that the rest of the team were doing. This was all part of managing his conditioning, something he had a hard time accepting because he never wanted any special treatment, he always wanted to do more, that was the character of the man.

Two - I would have to get the buy-in from the rest of the players. We needed an understanding that his ability spoke for itself, and as long as he continued scoring on the field, we would wrap him in cottonwool and protect him – even if it meant from himself.

By his own standards, he had a relatively slow start to that season, we were five games in, and he was yet to find the back of the net. Everyone was now looking at me to say, “what now?” I wasn’t stressed at all, barring losses to Chiefs and Sundowns, we had picked up wins over Santos, Free State Stars and AmaZulu and were in a comfortable place on the log standings. I knew it was only a matter of time and reminded Bhele that my faith in him had not dwindled. Thankfully we had a fantastic bunch of players in that team who also believed he would turn the corner, which he did.

In the following four games, Nomvethe found his purple patch. It finally clicked. He scored three braces in four games, Jomo Cosmos, Bidvest Wits and Ajax Cape Town all fell victim to his onslaught.

As the season progressed, we continued to manage his conditioning and recovery between fixtures, allowing us to prolong his time on the field. The goals kept coming for Nomvethe, we kept progressing up the log standings with players like David Mathebula and Lefa Tsutsulupa also chipping in with some crucial goals, the Birds were soaring.

If ever there was a time when the Durban-born speedster rose to the occasion, it was in our last five games.

We were level on points with Pirates and we needed to win all of those matches if we were to stand a chance of winning the league. Bloemfontein Celtic, Golden Arrows, Black Leopards, Platinum Stars and Maritzburg United all stood in the way of us and league glory. Pirates would of course have to take a knock too.

These were tough games, but Nomvethe scored eight goals, including a scintillating hat-trick against Arrows, all three goals coming from headers. We collected 13 out of a possible 15 points and it was on a knife’s edge going into the last game of the season.

Pirates would face Arrows while we had to beat Maritzburg United on the final day.

We beat the Team of Choice 1-0 in our match, while Arrows were in the lead against Pirates, only for another experienced player in Benni McCarthy to pull off a second half masterclass that ultimately saw Pirates rally from behind to win 4-2 and finish two points above us to lift the title. We were devastated, but considering the predicament we were in the season before, we had over achieved.

Incredibly though, Nomvethe at the age of 35, won the PSL Footballer of the Year, Absa Player of the Season, Players' Player of the Season and the Lesley Manyathela Golden Boot with 20 goals at the 2011/12 PSL awards and walked away with a total of R600,000. Proving that age indeed is nothing but a number.

Before signing off this week please let me know if you’re enjoying the stories and if there any stories you would like to hear about. Also feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer them in my next column. That’s it for this week. Make sure you head to www.soccer6.co.za to go play the TAB Soccer pools this week and keep the above story in mind.

Yours in football

Coach Gordon Igesund

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