Football can have you walking through the darkest valleys and then with just one kick of a ball, have you floating on the highest clouds…
Ask Christian Eriksen, who after suffering a cardiac arrest at the Parken Stadium 290 days ago in Copenhagen, this week, scored on his return to the the very same pitch where he almost lost his life.
Or Frank Lampard who after years of serving Chelsea fans with distinction had to witness the very same people call for his sacking as head coach.
Or Roberto Mancini, who with Italy won the Euro 2020 less than a year ago, has now failed to qualify them for the 2022 FIFA Qatar World Cup
Football cannot be scripted, and its this unpredictability that makes it the beautiful game.
Seeing the anguish on Mancini’s face after being bundled out by an unfancied North Macedonia in the qualification play-offs got me thinking back to the the inaugural Premier Soccer League season and some of the highs and lows that year presented.
Prior to the 1996/7 Premier League season kicking off, I had just taken charge of an unfancied Manning Rangers squad who themselves had just been promoted to the topflight.
It was at the same time the PSL introduced the Coca-Cola Challenge (a single round robin tournament consisting of all the PSL teams). The purpose of this cup was to transition the football season to run alongside that of our European counterparts from August - May.
In the early parts of the competition, we were drawn up against Kaizer Chiefs who had some notable players like Pollen Ndlanya and David Modise. It proved to be a baptism of fire for us as we were utterly humiliated 9-1 on the day.
The result even prompted certain analysts to come out and state that we would be a disgrace to the league and that we should not be in the topflight.
I was only 39 at the time, and like Mancini will be feeling now, totally dejected. This was an incredibly low point for me in my early years as a coach..
I remember having a meeting with the Chairman Kaycee Reddy after the game and told him that we were just not good enough and if we wanted to stay in this league and compete we would need to go out and recruit players.
And that is exactly what I did.
Myself and Afzal Khan spent hours scouting local and foreign players while taking note of which players were being discarded from the other professional teams. We eventually ended up signing the likes of Keryn Jordan, Clinton Larsen, Marcus Mphafudi, Innocent Chikoya, Mark Davies, Solo Nzimande, Grant Johnson, Simon Makhubela and George Koumantarakis.
These were not recognisable players by any means, some of which were still amateurs who had full-time day jobs, but they were players who had a point to prove and were willing to fight for each other and sacrifice whatever was necessary for the betterment of the team. There were no egos.
We used the rest of the Coca-Cola challenge as preperation for the new PSL season, building the team spirit and refining our pattern of play. I remember having a meeting with the players and telling them that we have everything needed to win the league.
It may have been hard to believe on paper at the time, but I instilled in them the belief that we could go out there and compete with the best of teams. That as long as we had the grit and determination to outwork our opponents – regardless of who it was, with that attitude, the results would come.
Going into that ‘96 season, the team was galvanised and everyone in the changeroom believed that together we could achieve the impossible.
We started the season very well.
With our hard working, dogged mentaity we were making things difficult for the opposition teams. The players had a point to prove, and it was showing. We won 10 consecutive way games 1-0. The game plan was simple, once we scored, we would not concede. We had a refuse to lose mentality, leave everthing on the field to come away with the points. And even when we conceded goals in games, we always believed we would eventually wear down and outscore our opponents.
Tactically we had a plan for every team we played.
When we played home games, we watered the pitch to have a quicker surface which suited our game, when we played the more illustrious teams who thrived with having space and time on the ball, we would narrow the pitch dimensions to the lowest possible FIFA sizes to make it more difficult for them to play. Club officials were even contacting FIFA to ask if it was legal for us to play on a wet pitch hahaha.
We went from losing 9-1 to beating Crystal Brains 9-0 that year. We managed to win the inaugural PSL season convincingly, eight points clear of Kaizer Chiefs and 10 ahead of Orlando Pirates.
Looking back at it, what we achieved that year was nothing short of spectacular.
Our striker Simon Makhubela, who we signed on a free, discarded from his former club, won the 1996 Golden Boot. He was then sold to Pirates for a record fee a season later.
Grant Johnson, Bradley Muir, and Mark Davies had all gone from being amateur players the year before, to being PSL champions a season later.
A reminder of just how quickly things can change in football, one minute you the laughing stock of fans and pundits, and then with dedication and hard work you can turn it around to become the best in the land.
Yours in football,
Coach Gordon Igesund