After a long 93-day wait for football we should have been looking forward to the start of the PSL on Tuesday night. However, the closer the game came the more signs there were to be worried. First there is that long trip up to Polokwane. It has always been a problem for Ajax. You can almost feel the player’s energy slipping away with every kilometre covered by that bus to the stadium. RDS was right to admit the one game AjaxCT did not want as their first of the season was newly-promoted Baroka FC. Promoted sides are notoriously hungry and at their most motivated in the opening fixtures. It would surely have been better to go there in a couple of months’ time when Baroka had been subdued by the reality of facing better equipped PSL sides.
On top of this many of us will have forgotten that captain Travis Graham was suspended, as was RDS himself, due to cards carried over from last season. Last season’s top scorer Prince Nxumalo was injured before the season had even begun – the most frustrating way to start a new campaign. And then there was Toriq Losper. Transfer listed by the club just a week before the kick-off, despite being in the starting eleven in the clubs most high profile pre-season game against Bidvest Wits.
Supporters who turned up to see that game at Parrow Park a couple of weeks ago will remember how well Losper and Prince linked up, with Prince creating a chance for Losper in the opening minute and Losper later returning the favour to set up the opening goal. Next thing we know he is transfer listed and out of the team. It is true that he has only one year left on his contract and the club are always keen to sell on or sign up players in such situations. We understand that makes sense. Football is a business, but it also a sport and a balance has to be found between the two. Was there really no way to have these negotiations prior to the season or let him continue to play while they are ongoing? Maybe it could be claimed that his form may suffer due to the uncertainty, but that was certainly not the case in the pre-season games that the supporters were able to attend. This just looks like a self-inflicted handicap for the team – and is the sort of thing that is likely to make fans wonder about the seriousness of the clubs footballing ambitions. A dangerous place to be, with a flashy new team in the city looking to hoover up disgruntled supporters from elsewhere.
So despite the long wait it was an anxious couple of hours to get through as the season finally began. You sense the club will be happy to come away with the point gained given the circumstances and the low key pre-season build-up. However, there was an opportunity to make this a far better start. After taking the early lead through Nathan Paulse’s penalty there was a moment when AjaxCT could really have taken the game to the home side. Baroka looked shell-shocked in that opening period and AjaxCT were clearly the better side. However, as we have come to expect in the RDS era, the emphasis was to protect the lead and sitting deep. It was not until the home side had eventually drawn level in the second half that we became an attacking force again and we finally saw the threat that new man Thabo Mosadi could provide. In the end we should be thankful we hung on to take a point. Baroka finished strongly as an AjaxCT defence that had been strong for most of the night lost concentration. That one-on-one chance in the 93rd minute should have been buried and we should have been beaten. Fortunately for AjaxCT, composure in front of goal is not a strength of the South African footballer.
There is still plenty to work on for a side that many of the nation’s football journalists have forecasted will struggle. At Kick-Off, Mark Gleeson even has both Baroka and AjaxCT as the two relegation candidates. Was this the first relegation six-pointer of the season?
This game at least represented a step up from the procession of pre-season victories over second rate local opposition. What we really don’t need is another long break before playing again. Sadly, thanks to our crazy fixture scheduling, it’s almost three weeks to the visit of Orlando Pirates. I suppose there is one advantage – plenty of time for the players to recover from the long trek home.