This was a week that AjaxCT got almost everything wrong. It is hard to believe that thoughts of the Ikapa Derby did not overshadow the last few week’s preparations for the resumption of PSL action. It certainly seemed that way when AjaxCT turned up at Bidvest Wits on Tuesday night looking a pale imitation of the side that finished the first half of the season in fine form. It looked like the Clever Boys had spent the holidays studying hard, while AjaxCT were still on the beach. Woeful distribution from the back, total lack of concentration in defence, inability to hold the ball in midfield and toothless up front – even running into each other when the home keeper dropped the ball in the penalty area. What a shambles.
The seven week break without games was more than a mid-season gap. Together with a full transfer window bringing in new faces, it has almost been like starting a whole new season. While Cape Town City were in Gauteng for a high intensity mid-season tour facing the likes of Orlando Pirates and Wits, Ajax spent time playing – and losing to – local NFD sides. No surprise then which of the two sides has started the second half of the season brighter. It has been a long running issue for AjaxCT. The actual start to this season was also low key and local, and it was no surprise to see the side start the season in a slow and disappointing manner. The last time AjaxCT were seriously tested in a pre-season was during the Cape Town Cup in 2017 when games against Sporting Lisbon and Supersport United were followed by the MTN8 victory just a few months later. It can be done, but as the old adage goes if you fail to prepare then prepare to fail.
Failure at Wits was then followed up by failure in the Derby. In neither game has the side looked ready for action. Always slower to move the ball and find space than their opponents, always hitting the first defender with any ball into the box and always lacking in concentration at the back. The final 45 minutes on Saturday were a little better, and maybe now, after six points have slipped away, the side may just be starting to warm up and be ready to compete again in the PSL.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the two games is the manner in which goals were given away. The initiative was handed to Wits in farcical circumstances and we then saw free headers, loose marking and mistakes galore as the evening descended into a horror show. It was no better on Saturday when the killer second goal arrived from a series of errors that actually started with the ball being given away inside the opposition’s penalty area. From a moment of genuine threat to a comical killer goal in a matter of seconds. There is no shame in losing to the sort of fine finish we had earlier seen from Aubrey Noma, but it is soul destroying to consistently give poor goals away. It is a problem that plagued the previous coach and must be addressed urgently by Stanley Manzo. Realistically, it was a tough start to the second half of the season. Wits are clearly title challengers and Mpumalanga Black Aces finished third last year and the new franchise were in the same position going into Saturday night. Maybe if AjaxCT had played sides of this standard in the past couple of weeks they might have been a bit more prepared for the step up in quality.
Moving forward, it would be nice to think this derby rivalry could develop into something based on football rather than the animosity between the clubs respective owners, which seems to be where it is now. The banter between the two clubs official social media platforms spanned the whole spectrum from entertaining to childish in the pre-match build up. It has given the nation as a whole the impression that there is a genuine rivalry building, but that is not yet reflected amongst the paying public. Still more than two tiers of the stadium remain empty for these games and despite the bold claims of 20-30,000 crowds from John Comitis there are barely more than 1,000 people attending the regular Cape Town City games.
It is true there are some new faces coming to the games. The Cape Town City crowd has a young vibe, with many families, children and students. We look on at these newcomers in the blue shirts and wonder where they have been when live football has been played in the city in previous seasons? Will they keep coming during times when Cape Town City don’t win as often? Are they really here for the long run, bringing their friends and relatives to the games and introducing a new generation to live football? We look at those that have changed red to blue shirts, but still want to sit among the AjaxCT fans they have known their whole lives and wonder what makes a person do such a thing? Where else in the entire footballing world does this happen? We look at those “laptop ultras” that follow football on TV and twitter and talk about the “power of the brand” and the “business opportunity” that their adopted team has exploited.
What is for sure is that if they can get to the stadium, they have an excellent team to watch right now. Mr Comitis spent his money wisely. It is easy for the newcomers to buy into this while the good times are rolling. In contrast, the people that come to see AjaxCT have done the hard yards. They have been there when there was one game left to win the league and one game left to avoid the drop. They have seen the side administer thrashings and get thrashed. They have seen silverware won and lost. They have seen derbies won and lost. And they keep coming back for more because football is in their hearts. If the newcomers in blue and yellow really feel the same, and are not just looking for a bandwagon to jump on, we may have witnessed a painful first season of a serious rivalry.