This weekend was supposed to be about our reunion with RDS after he had been appointed to coach our opponents in Maritzburg. It did not quite work out, however, as he left his new appointment after just 72 days in charge, citing family reasons. I am sure we all wish him well, but also wish he had managed to stay on a few weeks longer. It is never easy facing a side under a new coach, with the players keen to impress the new man in charge. Stanley Menzo would have a good idea how an RDS side would have approached the game, but this was a trip that turned into a mystery assignment. Sadly a mystery assignment that once again the saw the side fail.
It is difficult to comment further given that the game was not covered on TV and no commentary was available. We can only thank our handful of KZN supporters and the club’s massively improved social media provision for keeping us informed. Not that there seemed to be much positive that they could relay back to us. Some missed chances, two simple goals conceded, a late rally to try and recover the situation, but ultimately too little too late. It sounds like it could be any of a dozen games we have played this season.
The defeat leaves the season with a very weird pattern in terms of points gained. The games fit neatly into three stages. Stage 1 (RDS) was just 2 points from the first 7 games (0.3 points per game = relegation). Stage 2 (post RDS to the xmas break) was a huge 16 points from 8 games (2 points per game = champions). Stage 3 (since xmas) is just 4 points from 7 games (0.6 points per game = relegation). All teams go through up and downs throughout the course of a season, but has there ever been a swing in fortunes quite as extreme? From chumps to champions to chumps.
We know why we moved from stage 1 to stage 2. The change from RDS to Stanley Menzo brought immediate improvements that were visible in the style of play and the results it generated. Really we should only be looking at stages 2 and 3, because both have been played out under the same coach. Why has this side not been able to replicate the form it had before xmas? There has been some bad luck along the way. Surely we would have won the game against Free State Stars if the referee had not disgracefully sent a clearly injured player off for time wasting. Time wasting was confirmed by the club this week, when they also explained an appeal would be pointless given PSL rules that only allow appeals when a player is misidentified. This was only one game however and surely there is something more happening.
It is hard not to get the impression that something happened over the xmas break that has affected the players attitude to games. Remember the coach took the brave decision to drop Rivaldo Coetzee from that final game of 2016 for disciplinary reasons. It worked on the night and set down a marker for expected behaviour, but are we now seeing a backlash on the pitch? Do we have players that are not big enough to respond to criticism of their attitude? There are certainly grumblings amongst the fans over the inconsistent performances of some of the squad since xmas.
It was abundantly clear that the team came back underprepared for the PSL. Of all the poor results we have experienced there were no worse that the 3-0 defeat to Stellenbosch in our last warm up for the resumption of the PSL in January. Alarm bells should have been ringing if we were getting thrashed by our NFD neighbours. We warm up against NFD opposition when Cape Town City are touring up north and playing Wits and Pirates. Platinum Stars visited Botswana to play Township Rollers in the recent international break. When do AjaxCT ever test themselves against high level opposition in the huge number of breaks we experience?
We went into a tough run of fixtures at the start of the second half of the season hopelessly underprepared and were humiliated on the pitch. The confidence evaporated and has not returned. This has also coincided with a run of bad form for our young keeper, and to keep his self-belief high the coach has refused to take him out of the firing line. In an attempt to find a solution the coach has also shifted the side around. The constant changes to the back four are crucial. They defend as a unit and need to communicate effectively. It is hard to do this when you have a different player either side of you each game. Many changes have been enforced as defenders do tend to pick up suspensions and injuries. However, some selections are just frustrating for supporters. Two more changes to the back four again against Maritzburg did not help. After playing a full 90 minutes for Bafana against Angola, Rivaldo Coetzee was back from international duty and fine to play according to the coach in the pre-match presser. He did not appear on the night. Yagan Sasman is clearly being lined up to step into the left back role held by Mosa Lebusa, but he came into the side to play alongside Lebusa while two experienced centre backs in Chipeta and Larty started on the bench. More confusion. More changes. More goals conceded.
The end result is that we are now in the relegation battle. Maybe this crazy topsy-turvy season is about to swing again and we are going to enter into stage 4 where we find championship form again. It would give a nice symmetrical pattern to the season, but it is sadly more likely that we have some edge-of-the-seat nervous moments ahead of us, as we enter the infamous ‘squeaky bum time’ of this PSL campaign.