It has been a very satisfactory week that has left AjaxCT in pole position to secure the top eight finish that has only seemed a realistic goal in recent weeks. With a thoroughly professional performance that shut out the opposition, Stanley Menzo got the trip to Pirates absolutely right. It was must win for the home side, but an organised defence and solid central midfield performance from the visitors left them few opportunities. Pirates were increasingly forced to resort to long range efforts and when Marc van Heerden did finally get one right late in the game, there was Brendon Peterson to claw the ball away from under the crossbar with a wonderful athletic save.
Orlando Stadium has not been a happy hunting ground for AjaxCT in recent years. Many observers of this game would claim the home side had the better of the game, but they looked nothing like the previous sides that have given AjaxCT some serious beatings at this venue. It was a comfortable nights viewing for most of us, with no worries about missing any danger when getting up from the sofa to make a cup of tea. All you can ask going into the final game is to have your destiny in your own hands, so this was mission achieved.
For Pirates it has left them in an incredibly poor 11th place, with just 90 minutes of the season left to play. They now have a cup final to look forward to, but they need a series of extremely unlikely results to go their way to finish in the top half, which surely is essential for such a club. Instead it looks like it is going to be their worst ever finish to a PSL season. It will be seen by many as payback for Irvin Khoza who spent last winter rubber stamping the dismantling of Mpumalanga Black Aces and Free State Stars. Described as “footballs Mugabe” by one local reporter, he took players from FSS and the coach from Aces, and it seems to have taken him backwards. At least the players he signed from AjaxCT were legitimate transfers, for which the club were financially rewarded. Still you have to look at Abbubaker Mobara and wonder how much better developed as a player he would be now if he was still in Cape Town and being coached and disciplined by Stanley Menzo. Local football journalists have been concerned about the conflict of interest inherent in Khoza’s position as the major power at Orlando Pirates, the PSL and SAFA since 2012. It would be nice if this train smash of a season they have just experienced would lead to serious reform, but the chances are it will just be an opportunity for a few journalists and opposition fans to enjoy a few months of fun at Pirates expense. We better make the most of it and hope none of the sides currently keeping them out of the top eight slip up and leave the back door open. Hopefully we do not have to worry about the referees involved in next week’s fixtures suddenly producing a series of inexplicably bad key decisions that favour a certain struggling big club.
Man of the match on Wednesday night was captain Travis Graham. He certainly had a crucial influence on the way the visitors kept control and were able to keep their organised shape despite not being in possession for much of the game. My first choice would have been Rivaldo Coetzee who grew in influence throughout the match and seemed to be a magnet for the ball as the home side threw themselves forward in the closing moments. He was always there with a key header or to calmly dispossess the Pirates forwards.
A few nights later and he was given the recognition his season has deserved when he scooped the Player’s Player of the Season and Player of the Season trophy at the clubs end of season awards. He had his issues this season after being dropped for disciplinary reasons before Christmas. Great credit that he responded positively and came back to play such a crucial role. The footballing world is full of players that are not big enough to take such criticism. For supporters, many of us remember great goals, skillful forwards and winning teams. Few recall great defensive performance, but we should all think back to that match with Sundowns at Cape Town Stadium in the first half of the season. Booked after just seven minutes, Coetzee then put in a flawless defensive performance to shut out the African champions at a time they were still on red hot form. One slip, one mistimed tackle, one rash challenge and he was finished and there was no chance AjaxCT would have taken the points. What followed was a perfect 83 minutes under extreme pressure.
We have known for some time that he was likely to leave at the end of the season. His replacement, Isaac Nhlapo, has been signed up for some time. I still hope he can get an overseas move, but it seems that Sundowns are at the front of the queue. While transfer fees are rarely revealed in South African football, at AjaxCT often the figures find their way out to the public. The club want to start negotiating at R40 million, which of course is not guaranteed to be the final figure, but is an extraordinary valuation. To put it in perspective it is 80% of the R50 million fee that the entire Mpumalanga/ Cape Town franchise is alleged to have cost John Comitis. It is true that you cannot play a bag of money in your team, but it is also true that you can plan and prepare for player departures, bring in the best possible replacements, and put some of the funds received toward future development.