When conceding late in a game it has become a cliche to describe football as a cruel game. There is simply no other word to describe what we witnessed on Saturday night as AjaxCT went into the 90th minute 2-0 up only to be forced to settle for a draw five minutes later. This was the 11th draw in the first 12 games since the PSL restarted after the latest 20-day break with no football. Six of these draws were 0-0 as PSL sides together played out over 500 minutes of goalless football in the run up to Saturday nights action. Perhaps a sign that constantly stopping and starting your league does not help sides get into any sort of consistent form.
For AjaxCT this fixture was Black Matchday. Black became the new red in the stands as fans mourned the fact that the club have become embroiled in a relegation dogfight for the third consecutive season, while a series of inexplicable decisions are made by those running the club and coaching the team. Like many of the political protests we see in South Africa, those wearing black on Saturday night had a range of motivations. Some wanted to see change on the pitch. Others wanted the management to notice their displeasure at the way the club is run. Some wanted the coach to depart. Others just wanted to see an end to defensive football. The one thing everybody wanted to see was the side show some passion and set out to attack the opposition. That was what we got in an excellent performance that contained some of the best attacking football we have seen this season.
While the first half was fairly even, the opening to the second half was electric. There was a touch of fortune to Masilake Phohlongo’s opening goal as the visiting keeper fumbled his shot over the line. In some leagues around the world it would have been recorded as an own goal by the keeper, but let’s not take any glory away from the youngster. He worked hard in this game and his elevation to the first team shows what can be achieved by performing consistently at MDC level. His goal clearly unsettled the visitors and lifted the home side who then clicked into first gear. Amazulu could have been buried as AjaxCT poured forward. Morris blasted a chance against the post before he then finished a good team move to put AjaxCT further in control.
With more composure in front of goal there could have been many more and this game would not have had the nasty sting in the tail. However, the experienced Mabhuti Khenyeza had the final say, with an equalizer five minutes into stoppage time. It does seem cruel, but if the coach is honest he may ask questions of his players game management in the final five minutes. To be unable to defend a set piece so late always seems naïve, even against such experienced forwards. Could the keeper have killed a bit more time in stoppage time, even at the expense of taking a yellow for the team? Could the coach have made the final substitution half way through the five minute stoppage period and killed some more time, rather than immediately after the first goal when the game was already stopped. Could we have actually held possession more, played for the corners, rather than just attempting to clear the ball away as far as possible and then watching it come straight back at us?
Perhaps the reason why the players did not fancy trying to keep possession was the awful state of the surface. The pitch at Athlone has been the topic of some controversy in recent weeks with John Comitis not wanting to play here with his Black Aces franchise and the NFD sides now forced to play home fixtures outside of the province. Just how bad the surface has become during the drought was the topic of discussion as fans took their seats before kick-off. It looked awful and the players clearly struggled with the huge areas where the grass has died leaving a bare sand cover. Several times the ball became stuck in the sand and there were many air kicks as players misjudged the bounce of the ball as it died on the soft surface. It is a great credit to the players of both sides that we got to see such an entertaining game.
In the long run this is surely going to be a problem for Cape Town football. With Cape Town Stadium booked out for non-footballing events for the rest of the year we are back here again in two weeks time. Who knows what the pitch will be like then. If we need to come back next year it will be even worse after the hot and dry festive period. The option of playing home games outside of the province is not appealing given the awful away form that the side consistently displays. It seems we are having to battle climate change as well as the other PSL sides in this season’s relegation battle.
A glance at the PSL log on Sunday morning probably gave the players some hope. We are left looking nervously downward, but virtually everyone is still catchable. There is so little quality in this league and the stop-start nature of the competition has resulted in no side gaining any momentum. A couple of wins would change the entire context of the season. This is easier said than done of course, but it is not impossible if the side can play with the tempo and flair we saw in the second half yesterday. Black matchday had a grim ending, but there were glimpses of what could be possible if everyone keeps their heads and puts the disappointment behind them.