I was planning to spend most of the holiday period chilling at the beach, eating mince pies and watching the odd bit of cricket. However, AjaxCT had other plans for us during the break. This hectic Christmas period feels like it has completely rebooted the season. As we watched that turgid performance against Chiefs on our TV screens a few weeks back it was clear something needed to change. It now feels like everything has changed.
It started with a casualty. Just a few days before Christmas it was announced that Stanley Menzo would be departing the club. It was no great surprise. His overall record of 12 wins in 35 games was not a total disaster, but most of those victories came in the second half of last season when his side were playing their best football. This season he reverted to an overly cautious approach that saw his team virtually surrendering before they had even set foot on the pitch. In fairness he lost a lot of quality this season with Coetzee, Graham and Mayambela not available to him. Perhaps his greatest mistake was to be too trusting of those in the club that provided the inferior replacements, but it seems his role was first and foremost as a coach rather than sourcing and recommending players himself.
It seems strange to say after watching the dire football on offer this season, but he should be remembered for bringing back attacking football to a side that RDS had turned into a dour defensive unit. Within his first month in control, his team scored three goals in each of the away fixtures against Bloemfontein Celtic and Platinum Stars. In the second half of the season we were treated to some of the best attacking football we have seen for years from any AjaxCT side. Remember the excellent goals from Mark Mayambela against Highlands Park and Bantu Mwazakali against Bloemfontein Celtic. Both fine finishes to excellent team moves. We rarely saw him on social media, but Menzo himself tweeted the video of the goals to his followers. They are well worth watching over and over again. It just makes it all the more frustrating that this season he has seemed so scared to attack sides.
He will be missed by the media who found him to be a friendly and approachable character. His comments to the press on departing were incredibly dignified and respectful to the club. A few of the players could learn from his behaviour and take lessons in how to move on without burning all your bridges behind you. He does seem to be the sort of nice guy that you could sit down with over a beer and chat about football. Perhaps he lacked the ruthlessness to succeed as a first team coach. Calm, clever and composed, and totally the opposite character to some other coaches in the PSL that wear their hearts on their sleeves. Menzo was rarely passionate in front of the cameras, but some of his comments ranged from bland to indecipherable. At crucial moments he could not motivate the players to perform, and despite the enjoyable second half to last season there was a hugely disappointing finish against Baroka, when the expected top 8 finish disappeared in a passionless home defeat. The warning signs were there.
We know his replacement will be the total opposite in terms of character, as Mushin Ertugal enters Ikamva for his fourth spell as a coach. This is an unusual, but not completely unheard of situation. Over in Germany, Bayern Munich have also recently employed Jupp Heyncke for his fourth spell in charge. It happens in football, but it does not give supporters much hope that this is the start of a new era. Many supporters will find it unforgivable that his last encounter with AjaxCT saw him thanking John Comitis on live TV after his Black Aces side beat the Urban Warriors in Mpumalanga. Only a few months ago he was telling Soccer Laduma that he was going to finish his career in Europe.
Ertugal’s easy-come easy-go attitude at the club is likely to see him departing again as soon as any sort of opportunity arises. What is undoubted, however, is his vast knowledge of local football and his ability to motivate. Given the situation the club finds itself in, he surely is the right man for right now. Whatever you may think of his commitment issues the chances of AjaxCT being in the PSL next season have now massively improved, and with over half a season to go the sights should realistically be set much higher. If he goes after six months we can reassess from that position, but we can at least expect that position to be healthier than it is right now.
It has been exciting, but none of this has been ideal. Looking at the bigger picture the club seem to be permanently confused over whether to bring in a Dutch coach or stay local. Stekelenberg or RDS? Menzo or Ertugal? It is a cycle we see repeated over and over. A foreign coach may not gel with the players, but will bring fresh coaching ideas into the game, whereas a local coach knows how to motivate the South African footballer, but may have nothing new to offer on the training field. This dilemma is likely contributing to the cycle of decline we are seeing at the club and is now the reason why we are having to fall back on emergency support from Ertugal. This emergency support does include the acquisition of players as well on field coaching. Eyebrows have been raised around the whole PSL as Tendai Ndoro joined the side. An experienced striker with genuine goalscoring ability in the PSL – the sort of signing that the club have been crying out for in recent times. It would never have happened without Ertugal.
Let’s suspend our sceptical minds for a moment and assume that Mushin Ertugal could be more than an emergency fix. Nobody is going to be too surprised when kick-off magazine start publishing rumours of his departure in a few months’ time, but what if he could be pursueded to commit for a long period this time. It is not that long ago we saw him coaching Mpumalanga Black Aces. A recently promoted and unfashionable side, struggling to make their way in the PSL. Under Mushin’s guidance they were full of exciting attacking flair and challenging for the top positions in the league before they were destroyed by our neighbours. Football in Mpumlalanga is dead, but could Mushin complete that project at AjaxCT? Can we be fourth time lucky?