The pain and embarrassment felt by Bidvest Wits after their disastrous league defence last season is still fresh. But this season, coach Gavin Hunt, 54, has manoeuvred a quick turnaround. Last season the Clever Boys went into the Christmas break languishing at the bottom of the log. This season they went into the break at the summit, three points clear at the halfway mark.
Hunt cut a frustrated figure for the most part of last season, watching his team go from champions to chumps who flirted with relegation. Wits eventually finished 13th, their worst finish in a decade. But that disappointment hasn’t diminished Hunt’s drive – it has increased it.
Winning the 2017 Telkom Knockout in December put a positive spin on what was a disastrous season for a team that had muscled their way into the big boys’ club. It was a pivotal moment. Since then, Hunt and Wits have picked themselves up and returned to the force they were before their fall from grace.
But now Hunt wants to do something no coach has done in top-flight South African football in the PSL era that dates back to 1996. “I have many proud moments as a coach,” he says. “I think that my proudest moment was finishing a season undefeated [in the 1997/1998 National First Division campaign] with Seven Stars. We [eventually] went 75 games unbeaten. That’s something I would like to do in the PSL, go a season undefeated. I think that you can do it. You need a [good] squad, and the mentality has to be right. I am not saying that you must win every game. But it’s about not losing a game – like Arsenal did [in the 2003/04 English Premier League season], like I did it with Seven Stars in the first division in 38 games. That’s what I am striving for.”
Togetherness and freshness
That prospect of an invincible season is already gone for Hunt in this campaign, with the Clever Boys having lost three games in the league in their march to go from the bottom to championship challengers. But as the coach with the most PSL titles (four) out of all the 16 coaches in the league, and having managed the most league games (791), his ambitious aim shouldn’t be dismissed. He predicts a bright future for his squad.
“There’s a good togetherness,” Hunt says. “There’s a freshness, and sometimes in football that’s all you need. It was sad that some players had to leave and others came in, but that’s football. It’s given us freshness. Sometimes it’s not always about having good individuals, it’s about having a good team. I think this team can develop into a good side, and start another cycle like we did five years ago where we finished third, third, second and first, and then after those four seasons we had a meltdown. We are building for another cycle with this group of players. This isn’t an ageing team, it’s a young team.”
Wits have an advantage over their championship rivals, Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates. Sundowns and Pirates have CAF Champions League commitments having qualified for the group stage, and as South Africa’s only teams to have won the biggest prize in club football on the continent, they will want to go as far as they can, which will increase their workload and travel commitments. The Clever Boys’ only focus is the league, and they are driven by the desire to reclaim the trophy they lost last season to the Brazilians.
That space in the trophy cupboard
“We’re trying to win every trophy on offer, and we’ve got to do better in Africa,” Hunt says. “But we have to get there first. We dropped out of the CAF Champions League. The team we lost to on penalties [in the first round, from Angola], Primeiro de Agosto, lost to the eventual winners [Tunisia’s Esperance] in the semifinals … I would love to have a proper go at the Champions League.”
Wits’ approach to continental competitions betrays Hunt’s ambition. The club has approached the Champions League and the Confederation Cup half-heartedly with second-string teams, seeing the tournaments as a burden instead of an honour. In 2017, that changed slightly, they went for it with gusto, but the losing finalists, Egypt’s Al-Ahly, were just too good for them and eliminated Wits in the first round.
“Domestically, I have won everything,” Hunt says. “I’ve also won in the first division. The only missing prize is the Champions League. But you also have to be at the right club with the right squad. I don’t think a club like Bidvest Wits can go on all fronts, like the three big clubs in South Africa [Kaizer Chiefs, Pirates and Sundowns]. You need the squad and the financial muscle to do all the preparations. We were skimping, going a day short, arriving and then playing. All those things need to be taken care of if you really want to have a go at the Champions League.”
Hunt’s appetite for success and his resilience are a perfect match for challenging on the continent. But the desire to do well must be shared by everyone, from players to management. After two decades as a coach, Hunt’s drive is still as strong as when he started with Seven Stars in the professional arena.
“I still wake up excited to go to training at 9am,” Hunt says. “If you lose that, you lose the passion and desire. I enjoy going to training. It keeps me young. It keeps me fit. What also drives me is looking for that perfect game. I’ve never had one yet, in 800, 900 or whatever number of games [in all competitions]. I am looking for that perfect game. Maybe it will come one day.”
To get that perfect game, the coach and the players must see eye to eye. Hunt wastes no time in bringing players back to earth when their heads start getting big. But his strict, no-nonsense approach doesn’t work with all players, who form two distinct groups – those who resent him and those who adore him, crediting the four-time Coach of the Year for their success.
Old coach adapts to new times
“There are two types of players, the ones who crumble and the ones who come back even tougher,” Hunt says. “The one who crumble won’t last … I’ve had to change as a coach through the years. I’ve had to learn, because modern society is different. You’ve got to handle young people differently to how I was handled [when I was young]. I got verbally abused all my life. I am talking about abuse, my friend! You wouldn’t want to be in the dressing room during the time I played in. Today’s players would never handle what I went through.”
Hunt continues: “If I carried on the same way today, the players would rebel. But that worked for us. It made us tougher. I’ve had to go with the times. There are cellphones and social media – Twitter and Instagram – now. I didn’t have that when I was growing up, so whenever someone says anything, it’s out there in a flash. In my day, it took the newspapers a whole day [to report] and it was then thrown away and people forgot about it. Everything is out there quicker now. The way I handle players and my coaching methods, I’ve had to change them. If I didn’t, I would be dead. I would be gone and the game would have passed me by.”