It took all of 84 seconds for Siphesihle Ndlovu to reassure the Maritzburg United faithful that he and his teammates were not dead and buried just yet.
Right at the start of their league clash against Polokwane City, the diminutive playmaker took possession in front of a nervous grandstand. He put his measured right foot on the ball, then turned away from a marker before spraying the play back to central defence.
It was nothing significant, really, except the opening salvo of a match United had to win. Ndlovu didn't go far at all but, in those two seconds of composure, he went a long way towards calming collective nerves inside the Harry Gwala Stadium. Maybe, just maybe, this was the night that the wheel turned once more.
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Not even five minutes later, United had the cathartic goal they needed. A stadium and a city exhaled a sigh of relief. At its best and its fullest, the Harry Gwala Stadium is an intimidating nook for a visitor. As small as it is, it can get rather loud, with the drum beating and the crowd heaving. It is a terrific place to play when you’re winning.
Last season, it was a dream for United’s players. They would walk on to the pitch and their 12th man would raise the would-be roof. They harassed opponents, with the soprano shrill of women screaming them into making a mistake. Then, the booming male bass would come, demanding that the ball go upfield and into the opposition net.
Come rain, shine or a slanted crosswind from the weather villains, they would come. And they were loud. Alas, the roars of last season have turned to groans in the past six months. The glory well ran dry and, try as they might, the 12th man couldn’t replenish it.
From Friday Night Lights to Friday Night Frights
The players forgot how to win, their caramel football of months before having turned into a treacle-trudging mission. It became torturous to watch and Friday Night Lights turned into Friday Night Frights.
It is no coincidence that Maritzburg United play as many Friday night games as they do. For a place called the City of Choice, there are not too many social options available on a Friday night.
Football Fridays gave people a viable option, right in the heart of the city. With more and more local faces in the squad, Maritzburg United became a source of pride. They were a team with which people could identify.
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There was no flash around the place. It was a club of honest endeavour. Even when the biggest celebrity to work for the club, Steve Komphela, rolled into town, he quickly read the mood of his new dwelling. The Lamborghini Gallardo was seldom seen, and he fitted in.
Komphela enjoyed his time at the club, right until Kaizer Chiefs came calling. No one says no to Chiefs, they say. And certainly not their former captain. United moved on and rebuilt around a favourite son of their own. In Fadlu Davids they again found a face with which the city could easily identify. He was one of their own: quiet, committed and unquestionably loyal.
Which is why you will find all walks of life flocking to the Harry Gwala Stadium. It is a collective release, a Thank God It's Friday feeling that keeps a humble city going.
Thousands brush away thoughts about how they might get home to townships and beyond after 10:30pm, simply to have a two-hour reprieve. An escape for the senses and a chance to catch a glimpse of a team that has punched above its weight for several seasons.
An unforgettable season
That escapism floated to dizzy heights in the 2017-2018 chapter, as they rose to the upper echelons of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) table and marched to the Nedbank Cup final. It was delirium; a city with little to do suddenly blessed with so much to celebrate, so much to salivate over.
They say that nothing lasts forever, so the thousands who climbed on buses and trekked to Cape Town for the final did so knowing that it might be a long time before such an opportunity arose again. It was the club’s first ever final, an august occasion, to be sure.
Logistics such as the team suits for the occasion had to be managed. Families had to be transported and, in the midst of all this, Davids and his men had to focus on the biggest 90 minutes of most of their lives. Sadly, Cape Town ended in tears and a season of unforgettable memories – like turning over Mamelodi Sundowns and getting under the formidable skin of their coach, Pitso Mosimane – finished with a whimper.
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There was considerable pride, of course, but cup finals are only truly memorable if there is a winners medal to show for it. No one remembers the losers.
After the feast, the club suddenly found itself in the midst of a famine. That sustained period of austerity had its casualties, too. The popular Davids lost his job, as the eternal owner’s itch for change got the better of them. All that work and loyalty gone.
The ill-advised appointment of Muhsin Ertugral in December was so brief that he didn't even make it to Valentine’s Day. It was classic rebound relationship material, a craving for the affections of an older man with a bit of a reputation. It was doomed from the very beginning.
Indeed, most of the club was still dealing with the Davids break-up, so Ertugral’s fling barely registered. Enter Eric Tinkler. He is a man with a point to prove and he takes charge of a club desperate for points to improve. Tinkler approaches his job much like he used to go into 50/50 balls as a midfield destroyer.
He rolls up his sleeves and makes no apologies. Just before the final whistle against Polokwane, those in the grandstand behind the technical areas started chanting: “Tinkler! Oh, Tinkler, Tinkler!”
It was a throwback to the halcyon days of the mid-1990s, when Tinkler was at the heart of a Bafana Bafana that knew how to win. His new faithful were thanking him for breaking the United drought, but the scowling Tinkler is too experienced to figure that one Friday night will turn the tide.
“This is a start. It’s just a start. Like I said, this is a long journey. It’s a long journey in a very short space of time,” Tinkler warned of the task that lies ahead for his men.
The weeks beyond the Day of Lovers will go a long way towards determining whether United check into Heartbreak Hotel at season’s end or enjoy a honeymoon with Tinkler.
There is a derby with AmaZulu looming, then mighty examinations against Kaizer Chiefs and Sundowns.
Those were the kind of dates they used to lick their lips at, safe in the knowledge that they were playing the football of their lives. Now, however, there are serious concerns that Sundowns, still brooding from last season, might exact revenge and cut them to ribbons.
It cannot be overstated just how important survival is for Maritzburg, particularly if they want to retain their players while other clubs circle like vultures. Ndlovu, who has long caught the eye of the biggest clubs in the land, is reported to have already agreed a deal to go to Sundowns at the end of the season.
That in itself is a death knell for a club identity built around the 22 year old and his meticulous eye for footballing detail. So survival for him would be a source of pride and a sincere goodbye to a club that has given him a terrific platform.
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Survival means different things to others. For Tinkler, who is tenacious enough and talented enough to find employment beyond his meander in the Midlands, survival would swell his reputation, adding survivor to a growing list of adjectives.
For the owners, who might decide to cash in on their significant investment if things go truly south, survival is essential. But United’s survival is also imperative for fans living in Pietermaritzburg. The City of Choice has always loved an underdog and embraced hardship.
From the trials and tribulations of Mahatma Gandhi to the annual slog of the Comrades Marathon and now to its beloved United. None of those are easy roads, but it is what the city of few choices has always known.
Struggle. Survival. Relief.
Relegation would be the most bitter pill to swallow, especially so soon after the sweet elation of last winter. To take away that regular Friday night fix would be heart-wrenching. It is an unthinkable thought on the streets of the city.
Which is why, to a man, woman and child, they will turn up to their half-built cathedral and lend their full voices to the cause. They wouldn’t have it any other way.