Hellings Frank “Gabadinho” Mhango entertains and frustrates in equal measure with his prodigious talent and erratic ways. The Malawian striker, who is currently out of favour at his club Orlando Pirates, silenced his critics with a storming performance at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), firing the Flames to their first ever knockout stage appearance in the tournament.
His three goals at the Afcon, including his audacious strike against Morocco in the last 16, showed why he is rated so highly as an attacker. The goal showcased his pace, skill and ability to beat defenders and deliver a wicked finish.
Mhango’s performance in Cameroon was surprising because leading up to the Afcon his form at Pirates was poor and two months before the tournament, Malawi coach Meck Mwase had dropped him from the squad that faced Mozambique in the Fifa World Cup qualifiers.
But it was typical Mhango, frustrating with his misfiring ways one moment and then turning on the magic a moment later. When fans expected him to spend the 2019-2020 season adapting to life at Pirates, having signed from Bidvest Wits, he scored 16 goals to share the Lesley Manyathela Golden Boot award with then Highlands Park striker Peter Shalulile.
When Pirates expected the Malawian to build on his scoring form the following season, he disappeared, scoring five league goals. That inconsistency has continued this campaign. Mhango’s time at Bloemfontein Celtic and Wits was characterised by a similar pattern. He top-scored with nine goals in each of the maiden seasons with the two clubs only to underachieve in subsequent seasons.
This begs the question why Mhango is so inconsistent with the talent he has at his disposal.
Mhango’s inconsistency only became more evident when he crossed the Limpopo River to join Celtic from Malawi league champions Nyasa Big Bullets in 2013. Former Bullets assistant coach Gerald Phiri Sr attributes it to bad company and poor man-management in South Africa. Phiri cited the controversial remarks by Pirates co-coach Mandla Ncikazi, who said that despite the striker’s stellar performances at the Afcon he was not guaranteed game time “because maybe the league in South Africa is bigger than Afcon”.
Phiri Sr said: “The coaches in South Africa ought to treat him like a son, sit him down instead of discarding him. There were times he had a bad scoring patch at Bullets, but we used to manage him well, talk to him and he would regain his form. He is a player who thrives in an environment where he feels valued and is given confidence.
“Gabadinho was not a regular scorer at Bullets. His game was about taking on defenders, creating space and providing assists for others, especially for his striker partner Heston Munthali, who ended up becoming the top scorer.”
The former Bullets mentor said he was not surprised by Mhango’s performance in Cameroon. “He does not miss in one-versus-one situations. The wonder goal he scored against Morocco was not a fluke. It is just the off-the-field distractions that I think affect his form in South Africa, hence his lack of consistency.”
Munthali, too, praised the Flames striker, but was quick to mention that Mhango’s temperament is inseparable from his appetite for scoring. “He could not play in more than two games without scoring for Bullets. Little wonder he was the Presidential Cup top scorer. He was short-tempered, though, largely because he wants to win every tackle, every ball and every game. His goal drought in South Africa could be due to off-the-field things,” he said.
Former Baroka FC winger Gerald Phiri Jr launched his professional career at second-tier league side Brave Warriors in Blantyre alongside Mhango. “He rose to the occasion as our best player like he has always been, and that’s thanks to the coach for giving him a lot of confidence in training. I am sure once given a chance in South Africa he will be back to his best,” said Phiri Jr.
The other school of thought on what is behind Mhango’s inconsistency, coming from his former coach at Celtic, Ernst Middendorp, is that he wasn’t properly developed. The German coach told the media in South Africa in 2014 that Mhango “is a very raw diamond who hasn’t been worked on much yet. It is still a bit too much up and down from him.”
A product of his upbringing
To understand Mhango, you have to know his humble background. He was born in a remote rural area of Chiweta in the Northern Region’s Rumphi district and only moved to Blantyre in 2009 to sign for Warriors.
Growing up in a tough rural environment had an effect on his personality. He is naturally quiet but short-fused. He is a fighter, aggressive and hates losing, so he tends to lose his head when things don’t go his way.
He has also faced adversity at every club for which he has signed, with some coaches undermining him because of his diminutive stature. Warriors director George Kapachika admitted that the club’s coaches treated Mhango with contempt when he arrived.
“One of our directors, Potiphar Mhango, scouted him in Rumphi where he was playing for a non-league side, Tigers. It wasn’t easy for him to play as the coaches felt he was too young. For him to get his debut, I intervened and demanded that he should play. He came off the bench while Warriors trailed 2-0. He scored twice and the game ended 2-2,” said Kapachika.
It was not smooth sailing for Mhango at Bullets either, with some fans accusing him of poor finishing and clinging to the ball. But once he found his form, he became a fan favourite. Off the pitch, Mhango courted controversy when he failed his junior certificate exams at Chichiri Secondary School in Blantyre.
He also failed to make an immediate impression at Celtic. The Free State club released him back to Bullets in Malawi in July 2013, with then technical director Mich d’Avray saying the striker was “not the type of a player we are looking for. He is more of a No. 10 and we want a No. 9.”
However, when injuries ruled out the bulk of Celtic’s strikers, they recalled Mhango in August 2013 and signed him on a three-year contract. He grabbed that opportunity with both hands and became a favourite of the most passionate crowd in South Africa.
Up and down
After two seasons at Celtic, Mhango signed a pre-contract with Wits. This did not amuse Celtic, who released him prematurely. The Malawian went on to spend a loan spell at Golden Arrows, where he struggled to replicate his form. But he left an impression after scoring four goals in one game after coming off the bench in the 4-2 win over Mpumalanga Black Aces in 2016. Mhango finished the season at Arrows with five goals before completing his move to Milpark.
At Wits, the striker’s tally dropped to just five goals in 21 matches in his maiden season, followed by six goals in 18 appearances in 2016-2017. Eventually he found his feet in 2017-2018, when he scored nine goals in 24 games. The following season, his last at Wits, his goal tally declined to two in 16 appearances. He has had a similar up-and-down run at Pirates.
“I told him that with football, if it is not going your way, the best way is not to sulk but to stay prepared for his chances to arise,” said Phiri Jr.
The Soweto Derby between rivals Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs on 5 March would be a great platform to show Bucs he can deliver the goods when it matters. But that depends on if he is given the chance.
What’s certain is that inconsistency is stunting his growth as a footballer. With the talent he has, he should be further along in his career. For now, he remains a fringe player who drops in and out of the squad because he isn’t consistent enough to be reliable.