Usuthu coach Benni McCarthy reveals what he has done to transform a team that was fighting to avoid relegation last season to being among title contenders in this campaign.
The president of the high-flying AmaZulu, who caused a stir when he said the club's target was to finish in the top four of the DStv Premiership, has even loftier targets that will set more tongues wagging across the continent.
Businessman Sandile Zungu set off a commotion shortly after buying Usuthu from Patrick Sokhela last year when he announced his targets for the season following a campaign where AmaZulu narrowly avoided relegation. Usuthu finished just a point above Black Leopards, who retained their Premier Division status in the play-offs.
Instead of talking about consolidating from that disastrous season, Zungu was bullish when he took over - setting lofty targets and backing it up with quality signings. The result is Usuthu's strong showing that sees them in second place with four matches to go. Should they finish in the top three, AmaZulu would represent South Africa in either the CAF Champions League, reserved for the top two teams, or the CAF Confederation Cup whose ticket is booked by finishing third or winning the Nedbank Cup.
"I am happy that there is a possibility that we might play in CAF competitions next season," Zungu said. "We don't have plans on what we would like to achieve when we play in that competition [next year], but we would be grateful to have a feel of African competitions. When we celebrate 100 years in 2032 we would like to have a star [that you get for winning the CAF Champions League] and would have won all the trophies in PSL even if it is one time each."
AmaZulu as a brand are 89 years old, but as a club they have been diluted a bit with their two status-purchases over the past couple of years. But that doesn't bother its faithfuls who have backed the Durban side for decades. After years of suffering they are finally rejoicing under coach Benni McCarthy, who has breathed life into Usuthu, who play a brand of enterprising football and show great character.
"I brought enjoyment into the team, we are happy," McCarthy said about the club's run. "We are all enjoying what we are doing. There is healthy competition among players and I am happy about it. We are good at what we do, everyone is putting in the hard work. I have managed to change the mindset of my players, I have instilled the winning mentality and they responded very well.
"Now that we have built the momentum, we want to be consistent in winning games. We do not want to be one-season wonders. We want to build on this and challenge big teams. We want to make the league more difficult and we have shown the capabilities of doing that."
Doing well without the fans
McCarthy, who was given the opportunity to hand-pick his own technical team, says Zungu made everything easy for him to produce good results. His technical team consists of first assistant coach Vasili Manousakis, with whom he worked at Cape Town City, and former teammates in second assistant coach Siyabonga Nomvethe and goalkeeper-coach Moeneeb Josephs.
"The support from the chairman has been very amazing. He allowed me to come with my technical team. It is the best thing the coach could ask for. We are able to do well because I am surrounded by the best technical team. Our working relationship is built on trust and we are humble beings. They bring out the best in me and the players. We are a united front," he says.
The coronavirus restrictions have denied AmaZulu faithfuls an opportunity to appreciate the team's emphatic run in the league. "It would have been best if we had supporters in the stands, they are a missing puzzle right now. Supporters are everything in a game, they bring that good feeling in games, but we understand that we are living in hard times of a pandemic. We are looking forward to seeing green jerseys as soon as it's open to have fans again at the stadiums," says McCarthy.
This success means more to those associated with AmaZulu who know their glory days, but of late have seen the club struggle and even buy their way back to the Premier Division after being relegated and struggling to earn their promotion through the pitch. One of those people is Usuthu legend Vuma Mfeka who won the 1992 Coca-Cola Cup with the side. Since then, Usuthu have consistently fought to avoid relegation. In 2005, Sokhela bought Dynamos' status to revive the club that was campaigning in the lower leagues. Sokhela bought another status in 2017 when AmaZulu couldn't win their way back to top flight football.
"Usuthu was relegated to a small team after so many years in football," said Mfeka. "It used to be a big club with a huge following. It had a lot of supporters especially in the hostels. AmaZulu has a rich history, they are supposed to be supported nationally and not just have a strong hold in one province. They mean a lot to the Zulu nation since they have had the association with royalty since the late King Solomon KaDinuzulu.
"In our playing days we used to pass by the Palace Embelebeleni to greet the late King Zwelithini kaBhekuZulu, do our warm up there, then proceed to the stadium. Those were good old days. It is a shame that a team with such rich history has only won two trophies. They have one league in 1972 [Keg League] and one cup competition in 1992. AmaZulu are supposed to be counted as one of football giants in Africa. But that has not happened because they have been fighting relegation and buying statuses for so long. They have been a sleeping giant for a long time. I am happy about the changes we have seen under new management of Sandile Zungu. This is the revolution of AmaZulu, he is reinventing the team and the exciting times are back again after such a long time."
Zungu says he is thrilled with what the team has achieved so far. "As much as I said I wanted the team to finish in the top four, I never thought by this time we would be sitting at position two. I am so happy with what we have achieved so far but I am not surprised. I have invested a lot, the material we have is amazing from management, coaches and players.
"I want AmaZulu to be counted among the best teams in Africa. We will start by working on getting supporters around the country and then move to other parts of Africa. Every time when we play we do brand activations with our open bus. I can see that it's working, but the impact would have been far beyond if there were no covid restrictions."
Zungu doesn't just want to win and grow the brand in the continent, he also has ambitions of strengthening the talent chain that feeds the first team. "We currently have development structures, but we would like to have a re-look at all the structures," said Zungu. "We want to professionalise our development from Under-13, Under-17 and MDC [MultiChoice Diski Challenge]. We want to see them rise and get promoted to the senior team."