Johannesburg - Do you know how many players Bidvest Wits bought in the past six seasons? Only three!
This may sound incredible to many who have seen players come and go at the club, but the vast majority of them were acquired as free transfers.
And this is the start of the club’s success.
This is just one of the factors that propelled Wits to their first league championship in 96 years. Wits also won the MTN 8 trophy earlier in the season.
What makes the club tick?
Chief executive officer José Ferreira proudly pointed out five elements that have worked for the club – humility, family environment, respect, passion and clever business deals.
In the five years that Ferreira has been with Wits, there has been steady progress.
In his first season, Wits finished fourth under Clive Barker.
Then Ferreira recruited Gavin Hunt, who he worked with at SuperSport United, and they finished third on the log. They ended in the same position two seasons ago.
Then, last season, they went a step further and finished as runners-up to Mamelodi Sundowns.
Now, after winning their maiden title, Ferreira said they do not want to become one-season wonders.
He said that, when he was approached by chair Brian Joffe to join the club, he bought into his vision from the onset.
“This was an unbelievable project that Brian was talking about and [the] rebuilding phase was the biggest challenge. It was not easy to attract the kind of players we needed to turn things around because of the status of the club at the time. But, slowly, we got to sell the vision to the players,” said Ferreira.
He said winning the championship was the biggest gift they could give to Joffe.
He said they had to start by putting a good structure in place on and off the field, and change the mindset of those in the team.
“If you want to succeed, you can’t continue to operate like a club fighting relegation.”
He said Bidvest played an important role in taking the club to new heights.
“People thought that, when Brian left the company, we would suffer, but directors Lindsay Ralphs and Alan Fainman have been superb.”
Ferreira said contrary to what most people said, the club did not have the kind of budgets that other big clubs had.
However, he said, “rand for rand, when it comes to us and others, players will come here because they know what we have here – something special”.
“We don’t have disciplinary hearings like other clubs, or crisis meetings. We engage each other because everyone fits into the culture. We are one family, we respect each other; we swim together and drown together. That’s the secret of success.”
He said the team did not have money to burn – if they did, they would be chasing more players.
“Why, if we had so much money, wouldn’t we compete with other clubs on the market? This can’t be true, we have a limited budget that we operate with.”
He revealed that since he joined Wits six seasons ago, he had only bought three players – Erwin Isaacs, Buhle Mkhwanazi and Mzikayise Mashaba.
“Fortunately, we sold Mashaba at a profit to Sundowns and the only loss was with Isaacs as he struggled here.”
He said 95% of their players came as free agents and from their development programme.
He said the likes of Elias Pelembe, Daine Klate, Darren Keet, Bongani Khumalo, Sifiso Hlanti, James Keene, Eleazar Rodgers and Thabang Monare came as free agents.
Some who were promoted from the academy include Phumlani Ntshangase and Reeve Frosler.
“This is a small industry and agents talk to us because they know we are always looking for the best available free agents. Sometimes you have to go with what is available on the market,” said Ferreira.
He said they were able to pay their players well because they got them for free. He added that he had been receiving calls from players who were interested in joining the club.
Ferreira said he and coach Hunt had a unique relationship and understood each other well.
“We were approached together six years ago, but he couldn’t come as there was the possibility of joining Bafana.
“He knows what I think and the same applies to me. I know his strengths and weaknesses, and we complement each other well.”
He said Hunt had free rein on deciding which players he wanted.
“We share the same philosophy: you cannot win anything meaningful with experience only or with youngsters only. You need to get the right mixture.”
The two started working together in 2007 at SuperSport and won three titles together while there.
While Ferreira is on his sixth league title (three with United, two with Sundowns and one with Wits), Hunt has joined the late Ted Dumitru and Gordon Igesund on four titles each.
Ferreira acknowledged the criticism levelled against the club for not taking continental competitions seriously. However, he said they needed to win locally first before venturing into the continent.
“For 96 years, this club has never won the league title and we had to focus on the domestic competitions first.”
He said they wanted to do well in the CAF Champions League, but were unfortunate to draw Egypt’s Al Ahly.
“But, to be honest, the Confed Cup was never going to be our priority. If we had to choose between the two, we’d always go for the Absa Premiership,” he said.