The team that chose to fight

2016-05-25 09:36
Ernst Middendorp (Gallo)

Cape Town - The run-in to the end of the 2015/16 PSL season will be remembered for Mamelodi Sundowns' dominance and Kaizer Chiefs' woes, but at the other end of the PSL table a fairy-tale was unfolding.

Staring down the barrel of relegation, trailing 1-0 at Jomo Cosmos on the final day of the season on Saturday, 10 magical minutes turned tears of despair into tears of joy for Maritzburg United. 

An 82nd minute header from substitute Mohau Mokate and a quick-fire Evans Rusike brace saw 0-1 become 3-1 in a flash, and somehow Maritzburg had pulled off the greatest of escapes. 

The club has been on a roller-coaster ride since August last year, but three different managers and an awful tragedy later, they have come out with their PSL status in tact.

Having started the season on the back of their best ever finish in the PSL in 2014/15 (8th) under Steve Komphela, there was an air of uncertainty at Harry Gwala Stadium when rookie coach Mandla Ncikazi was named as Komphela's replacement. 

Ncikazi had worked under Komphela at both Free State Stars and Maritzburg, and the decision to back him was initially applauded by the local football community despite the concerns. 

Local, as they say, is lekker and the Ncikazi appointment was seen as one that would give a young, talented coach an opportunity at the highest level. 

But Ncikazi lasted just four league games before he was sacked without a win to his name - the Team of Choice bottom of the log. 

Desperate to get their season going, Maritzburg turned to the experience of Clive Barker, but things didn't get much better.

The 1996 AFCON-winning Bafana Bafana coach lasted five games, and though it seemed Maritzburg had turned the corner with a 1-0 win at Tuks and then a 1-1 draw at home against Kaizer Chiefs, Barker was sent packing. 

After 12 matches, United were still rock bottom of the league table with 6 points, and the situation was fast becoming an emergency.

Enter Ernst Middendorp. 

The fiery German had fallen out with Free State Stars and was available. 

That was all the invitation Farouk Kadodia needed to get Middendorp in for what would be his third stint at the club. 

Middendorp had left Maritzburg in a huff on two previous occasions, but the love/hate relationship he shares with the Midlands club reared its head once more in December 2015. 

Middendorp and Maritzburg just fit ... like Beyonce and Jay Z.

When times get tough they throw their toys and scream and shout, but in the end they bring out the best in each other. 

The Harry Gwala faithful have longed to move on from Middendorp - they want to see attractive, attacking football and that has not always gone hand-in-hand with Middendorp's emphasis on defensive structure. 

This time, though, Middendorp's arrival was welcomed. 

If there is one thing the German knows how to do, it is pick up PSL log points. 

His sides are generally difficult to break down, and as a result he draws a lot of games. The name "Middendraw" has thus been thrown around - affectionately or otherwise. 

Ironically, United under Middendorp this season only kept five clean sheets in 18 matches. 

They continued to leak goals - 14 in Middendorp's first five games - and would finish the season with the worst defensive record in the PSL.

Middendorp would have to wait until his seventh game in charge to record his first win - a 1-0 victory over Bloemfontein Celtic that came as a breath of much-needed air. 

That result didn't exactly spark anything for Maritzburg, and they continued to languish at the foot of the table despite a 2-0 win over Golden Arrows on March 11. 

As if things weren't going badly enough for the Team of Choice, they were also dealing with the tragedy that had rocked them in January when star player Mondli Cele was killed in a car crash just hours after scoring in a 3-3 draw against Orlando Pirates at home. 

That had been Middendorp's second game, and an inconsolable dressing room immediately emerged as another stumbling block in the battle for survival. 

Middendorp remained adamant that Maritzburg would be safe, but the results told a different story. 

The goalkeeping department was also in disarray.

The departure of Shu-Aib Walters to Mpumalanga Black Aces had left a massive hole between the sticks that was never filled. 

Namibian Virgil Vries had been favoured ahead of Walters under Komphela, but when Middendorp arrived he had other ideas. 

He showed his faith in youngster Tawfeeq Salie, but then brought in Glenn Verbauwhede, the Belgian who had spent the best part of three years on the books at Mamelodi Sundowns without ever playing. 

Verbauwhede went straight into the Maritzburg starting line-up and immediately struggled.

Fortunately Middendorp, who can be stubborn in his team selections, swallowed some pride and by the end of the season he had restored Vries to the No 1 jersey in a move that was surely as important as any in Maritzburg's ultimate survival. 

By the time April 26 arrived, things were getting desperate for Maritzburg. 

Still bottom of the log, they had just five games left to turn it all around. 

A Sheldon van Wyk goal secured a crucial three points for United at Free State Stars, but they then lost 2-1 to SuperSport United after having taken the lead at home just three days later. 

By this stage it was all getting a bit nasty and the excuses started rolling in. 

Middendorp, looking angrier by the day, had gone on national television and accused Golden Arrows and their owner Mato Madlala of influencing match officials after the sides played to a 1-1 draw in KwaMashu. 

Then, after the SuperSport loss, Middendorp used his post-match interview to launch an attack on Stuart Baxter's men after they had continued playing despite Maritzburg's Khumbulani Banda lying on the turf 'injured'. 

That movement led to SuperSport's equaliser, and Middendorp was furious. 

While it came across as sour, it also showed the fight he had left in him. 

A coach feeling hard done, dropping bombs on everyone around him, is a coach that is still alive and kicking. 

At not one point, even when Maritzburg were 10 minutes away from the drop, did Middendorp stop fighting. 

That attitude could be seen in his players week in and week out, even when results weren't going their way. 

Kurt Lentjies, massive for Maritzburg this season, epitomised that fight more than anyone.

A 1-0 win over Ajax in their second-last game of the season finally moved Maritzburg off the foot of the table. 

That Thami Mkhize free-kick 5 minutes from time was equally as important as anything that happened on the last day. 

Finally, Maritzburg had a slice of luck fall their way. 

Mkhize's free-kick hit the wall, took a massive deflection and made its way into the top right corner for three invaluable points. 

On the same day Tuks drew 2-2 at Polokwane City and Jomo Cosmos lost at Golden Arrows - and all of a sudden Maritzburg had given themselves a sniff. 

One match remained ... a final day trip to Jomo Cosmos, who were a single point ahead of Maritzburg and just out of the relegation zone in 14th place. 

Cosmos had learnt less than 24 hours before kick-off that they would not be deducted points despite being found guilty after fielding the ineligible Thabo Modiba in a 1-0 win over Kaizer Chiefs.

Maritzburg were led to believe that a points deduction would follow, but after that ruling they knew the only way they could survive was with a win in Potchefstroom.

The rest is a blur.

At half-time, Tuks were winning 2-0 at home to Arrows while Maritzburg were trailing 1-0. 

At that stage, finishing 15th (the relegation/promotion playoff position) was not a possibility. 

A draw would not be enough to save Maritzburg as Tuks had a superior goal difference. 

As each minute passed, the inevitability of United being relegated grew stronger.

And then it happened, as if there was some kind of supernatural presence hovering over Olen Park.

There wasn't, of course. The gods do not care for football. But even so, what transpired in those chaotic moments is as close to a footballing miracle you are likely to witness. 

The great escape was complete, and 1 000 Maritzburg United fans who had made the 9-hour journey by bus were given their moment.

It had all been worth it. The pain of a season that saw just two wins at home in 15 attempts was washed away in the blink of an eye.  

Maritzburg are safe, and the first order of business ahead of next season is to ensure that Middendorp puts pen to paper on a new deal.

Follow @LloydBurnard on Twitter ...

Read more on:    maritzburg united  |  psl  |  ernst middendorp  |  soccer

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