Absa Premiership

‘Lions of the North’ roaring back to SA’s top flight

2018-02-20 12:43
Owen Da Gama (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - It resulted in surprising elimination in the first-round proper of the Nedbank Cup against appreciably less-fancied opponents.

But Highlands Park have no regrets about fielding a virtual reserve line-up against Stellenbosch FC as the legendary "Lions of the North" sniff ominously at the prospect of regaining a place in the Absa Premiership with a current nine-point advantage at the top of the National First Division.

"A lengthy run in the Nedbank Cup would have been a great bonus," is how canny coach Owen da Gama explains his selection decision, "but promotion is our priority this season and with a potentially awkward game against Jomo Cosmos looming only a couple of days after the trip to the Cape to play Stellenbosch, we calculated it would best serve our league aspirations to leave our big guns at home for the NFD encounter."

And although Highlands were barely shaded 1-0 after dominating much of the match against Stellenbosch, Da Gama's gamble, if it can be labelled as such, produced dividends with a scintillating 4-0 success against Cosmos this past weekend in a game with special connotations.

It was to Jomo Sono's Cosmos that Highlands sold their Premier League NPSL franchise 35 years ago, with a degree of irony in the fact that the two clubs are currently both vying for a return to the premier division of South African soccer.

And with Highlands now securely placed in a dominant position at the top of the NFD and in line for automatic Absa Premiership promotion with nine rounds of games remaining, Cosmos' overwhelming defeat against "The Lions of the North" has left them precariously positioned to secure even a playoff promotion position this season.

As for the Nedbank Cup defeat against Stellenbosch, it was the first loss Highlands have suffered in a record 17 games since Da Gama took over as coach and precipitated a striking revival in
the club's fortunes.

"But the thought of maintaining a personal record never entered my mind in deciding the tactical selection decision," said Da Gama. "From a professional point of view the promotion issue had to come first.

"And, what is more," he added, "playing against Stellenbosch gave our fringe players valuable exposure and match competition, while allowing us to gauge how they shaped in a big-match environment."

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