Cape Town - When AmaZulu’s Siyabonga Mbatha was injured in the warmup ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Orlando Pirates, Neil Boshoff was thrown into the deep end.
The 23-year-old debutant swam rather than sinking, keeping an impressive clean sheet in a 0-0 draw. Boshoff was helped by some lacklustre finishing from Orlando Pirates, but make no mistake: his fine display did not come by accident.
Social media was abuzz with praise for Boshoff following the match. Former team-mate Marc van Heerden, once of Orlando Pirates but now at Stellenbosch FC, took to Twitter on Wednesday to write an emotional message.
"Appreciation post: Through hard work, dedication, perseverance and faith, this boy came to Amazulu wanting to be a pro goalkeeper. I honestly thought it would never happen. Last night, he made his pro debut against Pirates. Well done, Neil Boshoff," said van Heerden. Some praise from a player who himself has earned glowing praise for his work ethic.
It is often said that there are footballers who are natural talents and those who are products of hard work. This is not to say that the perceived binary reflects reality — a mixture of nature and nurture is undoubtedly the ideal combination.
Whatever talent he has, Boshoff has always relied on his work ethic first and foremost. By the goalkeeper’s own admission, van Heerden’s initial instinct that he was not going to make it as a professional appeared justified at the time.
"Coach Steve Barker wanted to have a look at me in the first team, so I went through and trained with them a little bit. He decided to sign me, but that’s where Marc saw that I wanted to be a professional, but I wasn’t where most people were. A few of my attributes were lacking quite a bit," Boshoff admits.
"I think a lot of [what was missing] was just the pure experience of being around a professional setup. I went to Westville Boys High School and I was also in an academy that side with Steve Bezuidenhout [the Westville United Football Academy].
"It was a very good launching platform for me personally. He’s a very good coach, very good development coach, but sometimes you just lack that professional mindset of being around guys who are seasoned in the game."
In some ways, Boshoff’s story is not unusual in South Africa. Youth football has made steps in the right direction, but the systems in place are not as advanced as those in more established football nations. Talented youngsters often have to wait until their 20s for a breakthrough.
Even so, Boshoff’s path into the Absa Premiership has been unconventional even by South African standards. Bezuidenhout convinced his former Westville United Football Academy prodigy to join the Sharks Academy after he finished matric.
Both Boshoff and Bezuidenhout, who served as the academy’s head of football, were ultimately picked up by AmaZulu. The latter became Usuthu’s head of development while the former joined their MultiChoice Diski Challenge squad.
This was not the finest era for AmaZulu, who suffered relegation from the Absa Premiership in 2014/15 with Boshoff in their ranks. He was very much on the fringes at the time, but the shot-stopper was silently laying the foundations for his rise.
"It just became a thing when I really wanted it so bad that I would work before training for an hour every day, I would work after training. Every chance I got, I would just work, work, work, work," Boshoff says.
"A big part of where I am now, I have to thank [former AmaZulu goalkeeper] Energy Murambadoro and [goalkeeper coach] Davies Phiri for.
"When I first got there, Energy took a huge step with me. Every morning, he would be out there with me working on my distribution, working on my handling, working on my footwork. Every morning without a doubt, I didn’t even have to ask — he would just be there waiting.
"And then Davies was always willing to work, always willing to give me extra — always trying to push me and develop me into a better goalkeeper."
AmaZulu returned to the top flight in 2017 after buying Thanda Royal Zulu’s Premiership status. However, despite his hard work, Boshoff struggled to dislodge the goalkeepers at the top of Usuthu’s pecking order.
Now under the guidance of Cavin Johnson, they finished a respectable ninth in the 2017/18 Absa Premiership. There was room for defensive improvement, however, as AmaZulu conceded more goals than any other team outside the bottom four (35).
Rather than give Boshoff his shot in between the sticks, Usuthu bought former Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Moeneeb Josephs. Boshoff could have been forgiven if he felt downcast, but instead, he struck a valuable bond with a goalkeeper who he had long looked up to.
"At the beginning, it was daunting (when AmaZulu signed Josephs). It’s scary to think I grew up watching him; he was an idol to me. So now to be in the same dressing room and same goalkeeping department as him — in the beginning, it was quite a shock," he confesses.
"But he’s actually an amazing human being; he's a really good guy and he's always, always willing to help — especially youngsters. He loves youngsters. He loves being able to impart his knowledge and the stuff he's done in the game.
"In the goalkeeping department, we're such a close family that every day is a bit of fun and a bit of laughter, but it pushes us to want to be better people and better goalkeepers.
"It’s nice to have that competitive edge, but at the same time have a brotherhood. You know on a bad day, whenever you go there and you speak to them, your whole day changes."
Boshoff had been feeling for some time as if he was on the verge of his breakthrough, but when it came against Orlando Pirates, the circumstances were far from ideal. The camaraderie in the goalkeeping department played its part here as Mbatha and Phiri offered him some much-needed words of encouragement.
"Before the game, when Siya went down in the warmup, he came up to me and gave me a good few words of encouragement," he recalls.
"Coach Davies Phiri was also very instrumental in getting my head right for the game. He was in my ear the whole time telling me how far I’ve come… just bringing out that so I knew I could do this."
"Also, coach Cavin and (assistant coach) Alan (Clark), they all showed good faith in me. I knew I had the backing of the team, and with all the boys in the team, it was like nothing to them. They just thought we would go out there and we would get a result."
Boshoff himself was confident that AmaZulu would get something against the Buccaneers. Usuthu’s 3-0 and 1-0 defeats to Bidvest Wits and Polokwane City respectively had left them in a difficult position, but Boshoff felt they were better than those results suggested.
However, his confidence was not dealt with any favours when Vincent Pule’s header struck the post in the 18th minute.
"It does get to you, hey. It really does. But as I say, because I didn’t really have time to think about it, the pressure didn’t really set on me. It was just 'go, go, go — get the boys going'," Boshoff reveals.
"When it hits the woodwork, you've got to understand: if it's not in the goal, you carry on… You've just got to control that anxiety you get in the game. You've just got to breathe about it, calm it down, and then just work through it.
Boshoff views calming players around him as part of his job, so it was unsurprising that he saved the outward displays of emotion for after the final whistle. As soon as the match ended, however, he began to let it sink in.
"I don’t know if you saw when the camera came to me at the end there, but (I felt) pure relief, hey… It’s not just about me, but the team getting a positive result. We deserve it. We’ve worked so hard," he claims.
"I was just glad that I could help the boys get a start to the season. Personally, it was just an amazing achievement being able to walk onto that field and then walk off with a clean sheet in my debut against Pirates. It was a surreal moment — I actually almost had a bit of tears going at the end."
Life isn’t about to get any easier for AmaZulu. They are scheduled visit Highlands Park on Tuesday before the Durban derby against Golden Arrows after the international break. This is set to be followed by league matches against Kaizer Chiefs, SuperSport United and Cape Town City in succession.
In Boshoff’s eyes, a challenging spell on the horizon represents an opportunity for Usuthu to claim what they deserve.
"We have worked extremely hard in pre-season, we have put the hours in," he insists. "We’ve put the time in with video analysis, we’ve put the time in with work on the field. It’s just a matter of it all coming together."
Boshoff is diplomatic about his chances of keeping his place in between the sticks, pointing out: "Every day, we go there (to training) and we work. It’s not our decision at the end of the day. Goalkeepers, we get told who plays and stuff like that."
Indeed, there are few guarantees in football — Boshoff knows this more than most. His older brother’s promising sporting career was hampered by a car accident. Although Neil claims he was too young to have properly absorbed what was happening, surely there were lessons to be learnt from this.
"You just want to believe in: what’s meant to happen is meant to happen… I never really thought of it as a barrier. If it happened, it happened. Even with me, I don’t think: 'If I get injured now, I’m never going to play again,' Boshoff says.
"Obviously there are those stresses in life, but I believe God has a plan for everyone."
Make no mistake, though: Boshoff is a man with a plan himself. His goal is to play for Bafana Bafana. Goalkeepers tend to have long shelf lives, and at 23-years-old, he still has the time to achieve this.
There are plenty of talented young South African goalkeepers; Bruce Bvuma and Brandon Petersen being two shining examples. Whether or not Boshoff will go on to wear the national team’s colours cannot be predicted.
One safe bet, however, is that even if he comes up short, it will not be due to any lack of effort.