A year on from one of their worst top flight finishes in the history of the Premier Soccer Leage, Orlando Pirates have already raised their hand as possible title contenders for the 2018/19 season.
This is down to the magnificent efforts of coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic and his assistants Rulani Mokwena and Benson Mhlongo.
A 6-1 drubbing by SuperSport United followed by Muhsin Ertugral’s resignation live on national television, summed up what would be a horrible campaign for the Buccaneers.
Pirates’ disappointing campaign last season also saw rare incidents where their former greats Michael Makaab and Moeneeb Josephs came out to attack them on social media.
In response to Pirates' dismal campaign, former coach Makaab tweeted:
It's time that some of these players realise what a privilege it is to wear an Orlando Pirates jersey. It's no ordinary jersey...— Mike Makaab (@MikeMakaab) June 24, 2017
Josephs also launched a scathing attack on his former teammates, calling them 'Instagram players'.
“Many of these players‚ you can see they are Instagram stars. Not doing the business for Pirates – there isn’t pride anymore for that jersey. They’re not playing for the team‚ for the Ghost‚ for the ancestors. They are playing for Instagram. Whatever they’re doing at training it’s done for Instagram – it’s crap,” Josephs said at the time.
These cries seemingly did not fall on deaf ears as the new season approached.
The club first welcomed Kjell Jonevret’s resignation letter and a day later, announced the return of Sredojevic to the club.
Jonevert was followed by Nkosinathi Mthiyane, Thabo Rakhale, Donald Mokondelela, Tercios Malepe, Patrick Phungwayo, Tendai Ndoro, James Okwuosa, Jacky Motshegwa, Dove Wome, Mahlatse Makudubela, Brighton Mhlongo, Thembela Sikhakhane and Gift Motupa out the exit door. Riyaad Norodien and Ayanda Gcaba left the club on loan.
In a deal welcomed by mixed emotions from the Sea Robbers, Dr Irvin Khoza roped in the son of Pirates legend Julius Sono - Rulani to assist Micho.
Wayne Sandilands, Marshall Munetsi, Innocent Maela, Mthokozisi Dube, Musa Nyatama, Justin Shonga, and Thamsanqa Sangweni all arrived from different destinations. And midway through the campaign, Augustine Mulenga, Xola Mlambo, Diamond Thopola and Phetso Maphanga were added to the roaster.
This would be the beginning of a dramatic turnaround for the Buccaneers.
Needless to say, Micho and Rulani found a squad in desperate need of rejuvenation. Players like Mpho Makola and Amigo Memela were nowhere near their best as Pirates charted their worst league finish, 11th, in the history of the PSL.
The coaches would boldly opt to play a 3-4-3 formation and a 3-4-1-2, and a 4-4-2 occasionally. And surprisingly, Dube and Maela - turned out to be key on the right and left wing back positions respectively.
Players like Shitolo, Nyatama, Memela and Lorch revived their careers at the Orlando Stadium as they each repaid Sredojevic for his faith in them and adapted to his new 3-4-3 formation admirably.
Shitolo played a key role in Pirates’ three-man defence, almost playing the sweeper role. Happy Jele and Ntsikelelo Nyauza provided width to their defence, which allowed Dube and Maela to make telling runs on the flanks.
They also deployed Nyatama in a deep-lying-playmaker role which gave Memela and Lorch the freedom to attack.
With both wing-backs timeously providing attacking threats down the flanks, Lorch and Memela played free roaming roles behind Shonga who spearheaded the attack.
Maela’s nomination for the Defender of the Season award came as no surprise given the defender’s meiotic rise from the National First Division to the Bafana Bafana squad.
Acquired as an attacking player from Bloemfontein Celtic, Nyatama has undoubtedly been one of the league’s outstanding performers, albeit in an unfamiliar defensive midfield role. The 30-year-old accumulated a record six man of the match awards and netted four times in 26 starts.
There is no doubt of course that Lorch and Memela also deserve to be commended for the job well done.
Many had been longing to see the side of Memela that attracted Pirates to him from Cape Town All Stars in the 2014/15 season where he netted 15 times in 27 appearances. The 30-year-old was one of the notably revived figures in the Pirates squad this season and his brace from the bench against Kaizer Chiefs will remain memorable to many. The Cape Town-born players also registered seven assists and netted five times last season.
Like Memela, Lorch was Pirates’ third wheel in upfront. In a Bucs shirt the previous season, Lorch had struggled to replicate the form he had shown while on loan at Chippa United. It has often been said that the Pirates jersey is too heavy on some players, but under Micho and Mokwena, the 24-year-old has been a marvel to watch and was among a handful of players who were handed maiden call-ups by Stuart Baxter.
The rebirth of Jele alongside defensive partner Shitolo was also like a breath of fresh air for the Buccaneers.
Despite featuring 25 times for Bucs in the previous campaign, many had predicted that, like Manyisa, it was time Jele moved elsewhere to revive his ailing career, but the 31-year-old silenced his critics in style.
A massive achievement considering where they were just 12 months ago.
Indeed, Micho, Rulani and Mhlongo have made the ‘Happy People’ believe again while they also revived the careers of the majority of players at Pirates.
Their innovativeness and style of play was palatable. Pirates have been great this year and their efforts were rewarded with not only Micho’s nomination for the Coach of the Season award, but finishing second to return to continental football next year.
Finishing second also did not nullify all the wonderful work they’ve been putting in. It does not invalidate that many players improved under their guidance.