MTN8 final: Owen Da Gama hopes for a perfect ending to Highlands Park fairytale
Beating cup kings SuperSport United won't be easy
Owen Da Gama’s underdogs want to show they are not all bark and no bite when they take on cup top-dogs SuperSport United in the MTN8 final at the Orlando Stadium on Saturday.
SuperSport have distinguished themselves as cup kings in the past decade‚ reaching 10 finals and winning six. They will be lining up for their third straight MTN8 final‚ winning one and losing the other to Cape Town City.
Though respectful of the impressive cup pedigree of SuperSport‚ Da Gama‚ the 2005-06 Premier Soccer League (PSL) coach of the season‚ is cautiously optimistic that his Lions of the North can shock their more illustrious opponents.
“This is a great opportunity for us to continue to make an impression‚ have an impact and make our presence felt. There is a name already on that trophy. If your name is on the trophy‚ if it is meant to be‚ it is meant‚” said Da Gama.
“We are under no illusions that we are underdogs. I’m really elated for and proud of the players. For us‚ this is a history‚ a fairytale story. In our first season in the PSL we finished seventh on the log. Now we’re in the final against a team with a great cup pedigree. Most importantly‚ for us it is a growth process‚ an opportunity for players to grow and get experience.”
Da Gama last scooped silverware in 2006 when he led the now defunct Silver Stars to a 3-0 victory over Ajax Cape Town in the Telkom Knockout final. Three years earlier‚ Stars lost the Coca-Cola Cup 2-0 to Kaizer Chiefs.
One of the players Da Gama will bank on to bag the trophy is Thela Ngobeni‚ the former Free State Stars‚ Mamelodi Sundowns and Chiefs goalkeeper. Ngobeni is no stranger to gold medals.
“He won a cup [Nedbank Cup last season] with Free State Stars coming from not having a lot of game time and only playing in the cup for Stars‚” Da Gama said. “He’s been there among the big boys in a top team [Mamelodi Sundowns] that has won the Champions League. He brings calmness to the defence.”
A fountain of experience in the person of Reneilwe Letsholonyane is a new addition in the Highlands arsenal. Yeye is no yo-yo and has in the past hit the high notes of cup collection with both Chiefs and SuperSport‚ who didn’t renew his contract.
Da Gama may be tempted to call on Letsholonyane’s wealth of experience for Highlands’ big occasion.
“What a player!” he said. “What a professional! What an honour to be coaching a player of his calibre‚ because of what he has achieved and the human being he is. Yeye gives you that sense that anything is possible in football.”
If Ngobeni will be counted on as the last line of defence‚ even more trust will be on Peter Shalulile. The Namibia international is the leading light in the PSL top strikers’ chart. He scored his sixth goal in six league matches when Highlands beat Polokwane City 1-0 on Sunday.
“He is the kind of player who is able to produce individual brilliance. He delivered the goods in the dying minutes and got us a vital victory.
“We [Da Gama and his assistants Victor Tshabalala and Allan Freese] were 100% focused on the match against Polokwane‚ it allowed the players to fight for positions [in the final].
“If you want to plan for two games‚ you’ll end up losing both. Now we are going to SuperSport and they know that we are hard running and will close the areas where they are dangerous.
“We have no stars but a core group of players ready for battle. Marks Munyai is one of the most underrated players.
“We have Sabelo Nyembe‚ Lindokuhle Mbatha and Ryan Rae. With us‚ everybody chips in to make it a very special team effort. We know it won’t be easy but we will give it our all.”
Highlands will have their hands full dealing with the dangerous and offensive combination of Thamsanqa Gabuza and Bradley Grobler.
“They are a dangerous combo and have proven that already this early in the season.”
Gabuza is the leading goalscorer of the tournament with three goals and two assists. Grobler has one MTN8 goal and five in the PSL.
“Gabuza is an exceptional player and I saw his qualities at close range when I worked with him in the national team. It is very seldom you get a tall player who possesses aerial prowess and speed. Gabuza can play as a striker to hold up play.”