For a brief four days in December Kaizer Chiefs held a 13-point lead over Mamelodi Sundowns as the 2019-2020 Premier Soccer League (PSL) title race approached the halfway stage. 

On December 6, Chiefs were flying high with 10 wins from their first 12 matches to sit top with 31 points‚ 10 points clear of second-placed SuperSport United (21 points from 13 games) and third-placed Sundowns (21 from 11).

On December 7‚ Samir Nurković’s hat-trick spurred Chiefs to a thrilling 5-3 win over Bloemfontein Celtic at Moses Mabhida Stadium. Amakhosi had found a genuine goalscorer‚ coach Ernst Middendorp’s unheralded signings were turning out to be intelligent.

The nightmare of the previous seasons where Giovanni Solinas’s early muddled tenure gave way to early promise from Middendorp‚ but which ultimately deflated into a ninth-placed league finish and‚ worse‚ the 1-0 humiliation to First Division TS Galaxy in the Nedbank Cup final‚ was over.

With Sundowns not in action again until they beat Stellenbosch FC 3-1 on December 11‚ the 13-point lead lasted four days‚ though Middendorp was at pains at the time to point out that Downs had two games in hand. Still‚ such a lead seemed too much even for Pitso Mosimane’s defending champions to reel in. Amakhosi looked unstoppable for a title in their 50th anniversary season.

A 1-1 draw away to Maritzburg United in Chiefs’ final game before the PSL’s midseason recess saw the lead whittled to seven points.

Pundits pointed out that with the Chiefs squad’s lack of experience in closing trophies and 2016 Caf Champions League-winners Downs’ obvious pedigree at it‚ Amakhosi would need to preserve a buffer to clinch the title. A blow-for-blow finish would surely favour the Brazilians.

Middendorp scoffed at the suggestion. Scoffing is one of the coach’s unattractive personality traits. It belies a weakness in being capable of absorbing suggestions, however valid or invalid they may be. It suggests insecurity and a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities.

After the Christmas break Chiefs lost 2-1 to SuperSport United and the gap was reduced by Sundowns to four points just a month after it had been 13. The Christmas jitters were the first of a few such periods in a second half of the season where Chiefs managed just six wins‚ four draws and five defeats in their second 15 matches.

This‚ too‚ has been a characteristic of Middendorp’s coaching career. Starting with initial success but somehow being self-destructive in that process as it continues. The coach is tactically astute‚ studies opponents in detail‚ and is good at unusual positional switches that get the best out of players —  such as Lebogang Manyama’s excellent transition into a central midfielder. He is considered to be technically sound by most of the players who have served under him at his multitude of clubs.

It is when Middendorp’s stubbornness‚ inflexibility‚ poor man-management and insecurity show‚ which leads to fights with senior players, that the train begins to derail. At Chiefs he naturally took charge of more big-name stars than at Maritzburg United‚ Free State Stars or Bloemfontein Celtic.

Indications from within Naturena were that Middendorp was fighting with senior players during the biobubble‚ in the crucial death part of the season. Perhaps‚ though‚ we do not even really need such indications.

Middendorp’s angry body language and foul mood — picking arguments with journalists in Facebook messages‚ accusing his own media staff of being in cahoots with the press when they asked tough questions‚ and refusing to attend the post-match media conference after Chiefs lost 1-0 to Bidvest Wits — seemed enough of a giveaway.

Itumeleng Khune was not even on the bench for the first six matches of the bubble and no-one at Chiefs would explain why. Willard Katsande was regularly substituted after making a single error in a match. These were further telltale signs.

Middendorp had well-publicised spats with Leonardo Castro and Khama Billiat in 2018-2019‚ and both wanted to leave the club in the off-season. The coach fought with Billiat and his FA over turning out for Zimbabwe this season.

The best attacker in the PSL on form‚ Billiat’s bizarre three-week “rest” after Christmas turned into six weeks‚ and he came back rusty more than refreshed. He scored two crucial goals in Chiefs’ last two matches — just his second and third strikes of the season — but was a shadow of the force he is capable of being.

Among this man-management messiness‚ Middendorp’s selections in the bubble‚ even in the context of the need for rotation‚ were strange.

Khune and Akpeyi should have been the international stars pushing each other at keeper. As Akpeyi conceded nine goals in five games‚ Khune should have been recalled earlier. Instead, it took a concussion to Akpeyi for it to happen.

Ramahlwe Mphahlele’s return to the starting line-up having played just three matches all season, to be skinned by young Bloemfontein Celtic left-back Sifiso Ngobeni in a 3-1 defeat, was costly. Fielding 17-year-old Keletso Sifama on the wing in the 1-0 defeat to Sundowns was unfair on the youngster.

So‚ ultimately‚ after Chiefs, perhaps unsurprisingly, capitulated meekly on the final day with a 1-1 draw against Baroka FC, where Amakhosi could not create a chance in 36 minutes after Manuel Kambala’s 59th-minute equaliser‚ what should the post-mortem be on Middendorp in 2019-2020?

Simply‚ yes‚ the coach deserves credit for his effective‚ if awkward, gameplan with a squad nowhere near Sundowns’ class — even with some clever signings —  to have raced out of the gates in the first half of the season. He is not the palooka he has often been unfairly portrayed as.

In the end‚ though‚ he deserves all the criticism for undoing all that good work. And he has to shoulder the blame for Chiefs’ failure to secure a league title in their half-century season.

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