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Benni McCarthy. File photo: VELI NHLAPO
Benni McCarthy. File photo: VELI NHLAPO

The disbelief and double-checking whether the appointment of Benni McCarthy to the Manchester United coaching staff was actually true says a great deal about how South Africans sell themselves short.

Is it because the 44-year-old former Bafana striker hails from gang-infested Hanover Park, or simply because he’s from a country whose national men’s team has been in the doldrums for the past two decades?

Forget about the name Benni McCarthy and where he’s from for a moment. Instead, only think about a top striker who, at the age of 21, finished top scorer at the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations, has won league titles with Ajax in the Netherlands and in Portugal with Porto with whom he also lifted the Champions League and the Golden Boot in 2004. Add to that his possession of a Uefa A coaching licence and the fact that he’s a polyglot who speaks English, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese fluently.

Sad to say, but had it been a former European star with those serious credentials that had been recruited by new United manager Erik ten Hag it would have been hailed as a coup for the club.

In the European game the manager is fully responsible for the overall running and functioning of the team. The buck stops with him. He has the autonomy to choose his support staff in whom he has to have complete confidence to deliver on his plans and vision for the team.

The coaching staff play a critical role at big clubs such as Manchester United. In addition to working with the players on the technical side, they are also an important sounding board for the manager. In short, the coaches are no water-carriers.

That of McCarthy certainly was no willy-nilly appointment. Before recruiting the former Bafana legend Ten Hag would first have checked his playing and coaching background before running the rule over McCarthy by giving him an opportunity to take charge of a training session two weeks ago. And the Capetonian must have impressed his new boss because he was appointed shortly afterwards.

Bigger role

“He has experience as a manager. He was a coach in the professional level and he was a former striker, a really successful striker as well,” the Dutchman told the club’s television channel, MUTV.

Initial reports indicated that McCarthy had been brought in to work with the team’s strikers but Ten Hag envisages a bigger role for the South African.

“He will focus on the positioning and attacking. I'm not saying only the strikers, but also the integration from the full-backs and midfielders. Our way of play has to be dynamic.”

Judging by the manager’s comments, it’s a huge role and responsibility that McCarthy has been entrusted with, especially by a manager who is under pressure to turn around the fortunes of a massive but underperforming club that won the last of their 20 league titles in 2013 when the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson retired.

In addition to his stellar playing career, McCarthy would also have learnt a great deal about the coaching and managerial side of things from the time he played under some of the game’s top operators such as Jose Mourinho, Louis van Gaal, Dutch legend Co Adriaanse and Morten Olsen.

The coaching job with the Red Devils is a further, important step in McCarthy’s development as a future manager of either a top club or hopefully, of Bafana Bafana when the time is right. 

As the former striker told me shortly after being fired by Cape Town City in November 2019,  “Working in an assistant coaching role provides a great opportunity to work with experienced managers. You get to learn first-hand what it’s like.

Opportunity arises

“Look at Kolo Toure. He played under a great manager like Arsene Wenger for such a long time, I don’t think you could have worked under a better manager.

“He also went to play under Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool and Glasgow Celtic and then joined Brendan’s coaching staff after retiring. Once you think you’ve learnt enough you can go on your own when the opportunity arises.”

Encouragingly for SA football, McCarthy’s new job adds to the pool of former Bafana players holding coaching jobs in Europe. Steven Pienaar, who had a stellar career with Everton in the Premier League, is assistant coach of the Under-18 team at former club Ajax while Quinton Fortune was head coach of English Championship side Reading between September 2020 and February 2022.

Like they did as players, these former Bafana internationals are now serving as role models for aspiring SA coaches.

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