‘Team going in right direction’

2012-05-21 00:00

IT has been an up-and-down PSL season for Maritzburg United. The side’s 1-0 loss to Moroka Swallows in Saturday’s finale at Harry Gwala ensured that the Team of Choice finished 11th on the league table, which is encouraging given the side’s familiar fight against relegation.

United started the campaign brightly under coach Ian Palmer, going undefeated for the first seven matches of the season on their way to third place on the table. Palmer was named the PSL’s manager of the month for August/September and it appeared that United were well on their way to securing the top-eight finish that they were seeking. But a 7-0 loss at the hands of SuperSport United in Pretoria changed all that, and Palmer and his squad would struggle their way through the rest of the first half of the season.

A disagreement between Palmer and the United board over his desire to attend a Safa coaching course, coupled with his string of poor results towards the end of the first round of fixtures, saw Palmer replaced by coach Ernst Middendorp at the halfway stage of the season.

Middendorp’s appointment was a controversial one, given the circumstances under which he left the club back in March 2011 after a television outburst in which he dared the club owners to fire him.

But the German coach, a calmer figure in his latest stint at the club, has brought a sense of stability to United in the second half of the season and successfully kept the side away from the bottom of the table.

“I can’t speak about the first half of the season because I was not here,” Middendorp told The Witness. “But the team did very well then.”

Where Palmer may have had the edge over Middendorp in terms of man-management, Middendorp is superior tactically. He is a seasoned campaigner with a firm emphasis on team structure and quick forward movement of the ball. The latter has been United’s main concern throughout the season, but Middendorp is encouraged by what he sees.

“You can definitely see the improvement in the players,” said the coach, who has another year left on his contract. “They are young players and need a bit more experience, but the team is moving in the right direction …”

Middendorp singled out defenders Ryan de Jongh and David Booysen and midfielder Philani Zulu as players who he felt would be big players in the future.

“It will be a disaster if these young players start relaxing by getting too comfortable in the starting 11,” the coach added.

With a potential move to Port Elizabeth on the cards, it is unclear how much football Harry Gwala will see next season. But there was enough about this campaign to suggest that the team is in capable hands under Middendorp, even if results haven’t been as good as they could have been.

Mor Diouf has been a revelation at centre-back and if United can keep him away from bigger clubs, they look set to start next season with a solid defence.

“He is contracted to us and he is our player,” Middendorp said. “If we get a big money offer then we will see what happens.”

Diouf, Michael Morton, Kurt Lentjies, Chillies Madondo, Rheece Evans, Thabang Matuka, Byrone Hendricks, Shu-Aib Walters, Felix Obada and Cuthbert Malajila have given the most encouragement ahead of next season, and if they can all perform consistently, then United should have another season free of any relegation worries.

• sport@witness.co.za

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