Air of nostalgia around Harry Gwala as former United coach returns

2014-03-19 00:00

THERE will be an air of nostalgia around Harry Gwala Stadium tonight as former Maritzburg United coach Ernst Middendorp makes his first trip to the venue as Bloemfontein Celtic boss.

Middendorp, who enjoyed two stints at the Team of Choice between 2009-2011 and 2012-2013, ditched the club last October for greener pastures as Celtic sought a replacement for the outgoing Clinton Larsen. Since then, United have hired and fired Larsen, and are now settled on the charismatic Steve Komphela as the worry of relegation continues to ever so slightly rear its head.

The critics are still divided over Middendorp’s impact at United. There is the common notion that his sides were never adventurous enough, while the converse is that his astute tactical awareness and structural emphasis always made United a difficult team to beat.

Either of those analyses could very easily be applied to Middendorp’s reign at Celtic so far, where he has lost only three times in the league in 16 matches at the club while drawing seven and winning six. Komphela, on the other hand, has won three, drawn one and lost two of his first six matches as United boss.

It is set to be a battle of Middendorp’s rigidity and Komphela’s fluidity, but the United boss is not overly concerned by the prospect of Celtic shutting shop.

“If it is closed then you have to open it, and we have the solutions to do that,” Komphela said. “I’ve opened many of coach Middendorp’s games in the past when he was here [Maritzburg].”

In only the second round of fixtures this season, United under Middendorp were beaten 2-0 at Komphela’s Free State Stars.

It is likely to be an emotional evening for Middendorp, whose love/hate relationship with the Team of Choice was ever-changing, but Komphela remains focused. “He [Middendorp] loves the club and he loves football,” he said. “It is logically an emotional moment, but we are professionals and we put that aside. We become robotic and focus only on the tactics and three points. It may be [emotional] for the players, but that is where it is my responsibility to see that everyone remains calm.”

The 55-year-old German acknowledged that tonight’s affair would be “strange”.

“I still have a very good relationship with the club and many fond memories,” Middendorp told The Witness yesterday. “But I have been in this business for over 20 years. You try to stay focused and handle the situation professionally.”

Komphela is likely to make a couple of changes from the side that lost 3-1 to AmaZulu at home on Friday night in a match where United were clearly fatigued after having beaten Free State Stars just three nights earlier.

Tonight will be United’s third match in eight days. Dutch striker Orlando Smeekes is almost certain to return to the starting line-up after serving a one-match suspension, while centre back Mario Booysen will undergo a late fitness test to determine his availability. Namibian winger Heini Isaacks and Ghanaian centre back Mohamed Awal are the other two players who will come into contention for a starting berth.

Away from the back stories, this will be a crucially important night in United’s season. The loss to AmaZulu knocked the wind out of the sails of what appeared to be a resurgent side under Komphela. The future still appears bright for the club, who have scored in every match under their new mentor, but a poor result tonight will re-raise concerns over the run in and a possible finish near the bottom of the table and potential relegation.

“There is no way,” said a confident Komphela on the prospect of playing in the National First Division next season. “Without any arrogance, that is a given.”

Tonight’s match kicks off at 7.30 pm and will not be televised.

Tonight’s fixtures (all 7.30 pm)

Maritzburg United v Bloemfontein Celtic

SuperSport United v Platinum Stars

Kaizer Chiefs v Ajax Cape Town

AmaZulu v Polokwane City

University of Pretoria v Wits.

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