Pressure time for fired-up United

2008-06-24 00:00

IT seems reasonable to expect that Maritzburg United will be fired up for this afternoon’s first leg of the National First Division (NFD) play-off final against FC AK at Eldorado Park in Johannesburg.

This is not just the moment the United players have been waiting for over the past two months, while the final was suspended as the Premier Soccer League (PSL) concluded its bribery case against FC AK.

The goal of playing in the final for promotion to the PSL has been the aim of every player since United began their victorious Coastal Stream campaign with a neat 1-0 victory over Western Province United at Harry Gwala Stadium on September 28 last year.

Since then, United went about their task with discipline and focus, losing just two games out of 21. For the past two months, they have had to keep that focus on the training ground and in friendlies.

Now, finally, 180 minutes of football against tough, determined opponents is what stands between the club and its triumphant return to the PSL just over a year after being relegated. The second leg is at Harry Gwala on Sunday.

“It is going to come down to which team is more hungry on the day, and which team shows a lot of character on the day over the two legs,” is how coach Ian Palmer summed up the final yesterday.

The coach, who along with assistant Ashwin Sutton and goalkeeper-coach Pernell McKop, has been the glue in the team spirit that has bonded United, says United have trained like demons since the conclusion of the FC AK case.

“I think for the players, when they got a date for the final, it really made a difference,” Palmer said. “Since they found out when they will be playing the tempo in the training sessions has been outstanding.

“You can see that when you get into the changerooms the mood has really changed, even from what it was during the course of the season. I think that shows the players know this is a once-in-a-lifetime game for them.”

United have a few things going for them against an FC AK team who won the Inland Stream with a solid line-up that combines youth with the experience of Charles Yohane, Alois Bunjira, Elasto Kapowezha and Mark McVeigh.

For one, United know more about AK than the other way round, with the PMB team’s technical staff having coached Azziz Kara’s team for the first half of last season. This, though, has only served to strengthen Palmer’s wariness.

“I trained on that ground [Eldorado Park] for over a year and know it well. It’s not a bad pitch — a bit like Harry Gwala, but not quite as hard.

“As for FC AK, most of their players have been promoted from the academy from when I was there. And then, when you include the Charles Yohanes and Alois Bunjiras, I know the team’s style of play.

“And this is how it is for them: the players have been given an opportunity to get the team to a league where the grant is R1 million a month, which means they can be paid on time,” Palmer said, in reference to the financial and legal troubles FC AK have had this season. “That is a very big motivation for them.”

United appear to have the greater hunger, focus and experience to reach the PSL. Whether they can lift themselves from the two-month break, and keep their heads under the pressure, will be seen today.

Kickoff: 3 pm

The match will be shown live on SuperSport 3 from 2.45 pm.

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