United nearly up to strength

2013-04-11 00:00

THE rain and cold at yesterday’s Maritzburg United training session made Harry Gwala look more like the home ground of a London club than that of a PSL side.

But the weather did not prevent the Team of Choice from putting in a solid hour-long morning session in preparation for Saturday’s massive Nedbank Cup quarter-final against SuperSport United.

A highlight of yesterday’s session was the performance of Ghanaian centre-back Mohamed Awal, who spent much of the time jogging around the pitch by himself as he continues to recover from the hamstring strain that kept him out of Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Bloemfontein Celtic. But coach Ernst Middendorp has seen enough to be optimistic that he will have the physically imposing 24-year-old ready for Saturday.

With Orlando Smeekes also looking in good shape after fracturing his foot, Middendorp has all but one of the squad members available for selection. Winger Frank Sarfo-Gyamfi is still nursing an injury he picked up on Ghana U20 duty.

That Middendorp’s squad is fully fit at this stage of the season is no mean feat — it has been a busy time for PSL clubs and many of United’s players have been forced to play as many as three matches a week.

One of those players is in-form left wing Dillon Sheppard, who has been colossal for United since joining from Golden Arrows in January.

At the age of 34 and without regular game time at Arrows, you would think that Sheppard would need prudent management of his time on the field as he comes to terms with the rigours of PSL football.

But he seems to be evergreen, and his class, professionalism and educated left boot call to mind the Manchester United veteran, Ryan Giggs.

A former Mamelodi Sundowns, Ajax Cape Town and Platinum Stars player, he has been ever-present for United since joining, and his form in recent weeks has been exemplary.

With a seasoned footballing mind, a neat first touch, pace, skill and a good understanding with playmaker Delron Buckley, Sheppard has become one of the first names on Middendorp’s team sheet.

“I’ve enjoyed it. I’m just happy that I can repay the faith shown in me by the club and the coach,” Sheppard told The Witness of his run of impressive performances.

“I’m just happy to be playing again. The body is feeling good and hats off to the medical staff who have been outstanding and looked after us all well while we have been playing a lot of games.”

Sheppard is no stranger to silverware. He was in the Sundowns team that won the league twice and the Telkom Knockout and Nedbank Cup, and Saturday’s quarter-final will be nothing new to the Durbanite.

He is just as determined as anybody in the United squad to advance to the last four of the tournament.

“You never get tired of winning trophies, that is the aim for any player in his career,” he said.

“We are just two games away from a final and this is a good chance for us. I really think we can do it.”

History suggests that United could not have asked for a worse opponent on Saturday — they have never beaten SuperSport — but that means little to Sheppard.

“There’s a first for everything,” he said. “The spirit in this team is bursting, full of life, and the guys really want to make this happen.”

Saturday’s match kicks off at 3 pm and will be televised on SuperSport Four and SABC 1.

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