Maritzburg United on yet another ‘oxygen support’ season

Since 2008/09 season, no team has featured bottom of the log more than Maritzburg United in the Dstv Premiership. Currently in a relegation dog fight, the Team of Choice have one of the most stable management teams, led by Chairman Farook Kadodia. But the diligence and ethics of the management team have not been transferred to stability on the field, as Martitzburg look to be set on another oxygen support season.

A total of 13 coaches have led the team since 2008. Gordon Igesund, Ian Palmer [RIP], Ernst Middendorp, Clinton Larsen, Steve Komphela, Clive Barker, Roger de Sa, Mandla Ncikazi, Fadlu Davids, Eric Tinkler & now John Maduka, are the names who have struggled to bring joy to the face of the chairman in the KZN capital.

Fadlu Davids, a club’s own legend, reached the Nedbank Cup final where he lost to Free State Stars in Cape Town. It was also in David’s season where Maritzburg finished in their highest ever spot in their history, 4th position, in the league. Eric Tinkler was another one who tried to bring a major trophy to Msunduzi, through the Telkom Knock Out, but lost the final to Sundowns in Durban, and Maritzburg United once again fell short.

Maritzburg has been a team operating on a small budget. Their primary focus according to chairman Kadodia is “to give young players a chance to play in the league”, and hopefully sell them on to bigger clubs once they are fully developed. Maritzburg’s biggest export to date has been local boy Bongokuhle Hlongwane who has now moved to the United States’ Minnesota United. There’s no doubt that Maritzburg know how to unearth rough diamonds. They unleashed one of the best defenders in the league to-date in Rushine De Reuck. De Reuck and Hlongwane are now core members of the Bafana Bafana team led by Hugo Broos, and played a vital role during the Qatar 2022 world cup qualifiers.

Minnesota United attacker Bongi Hlongwane celebrates his goal in a 4-4 draw with Portland Timbers on Saturday, July 30, 2022 at Allianz Field in St. Paul. (Courtesy of Minnesota United)

Maritzburg United star players to Orlando Pirates, namely midfielders, Fortune Makaringe and Siphesihle Ndlovu [who has now moved to SuperSport United]. Ndlovu came through Maritzburg United’s development structures, and just like Hlongwane, made it to the first team. In his first season under Fadlu Davids, Ndlovu was named rookie of the year, an award reserved for the best PSL newcomer. He was also named midfielder of the season, an award he won ahead of experienced campaigners like Hlompho Kekana. The conveyor belt is producing fine talent and has never stopped operating. The team of choice finds young gems, polishes them , promotes them to the first team, before selling them to the highest bidders.

As great as the recruitment process and business acumen is, one cannot hide the fact that teams with a similar model that Maritzburg has adopted, are no longer in professional football. Jomo Cosmos and Ajax Cape Town were the champions of selling their best homemade players on to bigger teams and to the overseas market, until it eventually caught up with them. Kadodia will be the first to admit that finding a coach that suits his business model is easy, but finding a coach who can find a balance of the business model and get results, has been difficult for him.

In the past 14 seasons, they have finished four times in the top 8 on the standings. They have finished 10th, 13th, 14th and in the playoff spot. Three times they have finished 11th and 12th. Maritzburg United have achieved a 40+ points tally three times in a season, and in all those times, they were among the top 8 teams. Five times they finished between 35-39 points tally. Four times they between 30-34 points tally, and only twice they finished below 30 points tally.

Maritzburg United may have occupied the bottom half of the log 9 times in 14 seasons, but they have directly battled relegation 6 times and come out tops. And this in a league where a team finishing at number 15 goes to the promotion/relegation play offs with teams that finished 2nd and 3rd in the Motsepe Foundation Championship. Such teams don’t wish for a team of Maritzburg United prowess to be part of these play offs.
There are seasons where they escaped relegation either on the last day of the season or in last few games of the season, and all their previous coaches may have their own interpretation of the results during such periods of their stays, but the fact remains Maritzburg are regulars in the bottom half. Middendorp, for an example, has been at the club three times. He has seen relegation fights, and seen the best players sold before the beginning of every season, that forced him to start fresh with a new group each time.

Ernst Middendorp – Wikipedia

Kadodia knows what quality the German brings, and has shown trust, to a certain degree, towards the German mentor. Both parties don’t seem to have the same contentment regarding the results at the end of each of the last two seasons that Middendorp has been at the club. The same cannot be said about how a Mandla Ncikazi was allowed to coach for just 4 games, having taken over from Steve Komphela. What did he miss in his selection process that forced him to act so hastily, as soon as the results were not forthcoming? In the 2015/16 season, the same season Maritzburg fired Ncikazi, they finished 14th and collected their second lowest points tally of 27 points. Ncikazi’s then assistant Fadlu Davids, took Maritzburg United from position 16 to save them relegation and finish14th.

Insiders at Maritzburg United believe no coach has ever done proper coaching and improved players better than Ernst. Outsiders look at the value of squads Maritzburg have assembled over the past few years, and believe no coach will ever be able to take any Maritzburg United squad consistently to the top 8, because of their unconvincing quality. The technical team set-up are coach’s choices, but who have the previous coaches brought to the club, and what quality have they brought to help Maritzburg improve in the past? For example, when Maritzburg parted ways with coach Eric Tinkler, Kadodia lambasted Tinkler’s assistant Vincent Kobola in the media. He felt Kobola didn’t have the expertise or knowledge to be coaching a PSL side at the time. Kobola had worked with Tinkler at Cape Town City, when the side was still in its formative days before following Tinkler to Maritzburg. They led Maritzburg to a cup final, but still, that wasn’t enough to save him, as Maritzburg had a terrible start in Tinkler’s second season.

Middendorp has never taken Maritzburg further in any cup competition, but it is his work ethic that has separated him from the rest. His work ethic, professionalism, and attention to detail are the qualities that keep attracting Kadodia back to him in times of need. Known as a no-nonsense type of coach, Ernst believes in giving deserving players an opportunity, not just players of great reputation. If you work hard enough, Ernst rewards you with game time. Ernst is also a believer in youngsters, which is what Kadodia appreciates about him.

Soon after parting ways with Middendorp at the end of 2021/22 season, Maritzburg appointed John Maduka, following his departure from neighbours Royal AM. Fifteen years of professional football as a player, and a box-to-box midfielder in his day, Maduka is known as a great human being, but has his shortcomings as a coach. At Celtic, Maduka started his post-playing career as a team manager, before being roped in as an assistant to Lehlohonolo Seema. In July of 2020, Seema left financially troubled Celtic for a job at Chippa United. Maduka was promoted swiftly to a head coach role, and in his first match in charge they defeated Sundowns in the MTN 8 quarter final. In his first season as a head coach, Maduka’s Celtic finished 11th on the log, despite the challenges Celtic were facing at the time. The following season, Celtic were sold to Durban businesswoman Shauwn Mkhize, and were forced to relocate to Pietermaritzburg as part of the agreement of sale. It was his great season at Royal AM which helped Maduka earn respect in the coaching fraternity.

John Maduka, head coach of Maritzburg United during the DStv Premiership 2022/23 match between AmaZulu and Maritzburg United at the Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban on the 18 October 2022 ©Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Kadodia told the media when he unveiled Maduka at the press conference at the Harry Gwala stadium, that it was the coach’s exploits at Celtic that attracted Maritzburg United to the Malawian. Maduka was given a task of rebuilding the team from the foundation laid by Middendorp. Thirteen games into the 2022/23 season, Maduka has managed just two wins, 5 draws and 6 defeats. Winless away from home, winless on Friday night, Maduka turned Maritzburg’s selling points to average pointers. Kadodia sold the idea of Friday night football to the Midlands communities pre-covid, which they supported, and turned Harry Gwala into a slaughter house for seasons. For Maduka, it has been a downward spiral. Results have not been coming, and that has led to a groaning at the Harry Gwala main grandstand. In the 5-0 home loss to Sundowns, a small section of fans left the stadium at half while the team was 3-0 down.
The squad he has recruited has been fairly young, coupled with players he has coached before at Royal AM and at Celtic, but believed to be good enough for the top 8. His technical team comprises of people Maduka has previously worked with at Celtic. His assistant Ditheko Mototo and goalkeepers’ coach, Simon Gopane, is an inexperienced physical trainer and former Celtic MDC coach, working as his analyst.

Maduka may have many reasons for not doing well thus far in the league, but he cannot point a finger at Management for not supporting him. It all boils down to his coaching at the end of the day. Maritzburg will once again be involved in another relegation battle, thanks to poor string of results, but whether they choose to keep or fire Maduka, remains to be seen. Sitting at the foot of the table, with -13 goal difference, scoring 6 and conceding 19, a worst defensive record and joint worst scoring record currently in the league is deafening, regarding Maduka’s season at Maritzburg. His team is shy in front of goals and also in disarray defensively, a combination for disaster.

Going into a FIFA break may mean Maduka will need more than luck to turn things around in the second round. The Maritzburg United chairman may be thinking hard about Maduka’s future, but the trend analysis informs us of another big and stressful 17 games for Kadodia, his board, management team, players, and the people of uMsunduzi Municipality.