SuperSport United’s training grounds have turned into a happy place since two-time league-winning coach Stuart Baxter arrived nearly a fortnight ago.
Watching the players go through their paces at their base in Megawatt Park, northern Johannesburg, it is clear Baxter has injected a new lease of life, as the players are exuberant.
Former coach Gordon Igesund left the team in 10th spot after a poor run of form.
Baxter inherits a situation similar to when, as a club coach in Sweden, he pulled off the unthinkable. The 62-year-old now hopes for the same at United.
“I joined Hälsingborgs IF, which was second from the bottom of the log. We finished as runners-up and won a cup.”
Baxter’s mandate at United is pretty straightforward: secure the club’s status in the premier division.
“They don’t want to finish outside the top eight, and want to be involved in cup competitions. At the end of the season, I am going to be evaluated to see if I have met my targets, and we will take it from there,” he said.
It is Friday afternoon and the former Bafana Bafana coach, in full club training kit with his top neatly tucked in, takes charge, shouting and occasionally stopping play to give instructions.
This is a tense training session in the build-up to the team’s Premiership clash against Ajax Cape Town at the Lucas Moripe Stadium, which was to take place this afternoon.
The session starts with a netball-type exercise, with only forward passes and scoring with headers.
Next, is a full workout with the ball, the idea being quick transition from the back to attack.
Here, goalkeepers Boalefa Pule and Ronwen Williams come out tops, as they thwart attempt after attempt.
But he occasionally stops play as tackles are flying, with players going all out to impress.
Sibusiso Khumalo is lucky to come out unscathed after colliding with a defender and Pule does well to stop Jeremy Brockie’s shot, which leaves him reeling in pain.
Lastly, they practise set pieces. Here the likes of Brockie and Ejike Uzoenyi show their class, as the ball ends up in the back of the net.
After the session, Baxter is delighted and believes his charges have quickly adapted to his tactics and coaching philosophy.
The first time the Englishman came to South Africa to coach Bafana in 2004, he conceded he knew nothing about the country.
He left a year later, after qualifying the national team for the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia.
“I wanted to see what it was like to coach in South Africa,” said the former Kaizer Chiefs coach, who won two league titles and two cups in three seasons before quitting Amakhosi last year.
When Chiefs had earlier come knocking at his door, he seized the opportunity to prove his detractors wrong after Bafana dumped him unceremoniously.
Baxter believes he is wiser now.
“What probably attracted me is that I have a different mission now, because this is a different project. I am wiser now. I know the supporters’ behaviour, the players’ mentality and how the league is run – basically the good and the bad of the league. I turned down a job at Aston Villa in the [English Premier League] because I love this country and my family loves this country. I enjoy working with South African players because of their attitude.”
Baxter appears destined to join the Tshwane side. He was first approached by SuperSport before he joined Chiefs in 2012.
He needs to quickly turn United’s fortunes around and believes he is up to the challenge.
“This job is going to be in stages – first I need to get things right and make improvements; then we can acquire staff, but it doesn’t mean we can’t win anything. It doesn’t mean that wanting a sensible approach means we can’t win anything. The main thing now is to stabilise the situation and put it on the right track – then we can start looking forward.”
Baxter does not want to dwell more on the past – be it Chiefs or Igesund.
“I just felt we had different opinions [at Chiefs]. It is OK if everybody can’t see eye to eye but we didn’t see things the same way. I just felt the way things were going, it was better for me to go. I didn’t want to get to a point where I told them to stick the job somewhere.”
He describes his Turkish experience as a nightmare. After leaving Chiefs, he joined Gençlerbirligi in Turkey but lasted only two games.
“Everybody warned me about the club president’s reputation of firing coaches, but I never expected what happened there. They have had four coaches since I left and that says a lot about the president, who is 84.”
Baxter did not rule out the possibility of raiding Chiefs’ players in the off season.
“If we had a cheque book like Bobby [Motaung’s] I’d be interested. If Chiefs don’t make offers to the players we want, many clubs in South Africa would be interested, and SuperSport would not be different. The fact that I know the players personally would be a bonus. We will monitor players from other clubs as well, as we will have to reinforce our side.”
Baxter said he did help his former players to play at clubs overseas but was quick to add that he did not have any involvement in them wanting to move away from Amakhosi.
“I wasn’t trying to lure them out of Chiefs to spite the club. What happened was that Masha [Tefu Mashamaite] called to say his move to the US did not materialise and, fortunately, my former assistant at Hälsingborg was looking for a defender, and I got them together,” he explained.