Unheralded coach Steve Barker is brewing something special in the Cape winelands district, and the result is that Stellenbosch FC is emerging as a force to be reckoned with.
As the NFD nears the halfway mark, Stellies – as the Mother City outfit is called – leads the pack with four matches remaining before the Christmas break.
Barker, who turns 51 next month, clearly knows the mathematics when it comes to bidding for promotion, having steered University of Pretoria – AmaTuks – to the premier division six years ago.
His target is to go into the festive season break with at least 30 points in the bag – anything above that would be a bonus, he said.
Sitting pretty at the top on 23 points, Stellenbosch are four points clear of their nearest challengers Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila and TS Sporting, who have hauled 19 points each on the 16-club log.
“We have a long-term strategy through the Stellenbosch academy to develop this club into a giant,” said Barker, whose side is riding an eight-match unbeaten run since their defeat to city rivals Ajax Cape Town in September.
“We’ve got world-class facilities and players who are hungry for success.
"Another plus for us is that we have our own home ground and you’ll recognise that all the other teams that gained promotion to the premiership in recent seasons had a strong home base – such as Highlands Park, Baroka FC and Golden Arrows.”
Stellenbosch previously hopped between the Athlone Stadium and Parow Park, but have now found a permanent home at Idas Valley Stadium, to which they have drawn decent crowds since their relocation in September.
“The stands are always full [at Idas Valley] because the community identifies with the team – a quarter of our players are home-grown talent from Stellenbosch,” said Barker, the nephew of 1996 Africa Cup of Nations winning coach Clive Barker.
Steve, who holds a Uefa A Licence coaching badge, is arguably one of the most unsung coaches in the domestic game.
He still holds the rare distinction of being the only coach from a lower division to have reached a cup final when he guided AmaTuks to being runners-up in the 2009 Nedbank Cup decider against then elite league side Moroka Swallows.
“My biggest passion is to develop players into household names,” said Barker, modestly downplaying his achievements.
The former army man contributed to the development of players – such as Mamelodi Sundowns’ midfielder Andile Jali and France-based Bongani
Zungu – during their time at AmaTuks.
Stellenbosch’s trump cards include talismen Iqraam Rayners (22) and Jarrod Moroole (27), who have more than 100 first division appearances between them.
Bulging the net regularly has been one of the team’s strong points, and it is not surprising that Rayners is the NFD’s leading scorer with seven goals.
Moroole, the team captain, is placed third on the charts with four strikes, two behind Uthongathi FC’s Siyabonga Vilane.
“We also have some exciting youngsters in our squad of 24 – such as Ashley du Preez and Leletu Skelem, among other talents,” said Barker, a former AmaZulu coach who joined Stellenbosch in December 2016.
Stellenbosch will face Uthongathi on Saturday, TS Galaxy on December 9, Cape Umoya United on December 15 and Maccabi FC on December 22 in their remaining fixtures before the festive break.