Next Best Thing; Nhlakanipho “Nanana” Ntuli

Nhlakanipho Ntuli (Twente)
Nhlakanipho Ntuli (Twente)
Nhlakanipho Ntuli (Amajita)
Nhlakanipho Ntuli (Amajita)

In a world where the “next best thing” is always a hot commodity, one cannot describe how pleasant it is to browse the papers over a pint skimming through an article about the next exciting football prospect worth going down to the betting store over and putting down some Randela’s on them becoming top class internationals. Now very few of these protégés end up becoming the greats they were hyped up to be by the glowing reviews, as my bookmakers bank balance will attest to; but the journeys  I have undergone tracking many of these young players has been worth every single penny scraped into a bet.

With many South African football fans having watched their South American counterparts bask in glory at the 2014 FIFA World Cup with thoroughbred Number 10’s leading the attacking symphony with authority and panache, players like James Rodriguez, Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr. embody the creative nature of their respective countries when it comes to the art of football; in the technically blessed Nana, the football loving people of Mzansi have a lad that can develop into that calibre of Trequartista with the gifts and determination to be a true game changer. A natural number 10 with that extra composure that only the greats possess, capable of assessing his surroundings quickly and making the optimal decision in the quickest possible time and using his amazing passing range and technical proficiency to execute the pass and create abundant attacking opportunities. Nanana is a highly talented young player with the skill set and mental aptitude to define games and truly take us home.

Nhlakanipho Ntuli is the type of player that divides opinion in South African football, a proven star at youth level for both club and country yet he left Mzansi without playing in the Premier Soccer League. It is rare to see young players afforded a chance to play first team football in South African football, and it becomes even harder for talented young players at the more reputable clubs; a player like Nana stands a better chance of fulfilling his potential by moving overseas to clubs in leagues that do advocate playing younger players and afford them the opportunities they require to fully develop and become as great as they can possibly be. At 18, the beaming smile donning magician could well be a regular fixture in the Eredivisie before his 21st birthday, and that will be down to a combination of blessings, determination, skills, hard work, dedication and opportunity.

Having begun his football education at the Orlando Pirates academy as a baby faced twelve year old protégé, Ntuli developed his attacking nous under the tutelage of a man who has given Mzansi endless quality young players and promoted an attacking brand of football that is distinctly South African and structured around expression of self when on the football field. Augusto Palacios is a largely unheralded figure in South African football as a whole, a man that has given us attacking marvels like Joseph Makhanya, Benedict Vilakazi, Gift Leremi and Lebohang Mokoena to amaze and enthral us; now Njenje has blessed us with yet another young star to have us in awe, and the captivating Nanana could just be the best one yet. Having signed his first professional deal with the 5-year agreement between him and FC Twente a testament to the faith both parties have in each other to fulfil both the personal and team ambitions that have been laid forth, the future is bright for the eighteen year old wunderkind and he has the support necessary for a promising young player to master his craft and develop into the world class player that his potential has classed him as. Developing his craft in the Jong FC Twente side that competes in the Eerste Divisie (Second Division) allows Ntuli to hone his skills in competitive football without exerting too much pressure on him to perform at his optimal level just yet, this can only work wonders for the maturity of his overall game and give him the consistency he requires to establish himself as a fixture when he breaks into the first team squad. The Tukkers are an ambitious side back on the rise after a period of uncertainty and financial instability, the team is built on a foundation of good Dutch players and top young imports that add quality to the first team squad; Nanana has the chance to enter professional football in the type of settled and ambitious environment that a Trequartista thrives in.

Nhlakanipho is the modern age Number 10, capable of orchestrating fluent attacking moves or taking the initiative and exhibiting the mettle to score the goals that his team needs. A great Trequartista is more than just a creation blessed with amazing football skills and creativity to make Mozart envious, a truly legendary Number 10 is blessed with the ability to inspire confidence whenever he is on the team sheet, being capable of showing his class when its needed most and becoming a genuine game changer; Nana is undeniably that type of player, a true star in winning-time since he was eye-level with a kitchen counter. Ntuli is just one of few talented young players in Europe making the sacrifice of developing their football away from their countries of birth, in an effort to become fully complete professionals that can be quality players and worthy ambassadors for their nation. With Ntuli accompanied by young starlets like Dean Patricio and Miguel Dias, who are at PEC Zwolle, in the quest to establish themselves as professionals in Dutch football and star alongside fellow South African stars in Thulani Serero and Kamohelo Mokotjo who are established players in the Eredivisie for Ajax Amsterdam and PEC Zwolle respectively. The COSAFA u-20 Champion has shown already at youth level that he has the abilities to lead a solid side to success, Bob’s your Om this lad has the makings of a true legend; his undeniable quality lead to Dr. Irvin Khoza bringing the Number. 10 jersey out of retirement for the talented Nanana.

What Happened To That Boi; Sipho Nunens

Sipho "The Sensational" Nunens
Sipho “The Sensational” Nunens
Throwback Mamelodi Suundowns (2000)
Throwback Mamelodi Suundowns (2000)

Being the very vocal advocates for youth development that we are, we need to accept all the possible downsides to more and more people embracing the notion of investing in younger players and their development with the belief that this ideology will always afford the beautiful game a solid foundation for growth. With all those positives brought into consideration, it’s not a rarity for one to see many young players succumbing to the heavy expectations paced on them and the media circus that comes with being so gifted in this age of technology and the increased pressure to perform at a level that justifies the increased levels of remuneration, for so many diverse and often bizarre reasons an alarming number of these players ultimately fail to become the super talents that people predicted they would be and thus the common question in the barroom over a pint as the football plays, “what happened to that boi?”

Introduced himself as

A peroxide haired young playmaking genius with the touch of a magician and the creativity of a seasoned artist, blessed with a right peg that had the power to amaze the world. Sipho Nunens was Mzansi’s next golden boy, a footballer that exemplified the beauty of Mzansi Diski at its most marvellous peak. Able to not only dictate games and make his teammates play at his level of genius, Nunens was also a very able and talented goal scorer that had fans from Mamelodi to Makurung raving about his abilities. The Transnet School Of Excellence graduate was a breath of fresh air in the Mamelodi Sundowns side, a footballer that seemed tailor-made to excel playing that delectable Shoeshine & Piano brand of football Downs are renowned for. Surrounded by household names that were stars in their own right, Sipho became a star that amazed all and sundry with his ability and his potential to get even better and become a mainstay for Downs and Bafana Bafana. The future promised to be bright for the central midfield general who had all the tools to become the next Mzansi player in line to take our unique style of football to the world and alert the football fraternity to the calibre of talent we are able to produce.

Where did it go wrong?

Even before the dawn of social media and YouTube video stars like Neymar and Xherdan Shaqiri, Sipho Nunens had all of Mzansi in a state of frenzy, his abilities were so outstanding that even he begun to believe his own hype, allowing media reports and lifestyle choices to affect hi level of professional performance and his application to furthering his development and ensuring that his current benchmark was now considered a bare minimum that he had to surpass through harder work and more dedication. The fact that true swagger met arrogance in itself is not troubling, there was an air of confidence about Thierry Henry, Jay-Jay Okocha & Zinedine Zidane, it’s the fact that it was allowed to get to his head that became the root of his problems. Tiger was as active and entertaining off the field as he was mesmerising on it, a young man with the world at his feet and an appetite to live it to the fullest, Nunens became a constant feature on both ends of the Sunday papers and his reputation grew as a troublemaker, growing his personal reputation more than his professional one and creating an avenue for his development to suffer and his overall game to stagnate before it begun recessing when he should have been approaching his peak. Reports of excessive partying and house calls by authorities coming in to break up rowdy parties followed the lad like a holding midfielder would on the pitch. Mamelodi Sundowns became understandably upset with their wayward but talented superstar and farmed him out on loan twice, to Bloemfontein Celtic and Dynamos respectively, hoping that a break from the Gauteng night life would refocus the skilful midfield playmaker and make him realise that he could lose it all if he wasn’t careful. Those endeavours proved futile as they eventually ran out of patience with the lad and released him from his contract; an attempt at a career resurrection with Mpumalanga Black Aces was unsuccessful as the skilful playmaker tried to make the most of his abilities at the elite level; the potential was there, but the question marks around his desire to get to where he should have been already always arouse when one saw Tiger. Sundowns had plenty of talented yet troublesome lads on their roster at the time as they had begun rebuilding their side after enjoying enormous amounts of success with their previous generation of stars; players like Nunens, Joseph Mthombeni, Lucky Qaba, Jonas Mavimbela and Vuyo Mere could have done with more nurturing at the time, but the club was not in the business of nurturing players, they had a mandate to win. It’s a pity that Tiger has to go down as a one-cap wonder that never fulfilled his potential at the elite level, yet his story is one we can hold up as a cautionary tale for the wunderkinds on the rise today; you could be a star today and turn out begging teams for a shot tomorrow, potential without application is a waste of God given ability. This game rarely seems to favour those that aren’t willing to apply themselves and continuouslytake the privilege they have been afforded for granted.

The legend

At 32 years old, Sipho should be reaching the end of a rewarding and eventful football playing career, yet the lad has been club less for the duration of his peak years and his potential as a footballer went wasted. Yet, unlike many before him, Tiger has refused to let his past determine his legacy; taking his football knowledge to the next level, the lad has passed his SAFA Level 1 coaching qualifications and he now aims to aid talented young footballers go further than he did as a professional. Our football fraternity should count itself lucky to have such a man tutoring our stars of the future, a man that experienced the pitfalls of our beautiful game firsthand and has the desire to teach our future stars how to be more than just skilled footballers but dedicated professionals that take up the responsibility of being an elite level athlete as well. He may have been lost to us as a talented but troublesome boy, but Bob ke rangwane wa hao Sipho “The Sensational” Nunens has returned to us as a true football man.

Boot Room Exclusive; Building A Top Bottom Half Of The Table Side

Premier Soccer League
Premier Soccer League
The Original Boot Room
The Original Boot Room

The Premier Soccer League seems to become even more competitive as the seasons go by, more and more chairmen and club owners in the bottom half of the league table are becoming extremely fascinated with the idea of building a club side that can compete against the bigger teams above them in the league while ensuring that they can battle away against their more illustrious opponents and more resourceful teams in the league while ensuring that they can comfortably beat the teams around and below them on the table with the belief that this will allow the club to achieve a respectable league finish come seasons end and enjoy some success from an extended run in the endless club competitions. Many years of experience gathered being a top class Couch Coach have enabled your good mate Uncle Bob to prepare himself to come into our Boot Room and help us compile an effective guide for gaffers, technical directors and club owners looking to build a competitive top, bottom half of the table side using limited resources to yield unlimited returns on ambition invested and create scope for growth and success going forward.

Too many sides are caught in the unhealthy cycle of changing gaffers more often than a Casanova changes love interests, this can be attributed to various factors up to and including the effects of the change in the ambition levels of the club after a change in ownership, poor style of play and negative performances leading to a lack of belief in the whole establishment or a series of demoralising defeats at the hands of bigger teams in the league; yet what remains the constant root cause of the axe being brought down on the necks of many under pressure gaffers is the club flirting with relegation and the side looking like they will not improve under the current gaffers tenure. This reduced lack of faith in the gaffer often leads to the decision makers within the club rushing to make drastic changes in the hopes of improving the clubs fortunes, such changes are often seen as short-term fixes and the team ends up finding itself in a similar situation or worse off during the next season or two; this chain reaction leads to spectators becoming disillusioned with the lack of ambition showed by the club, sponsors seeing no reason to extend their association with the outfit and the playing standard of the league being compromised as the side is not being as competitive as they could and ought to be. It is no secret that playing in the PSL is far more lucrative than being stuck in the First Division, where it’s not always easy to make a swift return to the top flight; team owners can lose interest and pull their backing out of a club languishing in the NFD when they had dreams of playing PSL football.

Any sane club owner would do anything to ensure that their side is competitive enough to be able to avoid succumbing to the drop, the returns from playing in the PSL are substantial when we compare them to the level of investment required to compete at PSL level. A top class and competent gaffer needs to have the fortitude and vision to use the often limited resources available to build a build a competitive and complete football side that is more than capable of avoiding relegation and competing against the bigger sides in the league; allowing the side to maintain a respectable position on the league table and enjoy extended runs in the cup competitions with the hopes of catching one. This task requires the gaffer to be aware of five key points that can transform a lowly Premier Soccer League side into a competitive top half of the table team with the ability to compete in every single encounter.

The first and most important point that the gaffer needs to address is the issue of talent, a team can only be as successful as the quality of the talent and potential of the players on the roster allows them to be,  any top class gaffer needs to know how to play the transfer market and ensure the acquisition of good players with experience on the cheap or via free transfers and also have the to ability to spot promising young players and bring them into the club for good fees and on loan deals; this thinking is one that allows top young talent to become conscious of their potential at the club and use their skills to bring success to the team and themselves, it’s a situation with the potential to benefit all parties involved. Being able to identify talent in a player, foresee the scope for growing that talent, securing the services of the player and affording him the platform he needs to play and grow his football can often be the differentiator between a budget-restricted side over performing in the league or languishing in and around the relegation zone for the duration of the season or succumbing to the dreaded drop. A competent gaffer needs to also have the ability to harness that eye for talent when it comes to his backroom staff as well, a good gaffer needs to be surrounded by a backroom think-tank that aids him in developing his players towards reaching their potential and allowing them to excel in the first-team setup. That means that there is a true need for coaches that know how best to nurture young players and motivate the senior members of the side while possessing a keen knowledge of how the team ought to play and what level the players ought to perform at, physiotherapists and fitness coaches that are knowledgeable in their fields and are able to ensure that the players are well conditioned for the duration of the season and are able to withstand the physical demands of the entire campaign, a good medical team is golden for a limited side as they can deal better with injuries and help ensure that the players are fit and available. Scouts with a keen eye for talent and the ability to assess the mental toughness of the players are also essential to a smaller side as recourses are limited and the gaffer cannot afford to misspend a single cent on a poor or under researched purchase; top scouts can scour the lower regions of our football fraternity and find talented young players for the cub to acquire on more feasible deals and develop that talent to bring success to the side ad hopefully sell off the player for handsome returns in the future.

The second point that needs to be considered is shape, any Couch Coach worthy of the title would tell you that the players dictate the formation, the gaffer needs to have to ability to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the players at his disposal early in pre-season and identify two to three set formations that the players need to be well versed in playing if they are to meet the minimum expectations of the club and gaffer during the seasons to come, one formation should be to contain the opposition players and keep them from applying too much pressure on the team by keeping hold of the ball longer and moving it around effectively while giving them enough support to launch attacks of their own when the opportunity allows, this tactic would be deployed at the start of games while the team settles into its rhythm. The second formation is also seen as one that looks to ensure that the team contains the opposition side, giving the team a solid defensive platform that allows them to lure the opposition in and look to win the ball deep in their own half and hit the opposition on the counter attack before they can transition back into defence after being on the offensive, this tactic would be applied against the bigger sides with more attacking thrust than the usual opposition. The third tactic should be the one that enables the side to fully focus on attacking the opposition and looking to create chances and score goals without leaving themselves vulnerable defensively, this gives the team the various shapes that they need to play good football in all circumstances and remain competitive regardless of the opposition or the expectations.

The third point for gaffers and top management to address when building a top bottom half of the table side with Top 8 ambitions has to be the style of play, is the unit built to win the ball deep inside their own half and look to counter their opposition with some more direct passing that affords them the chances to expose the gaps left behind by the opposition when they commit men into the attack? The gaffer needs to be apt when it comes to running the rule over his players and determining their suitability to playing a specific style of football, are his player truly able to pressurise the opposition into conceding possession inside their own half and look to open them up with a more intricate and fluid display of expansive passing football? A style of play that is well suited to the make-up of the entire side allows the players to have genuine belief in their strengths, this gives them the confidence to play their natural game even when the chips are down and they have their backs against the wall against better opponents. Also, shopping for and developing talent for the team becomes en easier task as the mould of player needed becomes even more evident when the team ‘s playing structure is set as the gaffer now knows what he wants from specific players in specific positions.

The fourth check-point an ambitious and competent gaffer needs to address is the very fickle matter regarding the support from the fans and management; this support can often become critical when times get tough for the side and the playing staff and coaches need that extra motivation and reason to keep going. Setting an uplifted and welcoming mood within the club creates an atmosphere that celebrates success very well while leaving room for more growth and a positive platform the side can use to overcome failures well and ensures that the players are driven to learn from losses and be motivated to return even stronger every time. Support is essential, especially within a side that is limited in resources as it is one of the decisive factors to success that money cannot buy. Support from the fans and the management creates the kind of environment that breeds success both personally and for the team while also encouraging every employee within the establishment to keep growing and performing at a high standard required to aid in the clubs growth and ensure that they remain with every chance of achieving and exceeding their targets.

The fifth and final point on any top class gaffer’s plan to build a successful and competitive top, bottom half of the table side has to be marketability. The brand should not only be appealing to the spectators and investors on the field because of their style of play and identifiable football culture, but the entire institution should be an enticing prospect for would be sponsors and investors whose resources could help propel the team onto a higher playing field where they can attract more quality to the team and win over even more fans while upping their success levels. A team with ambition and a well structured plan is a very attractive destination for coaches, players, fans, management staff and investors; this kind of drive also trickles down into all the structures at the club and allows the entire chain to work towards a common goal with a combined vision and a lot more gusto. Marketable sides are profitable sides, modern football has taught us that a club can often remain extremely profitable just by being marketable; a competitive football club with an identity is a brand, and brands are gold in the global economy of football.

Although this guide only has five points that need to be on any teams plan to turn a struggling lower half of the league table side into an efficient top half of the table side with the ability to compete against all the teams in the league, these five points are truly essential and are guaranteed to assist any gaffer, technical director, director of football or club owner looking to build sustainable success using limited resources and unlimited potential while also growing the football club. Too many teams suffer relegation or fail to become role players in the league because of a lack of planning for the growth of the club and ensuring that the team is built to compete and succeed, if more gaffers and bosses followed Uncle Bob’s guide, Bobs your second cousin’s father, less heads would roll and the axe would stay in its glass case as the playing standard of our league improves to a level that is comparable to the great financial standard.