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A Season To Forget For MFC-Bound Spurs

On Saturday when Richards Bay stunned Orlando Pirates in the DStv Premiership, the relegation of Cape Town Spurs was confirmed. Rob Delport looks back at what happened at the Urban Warriors...

When Shaun Bartlett promoted Cape Town Spurs via the playoffs at the end of the 2022/23 campaign, there was a jubilant mood at Ikamva, Spurs’ home base in Parow, Cape Town.

It had been a long slog in the second tier of football for the club formerly known as Ajax Cape Town, after their unceremonious relegation back in 2017/18, following ‘Ndoro-Gate’. 

They came close to returning in 2019/20 and looked well on their way when Covid-19 disrupted that season, but just as Kaizer Chiefs did in the DStv Premiership campaign that year, Ajax threw away a comfortable lead when the season resumed and lost out to Swallows FC.

After a two-decade partnership, Ajax Amsterdam cut ties with the club, and Spurs were relaunched, but it wasn’t a pretty picture at first. In both the 2020/21 and 2021/22 campaigns, they were one result away from being relegated from professional football. 

After disappointing stints under Vladislav Heric, Ian Taylor and Dylan Deane, Bartlett had joined towards the end of 2021 and managed to avoid relegation after a few months in charge, and there was a positive energy around the club when the new campaign began. 

While it started slowly, in 2022/23 they managed to put together a decent campaign with a strong run in the middle of the season that saw them move up to first place. But they lost a little momentum and missed out on automatic promotion, as Polokwane City, who had been the early frontrunner, pipped them to the title on the last day of the regulation season.

But Bartlett’s team showed grit and tenacity in the playoffs, and they did enough to get past Casric Stars and Maritzburg United, who were relegated.

The celebration of being promoted was short-lived, and with hardly an off-season, Spurs had to hit the ground running, and unfortunately, they didn’t.

Recruitment was a big problem. While they did bring in a dozen new players, the quality was questioned, and for many pundits, it felt like most were ‘sideway-signings’ rather than improvements.

Spurs management complained that options were limited, as most clubs had already completed their recruitments; or in other cases, transfer fees or wage demands exceeded their budgets.

What followed was eight consecutive defeats to start their league campaign, nine if you include their loss in the Carling Knockout. Spurs were rock bottom of the DStv Premiership table.

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After seven of those league losses, Bartlett and his technical team of Nasief Morris and Calvin Marlin were shown the exit door and Northern Irishman Sean Connor, who had been acting as technical director, took over with Vasili Manousakis brought in as an assistant coach.

A shock victory over Orlando Pirates broke the run of defeats, but more losses followed, five more in fact, before they drew against AmaZulu at the end of 2023.

Ernst Middendorp had taken over the head coach role in mid-November and began to make changes at the club, recruiting half a dozen experienced players, and making a few positional switches with some of the club’s academy graduates.

Almost all of those players recruited earlier in the season were nowhere to be seen in the revamped Middendorp squad, and at the start of 2024, there were a few positive signs. 

But after an undefeated run of four games, they lost their momentum again and missed out on valuable points in at least three winnable fixtures, starting with a defeat against Moroka Swallows that ended their run. Spurs had lodged a misguided protest ahead of the game (which was later withdrawn) and perhaps this decision pulled focus from what they had to do on the field.

They had been at this point just two points away from 15th spot, but that gap grew again.

During this time there were also more exits from the club. Clayton Daniels, who had started the season as captain, had left already before they resumed in the new year after opting not to take on a coaching role offered at the club. Connor, who had returned to the Technical Director role, was also shown the exit door after a ‘clash of opinions’ with Middendorp. Surprise Ralani, who had joined towards the end of 2023, exited for a second time, having briefly left before making a U-turn a few months earlier.

With closest rival Richards Bay also picking up valuable points, the gap to fifteenth just wouldn’t close, and when it got down to the final three games, six points separated the two clubs. Richards Bay also had a superior goal difference of nine.

Fifteen minutes into Spurs’ third last game against SuperSport United at the Peter Mokaba Stadium, their Tanzanian defender Gadiel Kamagi was shown a straight red card for a challenge on Shandre Campbell. 

It was a disastrous start, but somehow they bravely hung on as SuperSport spurned chances to win against ten men, and it ended goalless. The result meant that to stand a chance of just reaching the playoff spot, Spurs would not only have to win both of their final games, but Richards Bay would have to lose all three of theirs.

24 hours later at the Orlando Stadium, Richards Bay stunned Orlando Pirates as they won 1-0 denying the Buccaneers a chance to go second, and officially relegating Spurs.

Spurs may have ‘statistically’ not been the worst club in the league campaign, but they were for the numbers that count — losses (19) and goals conceded (42). Their biggest defeats were two 3-0 losses to champions Mamelodi Sundowns and current second-placed Stellenbosch (who they also drew against).

Their top goalscorer, as was the case in 2022/23, is Ashley Cupido, who has scored six times, while Luvuyo Phewa, who missed several games due to injuries, got four assists.

Clean sheets were however the big problem, and Neil Boshoff, one of the three goalkeepers used, kept the only four clean sheets achieved, including two in the past week.

Overall 37 players featured throughout the campaign, with Boshoff and Kamagi being the only new players who didn’t play for Spurs in the Motsepe Foundation Championship to start more than ten games.

But when you lose 19 games out of 28, the chances of survival are slim.

While Spurs will still have to honour their last two fixtures, management will now have to start contemplating the club’s next move, as they return to the second tier eleven months after being promoted.

While they have stated they wish to keep the majority of the squad, many of their young stars have now tasted top-flight football and are now likely to have other suitors.

And of course the the big question remains whether Middendorp – who was in charge of 17 of the league games, winning four, drawing four and losing nine – will remain at the club and coach in the South African second-tier for the first time.

Only time will tell.

Rob Delport
Rob Delport
Rob Delport is a walking football encyclopedia, having been a mainstay in the Cape Town football scene for years. Rob has previously worked for SABC and various websites and publications across Africa, as well as being the South African Head Researcher for Football Manager and doing a similar role occasionally for EA Sports FIFA. Highly respected, Rob is now a senior iDiski Times website and newspaper writer, and is also responsible for the newspaper's editorial.