Tuesday, May 21, 2024
HomeDStv PremiershipSwallows Ready For Flight, But It Won’t Happen Overnight

Swallows Ready For Flight, But It Won’t Happen Overnight

In this week’s Special Feature brought to you by DStv, Rob Delport looks at how Ernst Middendorp looks to save Swallows’ status.

After a fairytale entrance into the DStv Premiership, it has not been “happily ever after” for Swallows Football Club. It has been a rocky year or two. But Ernst Middendorp, who was appointed head coach at the end of last year, is ready to fight with the club.

His name Ernst actually means “battle to the death” or “serious business”, so the German-born coach, who left Maritzburg United at the end of last season, could be the right man for the job. He is an experienced campaigner and the Dube Birds are the 21st different team he has coached at. 

While he has been at seven different South African clubs, this is only his second Gauteng destination, having had two stints at Kaizer Chiefs previously. Middendorp has often returned to teams he’s coached before, and he was at Maritzburg four times, Chiefs twice as mentioned, and he was in charge at Arminia Bielefeld in his home nation three times. He also coached Bloemfontein Celtic, Golden Arrows and Chippa United.

And now he finds himself in charge of the Birds’ Nest, where the management will be desperate for him to hold the fort in the storm, and keep their place in the upper branches of South African football. They do not want to follow the path of their Moroka ancestors.

The Dobsonville-based club are now in their third season in the DStv Premiership and find themselves amongst those fighting at the bottom of the table once more. Much like last season, they have been in a dogfight and have nine games remaining to save their status.

It is a far cry from their debut campaign in the top flight after Brandon Truter led them to promotion in 2019/2020.

That promotion from the Motsepe Foundation Championship, then known as the GladAfrica, was a bit of a surprise after all Swallows had only bought the Maccabi FC franchise in 2019, and when Truter was brought in to replace Zeca Marques, they were floundering near the bottom of the second tier. 

After the demise of Moroka Swallows, Swallows FC was launched in the hope of resurrecting the important Soweto brand and began its life in the ABC Motsepe Leagues. But after two seasons where they failed to win promotion, the decision was made to buy the franchise of Maccabi FC.

Maccabi were an under-whelming second-tier team, who had only won promotion two seasons earlier, and with a small budget, they found things tough going in the professional leagues.

When Swallows took over, the option to bring in the former cup-winning coach Marques backfired and the Birds’ return to pro football looked to have crash-landed.

But Truter brought steadiness to the team, his methods worked with the side, and they began to move up the table. Veterans like Lebogang Mokoena and Vuyo Mere were given a new lease on life and Swallows began to soar. There was also a lot of fortune, a few iffy decisions, a calamitous collapse by Ajax Cape Town, not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic, but when the season ended, Swallows were the NFD champions and promoted.

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They started in the top flight with great gusto, and for a large part of the first half of the season, Swallows were undefeated and flying high. Eventually, they would end sixth, losing just twice all campaign, though drawing a remarkable 20 times. 

It was a great two-year period for the rookie club with a well-known brand, and it was inspiring. Veterans like Mokoena and Mere led the team with aplomb, and there were stand-out performances from players like Ruzaigh Gamildien and Njabulo Ngcobo, who was named PSL Defender of the Season.

In 2021/2022, after a poor start to the campaign, it became apparent that the club and Truter were beginning to be on different pages. At one point, they sent him on “special leave” before eventually, they went their separate ways. Dylan Kerr was brought in to save their status, and although it was eventually via the playoffs, he did what was required. 

Players also began to move on and many of the stars from their maiden campaign had moved onto what they hoped were greener pastures.

This season, with a FIFA transfer ban slapped on the club, things went further awry. Ironically the ban had nothing to do with the current management and stemmed back to the 2014/2015 campaign when the old Moroka Swallow failed to pay the Serbian duo of Obren Cuckovic and Vladimir Mandic.

Kerr, who missed part of the early campaign as he awaited his work permit, was dismissed in September, and for two months, Musa Nyatama was tasked with leading the team. Nyatama is still technically a player, as is goalkeeper coach Thela Thela, and they did their best all things considered.

While many coaches were linked to the job, it was Middendorp who finally took the mantle. In January the matter with FIFA was also finally resolved and the club was once again able to register new players.

Since taking charge, Middendorp has had three wins, two draws and four league defeats, while also one defeat in the cup.

On Sunday, they picked up a victory in Gqeberha over Chippa United, and although it did not affect their league position, it did move them to within three points of a top-eight place, such is the tight situation that separates teams number 7 to 14 on the DStv Premiership log. It was also a morale-boosting first away win for the Birds this season. 

Prior to the Chippa result, Swallows suffered back-to-back defeats in the Western Cape, losing to Stellenbosch in the Nedbank Cup at Athlone Stadium, before Cape Town City beat them at the DHL Stadium a week later. 

While consistent results haven’t been forthcoming yet, Middendorp has not pushed any panic buttons as he explained that his goal will only be reached in the final game of the season. That goal is simple — make sure Swallows have their DStv Premiership status at the end of the campaign.

He said he is not worried about how teams around them fare in the coming two months, his only concern is that after 20 May Swallows finish 14th or higher.

“First of all, the goal setting is very clear,” Middendorp told a small group of journalists last week in Cape Town. 

“I never mentioned anything that will be done in January, I never mentioned anything where we are or will be done in February. 

“I made it very clear — very, very clear — from the beginning of my work on 19 December, don’t think about Nedbank Cup, don’t think about top eight, don’t think about unrealistic with all this what is put together, all this what was set up over there now with some new players. 

“Evans [Rusike] can’t be fit, [Tawanda] Macheke can’t be fit, Bongani Sam can’t be fit. Some other guys we brought in. So it takes a little bit of time, but in the end, the goal setting is very clear. 

“In the middle of May, in our last game to make sure we are in position 14 at least, if not 13, to make it clear that we have a PSL status. 

“So from this, I think all the chances are still there, there’s nothing changed really, that’s all close together. 

“Even now, if two or three teams have a little bit of stepping ahead and moving up, but let’s be realistic in your goal setting, be realistic in a certain direction and fight every match day for the next result. 

“And that is what we have to do. To bring (in) the players more and more, progressing with a level that they can contribute. Make sure we are not conceding in these critical moments, goals like we have experienced today.”

Next up for Swallows is the original Soweto derby, as they host third-placed Orlando Pirates at Dobsonville Stadium on 3 March. 

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.