MTN8 final: Da Gama hopes for perfect ending to Highlands Park cup fairytale
Owen Da Gama’s underdogs want to show they are not all bark and no bite when they take on cup top dogs SuperSport United in the MTN8 final at the Orlando Stadium on Saturday.
SuperSport have distinguished themselves as cup kings in the last decade‚ reaching 10 finals and winning five.
They will be lining up for their third straight MTN8 final‚ winning one and losing the other to Cape Town City.
Though respectful of the impressive cup pedigree of SuperSport‚ Da Gama‚ the 2005-06 Premier Soccer League (PSL) coach of the season‚ is cautiously optimistic that his Lions of the North can shock their more illustrious opponents.
“This is a great opportunity for us to continue to make an impression‚ have an impact and make our presence felt.
“There is a name already on that trophy. If your name is on the trophy‚ if it is meant to be‚ it is meant‚” said Da Gama.
“We are under no illusions that we are underdogs. I’m really elated for and proud of the players.
"For us‚ this is a history‚ a fairytale story. In our first season in the PSL we finished seventh in the log. Now we’re in the final against a team with a great cup pedigree.
“Most importantly‚ for us it is a growth process‚ an opportunity for players to grow and get experience.”
Da Gama last scooped silverware in 2006 when he led the now defunct Silver Stars to a 3-0 victory over Ajax Cape Town in the Telkom Knockout final.
Three years earlier‚ Stars lost the Coca Cola Cup 2-0 to Kaizer Chiefs.
One of the players Da Gama will bank on to bag the trophy is Thela Ngobeni‚ the former Free State Stars‚ Mamelodi Sundowns and Chiefs goalkeeper.
Ngobeni is no stranger to grabbing gold medals.
“He won a cup [Nedbank Cup last season] with Free State Stars coming from not having a lot of game time and only playing in the cup for Stars‚" he said.
“He’s been there among the big boys in a top team [Mamelodi Sundowns] that has won the Champions League. He brings calmness to the defence.”
A fountain of experience in the person of Reneilwe Letsholonyane is a new addition in the Highlands arsenal.
"Yeye" is no yoyo and has in the past hit the high notes of cup collection with both Chiefs and SuperSport‚ who didn’t renew his contract.
Da Gama may be tempted to call on Letsholonyane’s wealth of experience for Highlands’ big occasion.
“What a player!" he said.
"What a professional!
"What an honour to be coaching a player of his calbre‚ because of what he has achieved and the human being he is.
"Yeye gives you that sense of anything is possible in football.”
If Ngobeni will be counted on as the last line of defence‚ even more trust will be entrusted on Peter Shalulile. The Namibia international is the leading light in the PSL top strikers chart.
He scored his sixth goal in six league matches when Highlands beat Polokwane City 1-0 on Sunday.
“He is the kind of player who is able to produce individual brilliance. He delivered the goods in the dying minutes and got us a vital victory.
“We [Da Gama and his assistants Victor Tshabalala and Allan Freese] were 100 percent focused on the match against Polokwane‚ it allowed the players to fight for positions [in the final].
“If you want to plan for two games‚ you’ll end up losing both. Now we are going to SuperSport and they know that we are hard running and will close the areas where they are dangerous.
“We have no stars but a core group of players ready for battle. Marks Munyai is one of the most underrated players.
“We have Sabelo Nyembe‚ Lindokuhle Mbatha and Ryan Rae. With us‚ everybody chips in to make it a very special team effort. We know it won’t be easy but we will give it our all.”
Highlands will have their hands full dealing the dangerous and offensive combination of Thamsanqa Gabuza and Bradley Grobler.
“They are a dangerous combo and have proven that already this early in the season.”
Gabuza is the leading goalscorer of the tournament with three goals and two assists. Grobler has one MTN8 goal and five int PSL.
“Gabuza is an exceptional player and I saw his qualities at close range when we I worked with him at the national team.
"It is very seldom you get a tall player who possesses aerial prowess and speed. Gabuza can play as a striker to hold up play.”
Da Gama knows all about the threat of Grobler.
“Grobler worked with us at Silver Stars‚ went to Turkey and came back to join Ajax Cape Town‚" Da Gama said.
“We beat them 6-0 and Grobler scored all the goals.”
Mvala has not hit the lofty heights of last season.
“He’s not at his best but he is getting there. He is a player you must not underestimate and is one of the reasons why we can score from midfield."
Win or lose‚ Da Gama says his boys know the league is their bread and butter.
He is unperturbed by the fact that they registered the highest number of draws — 14— last season.
“If Chiefs had five more draws they would have been in the top eight‚" he said.
"If Free State Stars had five more draws they would still be in the PSL.
“Every point is gold. Yes we drew but I’d rather have a point than have nothing."