Lebohang 'Cheeseboy' Mokoena on life as captain of high-flying Swallows FC

Lebohang Mokoena of Swallows during the DStv Premiership match between Tshakhuma FC and Swallows at Thohoyandou Stadium on November 04, 2020 in Thohoyandou, South Africa.
Lebohang Mokoena of Swallows during the DStv Premiership match between Tshakhuma FC and Swallows at Thohoyandou Stadium on November 04, 2020 in Thohoyandou, South Africa.
Image: Philip Maeta/ Gallo Images

Lebohang “Cheeseboy” Mokoena’s satisfying resurrection at 34 as captain of high-flying Swallows FC comes just over a year after coach Brandon Truter convinced the player to change his mind on hanging up his boots.

Truter is the tough rookie coach who has guided third-placed upstarts Swallows to their dream unbeaten start back in the DStv Premiership (PSL)‚ and has said ex-Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns star Mokoena is the midfielder who makes the Birds tick.

Truter arrived at a Swallows who had bought the GladAfrica Championship (First Division‚ or NFD) franchise of Maccabi FC at the start of last season and struggled to five matches without a win under Zeca Marques‚ and guided them to the title and promotion.

For Mokoena the resurrection comes after drifting into a state of obscurity that followed a league title at Sundowns in 2015-16 – four years where he earned practically no game time at Ajax Cape Town‚ struggled for a club‚ then played in the NFD.

“My reason for moving to Ajax was coach Roger de Sa‚ who I worked with at the SA Under-23s‚” Mokoena told TimesLIVE.

“I was just settling in when coach Roger resigned. Stanley Menzo‚ the head of development‚ came in and was told to play the players from the academy.

“I went and played for the MDC [reserve team]. When the senior team was facing relegation the older players stepped in and I got a few games. Once that was done we were back on the sidelines‚ and I felt it was time to move.

“I struggled to get a team back in Joburg. I trained with Highlands Park. Agent-wise nothing was happening‚ and I decided to go on my own.

“[Ex-Kaizer Chiefs defender] Mokete Tsotetsi was coach of a team in the NFD‚ Maccabi‚ and they had Collins Mbesuma and Thapelo Tshilo. I swallowed my pride and said‚ ‘I love football‚ I want to play football‚ so if I have to play in this division so be it’.”

Swallows FC bought Maccabi in August 2019‚ and a year later a team that had plunged from their PSL relegation in 2015 as far as the fourth-tier would be promoted back to the top-flight.

“Coach Truter came in and I said‚ ‘Look‚ I might retire’. He said‚ ‘No‚ I’ve seen you in these few sessions‚ I feel you’ve got a lot of years in you. So come with me on this journey and let’s do this’.

“That’s when I started having something to play for. As a player you play for something – to win the league‚ be player of the season or top goal-scorer. Mine was to try and get promotion for the club. I knew that would be history‚ and it pushed me to give everything.”

Mokoena said after he had hit 30 and become viewed as having nothing to offer in the PSL‚ he came close to calling it a day.

“I felt like I was not appreciated. Having friendships with overseas-based players‚ it’s different how players are treated there‚” he said.

“I fail to understand the mentality in SA whereby a player who is at his peak‚ 29 and 30‚ is not given that platform to share their experience on the field.

“We would like to bring in the new generation‚ but they should be introduced where there are a lot of senior guys to impart knowledge. That’s how we got the experience [at Pirates] – from the William Okparas‚ Papi Khomanes‚ Gerald Raphahlelas.”

Mokoena felt Swallows’ experienced heads made the difference in their charge to reel in young Ajax‚ who froze in the headlights‚ for the 2019-20 NFD championship. It has been a big factor – with players and leadership figures like Mokoena‚ Virgil Vries and Vuyo Mere who perhaps have something to prove too‚ in the Birds’ equally stunning top-flight return.

“We had a change room that sat down before a match and analysed it on our own‚” Mokoena said.

“We had the spiritual side‚ finding out about your home problems‚ are you OK‚ how you’re going to achieve‚ how it would be if we played in the PSL and the opportunities once you got there. Those things motivated the boys.”

Truter is an unknown quantity confounding doubters at PSL level. But he cut his teeth in the NFD with Cape Town All Stars and Richards Bay‚ honing his skills in the cut-throat lower leagues‚ and‚ like his players‚ has that toughness‚ fearlessness and will to make the best of being given his top-flight opportunity.

“Coach Brandon has been around‚ he’s done his homework. The first time I met him I told him he’s PSL coaching material‚” Mokoena said.

“He’s a very spiritual person – someone who probably sleeps with his bible next to him. He feels it’s an opportunity to showcase what God has given him. And he’s doing exactly that.

“ ... When you don’t have egos‚ and have a spine of the team that doesn’t easily break‚ then it’s easy for new players to come in. ... So as much as people are shocked we are not shocked because we’ve continued doing what we’ve been doing.”

For Mokoena‚ the lease of life as captain of Swallows has taken him back to the exuberance of when being promoted from Pirates’ youth system at 16‚ and a debut at 17‚ in one of the most exciting collectives of youngsters to be fielded at a single club in SA. Promoted in July 2003‚ he narrowly missed out on the league titles Bucs won in 2000-01 and 2002-03 by a combination including Steve Lekoelea‚ Benedict Vilakazi and the beloved late Lesley Manyathela.

“When I look back I sometimes see myself as somebody who had something and maybe lost it along the way‚ and has been given an opportunity to lead again‚” Mokoena said.

“It’s been long. It feels like I am a brand new player. It’s a new challenge and I’m just trying to enjoy each moment I get on the field because there will come a time when you will never get that opportunity again.”

Third-placed Swallows meet second-placed SuperSport United in Saturday’s Premiership match-up between the teams on 27 points from 13 games at Lucas Moripe Stadium (kickoff 5pm).