JOHANNESBURG, April 29 – At the end of the 2016/ 17 campaign, Orlando Pirates finished in 11th position, a mere five points above the relegation zone.
Two years later and they’re looking set to win the championship for the fifth time in the Premier Soccer League era.
Pirates have two league matches to play (Cape Town City away and Polokwane City at home) and enjoy a three-point lead over Mamelodi Sundowns. Sundowns have three games to go, including Tuesday’s fixture at Black Leopards, followed by Golden Arrows away and Free State Stars at home.
The title is by no means settled yet, but Bucs do also enjoy a superior goal difference (plus 17 versus plus 12).
Add to that the fact that Sundowns are side-tracked by their participation in the CAF Champions League semi-finals, and that they may yet be docked a point for illegibly fielding Wayne Arendse in a 1-1 draw with Bidvest Wits last October, and the title is certainly Pirates’ to lose.
Like their long-time foes Kaizer Chiefs, the last few years have been a barren period in the Buccaneers’ illustrious history, with their most recent silverware coming back in 2014 with the Nedbank Cup.
They did make the finals of the CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup in 2013 and 2015, with their last domestic league title coming in 2012. For a club of Pirates’ stature though, that’s a long wait, and fans would have been looking on with envy at the likes of Sundowns and Bidvest Wits who have dominated the last half a decade.
Enter Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic, the man who refers to himself ‘the Wolf of Serbia’ on his Twitter account.
His first spell with the Sea Robbers, in 2006, was fairly unremarkable, and lasted just six months and 16 games. Following that, Sredojevic was employed at clubs in Sudan, Ethiopia and Tanzania and then enjoyed successful stints in charge of the Rwanda and Uganda national teams.
Now back for his second spell with Pirates, he’s overseen 76 matches in all competitions and has a record of 36 wins, 25 draws and 15 defeats. Having laid the foundations with a second placed finish in the league last term, Sredojevic now stands just 180 minutes away from taking Bucs to the title.
In a league where clubs are notorious for having little patience and not giving enough support to their coaches, Sredojevic is presently one of only six PSL coaches who have survived more than a season in charge.
The Serb has not introduced wholesale changes to the squad, but has got the best out of midfielders such as Thembinkosi Lorch and Vincent Pule (signed ahead of the season from Wits), whose combined 13 league goals have made all the difference. Striker Justin Shonga has also netted six, although the often wasteful Zambian should have had far more. There’ve been other key signings too such as Musa Nyatama, Ben Motshwari, Augustine Mulenga.
Only those within the Pirates camp will understand fully the reasons as to how Sredojevic has affected such a remarkable turnaround.
His insatiable appetite for hard work, vast experience and tactical astuteness are no doubt part of it. Looking in from the outside though, what appears to have made the most significant impact is the energy which coach Micho brings to his team – combining perfectly strict discipline with an arm-around-the-shoulder, elder brother approach.
In short, he has found a way to get the best out of individual players – goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands is another example of this.
Sredojevic’s style of man-management suggests strongly that he understands well that football is not only about tactical systems, perfecting technique and optimising fitness levels, but also crucially, it is about players being emotionally stable and believing in themselves and their team-mates.
He has certainly vindicated Pirates chairman Irvin Khoza’s decision to rehire him more than a decade later. (ANA)