Careful planning sees Stellenbosch FC sitting pretty on Premiership log
A third of the way through the football season, the club from the Cape Winelands have surprised everyone. Everyone but themselves, that is.
A hiatus in the Premier Soccer League has allowed Stellenbosch FC to take a step back and reflect on a tumultuous year that started with them imploding and coming close to losing their top-flight status, but now looks likely to end with them well up among the frontrunners.
Rarely has a club dipped to as dramatic a low but then been able to catapult their fortunes beyond the wildest expectations – all without a change in personnel and within such a short space of time.
The DStv Premiership break off for World Cup qualifiers this weekend, with Stellenbosch sitting second in the standings a third of the way through the 2021/22 campaign.
Along with runaway leaders and defending champions Mamelodi Sundowns, the club from the Cape Winelands are yet to lose a league game this season.
Six months ago, they were finding it impossible to win one, finishing last season without a goal in their last six matches.
“Looking at it now, in all honesty, you do sometimes, you know, just need to pinch yourself and understand what we are doing at this current stage of the season,” says coach Steve Barker.
Stellenbosch, who are second in the standings five points behind Sundowns, have won five and drawn five and resume their campaign on 20 November with a string of tough assignments – starting with Benni McCarthy’s AmaZulu and then Orlando Pirates at home in quick succession, and facing the champions at the start of December.
“It’s a long season, still 20 matches to be played. So yeah, we just got to enjoy the moments, that’s why it’s going well and capitalise on it, and just continue laying good foundations,” Barker said. “As the season progresses, we’re able to cope with it a lot better than perhaps we have in the past.”
A recent agreement with the University of Stellenbosch now allows them to use the Lentelus sports grounds to train. They already had a deal to use the Danie Craven Stadium, which they had hoped to turn into a fortress but which was a veritable “house of pain” for them last season.
There, they failed to win in six months and tumbled down the standings in dramatic fashion, landing in a relegation dogfight.
In the end, they had to scrape out goalless draws in their last three league games of the season just to survive.
“I think the foundation for the success of this season was laid even two seasons back. It continued last season, although we had a difficult year, we were building foundations, giving opportunity to young players like Jaden Adams, Alan Robinson, Dean van Rooyen and Ashley du Preez,” adds Barker.
“I’ve always said that, with younger players, it’s short-term risk but long-term reward and I think we are starting to reap the rewards of that patience and that persistence and the decisions that we made.
“I do think that the foundations are there, a couple of the additions to the squad have started to fit in, like Júnior Mendieta and Stanley Dimgba. They took a while to get accustomed and find their feet, but now we are getting a lot of consistent performances, week in and week out, from all the players and it is this that has put us in this position,” the coach says.
There is certainly no getting ahead of themselves at the club’s headquarters down Dorp Street, in a historic building whose wooden floors creak with age, and where they have set up a tight but efficient unit.
The club belongs to the next-door Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, in turn a division of Remgro, and ultimately owned by industrialist Johann Rupert.
It is his first foray into football, although his enthusiasm for sport is well known – a former shareholder of Saracens Rugby Club, chair of the Sunshine Tour board and owner of Leopard Creek Golf Course on the border of the Kruger Park. Rupert loves sport.
His righthand man, Remgro CEO Jannie Durand, tells of the genesis of the idea to buy a football club and of driving to see Rupert in Hermanus, formulating along the way how he was going to sell the concept to his boss.
“I literally just opened my mouth and began to outline the idea, and he said straight away, ‘Yes, let’s do it’,” recalls Durand.
But there has been no liberal splashing of cash and Stellenbosch FC have slowly worked their way up; first in the second tier and, after winning the National First Division in 2019, up in the top-flight.
Their ambitions, to date, have been modest; staying aloft in their first season, which they more than comfortably did by finishing 10th in 2019-20, followed by last season’s more dramatic 14th place.
But club boss Rob Benadie says they see that as a small hiccup and now have their sights set a lot higher. He kept faith in Barker through a miserable run of form last season when many in his position would have fired the coach.
“We sit as a technical team and as a management team and we decide what our objectives are at the start of every season, and we also have a rolling three-year cycle.
“We are a football club; we are football players. Like everyone else, we always begin the start of the league trying to win the league. Everyone sits on zero points and plays 30 games. When we start the Nedbank Cup, we want to win the Nedbank Cup.
“So, of course, we aim for that, and every club will tell you that. Most of the clubs will also tell you they want to finish in the top eight and that is also an aim for us, we do want to crack it in the top eight.
“We’ve got a strategy that says we want to be a consistent top-six team in this country where we can really concentrate on competing for honours rather than being too concerned about retaining [top-flight] status.
“So, we need that shift to happen at some stage and we feel this year might be the start of that,” he adds.
Success might also prompt a little more financial largesse from Rupert, allowing Stellenbosch to strengthen their squad and begin to dream of trophies. For the moment, it is a tightly run operation that has little in common with Patrice Motsepe’s liberal spending at Sundowns, but there are hopes that a possible future “battle of the billionaires” could spread much-needed cash across the soccer industry.
Motsepe’s millions have turned Sundowns into a dominant force in the country and into a real player in the continental competition too.
For the moment, Stellenbosch are a long way off that status, but happy to sit back and enjoy glancing at the log, seeing themselves second and without a defeat in this campaign. And pinching themselves. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.