DM168

SOCCER FEATURE

Mamelodi Sundowns move reignited Ronwen’s love for the beautiful game

Mamelodi Sundowns move reignited Ronwen’s love for the beautiful game
Ronwen Williams of Mamelodi Sundowns during the CAF Champions League match between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Athletic Club at Loftus Stadium on 20 May 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Demands at Mamelodi Sundowns are high and many players have not survived the club’s sink-or-swim ethos. But the Bafana goalkeeper adapted well in his debut season with the champions.

Many are called. Few are chosen. That is the reality at Mamelodi Sundowns. Blessed with a wealth of exceptional and extraordinary soccer players (and the financial resources to fish for more), the club is always striving to become even better.

Sometimes it works for the new signees, but sometimes (because of various circumstances) it does not. One thing is clear, one needs tons of mental fortitude to thrive at the serial South African champions.

So, the fact that Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Ronwen Williams left his boyhood club SuperSport United and reached dizzying heights at Masandawana in his maiden campaign with the 2016 African champions is commendable.

The 31-year-old joined Sundowns’ Tshwane neighbours in 2004, aged 12. He spent 18 years with Matsantsantsa before switching their blue colours for the Brazilian yellow of Masandawana in mid-2022.

There were detractors questioning the big switch. Would he become another player who went to Sundowns and drowned because of the high demands and expectations at the club?

The competition was tough, too, in his position. Concern was amplified by the fact that Williams is the first-choice goalkeeper for South Africa’s senior men’s side. A Bafana Bafana No 1 couldn’t possibly be comfortable warming the bench, or playing sporadically.

Ronwen Williams of Mamelodi Sundowns during the CAF Champions League match between Al Ahly and Mamelodi Sundowns at Al Salam Stadium on 25 February 2023 in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo: Ahmed Hassan / Gallo Images)

Hit the ground running

Nevertheless, even with the stiff competition from goalkeepers such as the decorated Denis Onyango, Reyaad Pieterse and Kennedy Mweene, Williams flourished during his first season in Chloorkop. He firmly established himself as the Sundowns’ first choice in goal.  

As they trotted to a sixth consecutive DStv Premiership title, Williams was integral to their success. He played in 26 of Masandawana’s 30 league matches. In the process, the 31-year-old rewrote history in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) era.

He kept 18 clean sheets, breaking a long-standing shutout record that was set by former Orlando Pirates star goalkeeper Moeneeb Josephs. The latter managed 17 during the 2009/2010 season.

“It was amazing. I enjoyed every moment. I knew it was going to be tough. The first day, when I came in, I had a wonderful talk with the coach [Rulani Mokwena]. He outlined the objectives. That’s when I knew that the real work is starting now and if I’m not up to it I might as well stay [at SuperSport],” Williams said of his season, speaking at a recent media engagement.

“I knew it was going to be tough. But I’ve been in the game a long time and it’s a challenge that I wanted, a challenge I was looking forward to.

“But it’s been amazing. Lots of ups. Lots of downs. I’m happy. But there’s always room for improvement,” he said about his incredible individual season.

“I can’t do it by myself. It’s a collective thing … The defenders, the midfielders – even the strikers with their counter-pressing … All of them make my job so much easier. On average, I’m limited to one save a game. That’s testament to the people I have in front of me, the work they also put in.”

In spite of his modesty, during his maiden season at the Tshwane giants, Williams stood tall and stepped up his game. He emerged a more complete soccer player than when he joined. His starting of the Brazilians’ attacking moves was commonplace and a key part of the team’s build-up play.

These displays got him nominated for the PSL Player of the Season gong – though winning it proved a bit tougher.

Since the inception of the PSL in 1996, only two goalkeepers have received the honour – Andre Arendse of Santos in 2002 and Kaizer Chiefs’ Itumeleng Khune, who got it 10 years ago.

In the end it was a bridge too far for Williams. He and Orlando Pirates talisman Monnapule Saleng were pipped by Sundowns midfielder Teboho Mokoena to the prestigious end-of-season accolade.

But Williams did walk off with the Goalkeeper of the Season award for his stellar displays in the campaign. To claim the golden glove, he held off strong competition from his successor at SuperSport, Ricardo Goss, and Richards Bay’s Salim Magoola.

New age goalkeeper

“There’s been a lot of talk in South Africa about the role of a goalkeeper,”  said coach Mokoena. “I was saying to Ronwen the other day that, of course, making saves and pulling off penalty saves like he’s done this season is the first requirement,” he said.

“But another requirement we’ve had for goalkeepers, for a very long time, is that they can play with the centre backs … The challenge we gave to him was that he has to play with the centre backs, fullbacks and the central midfielders.”

Williams quickly adjusted to these demands and has honed his passing prowess to the point where he can find even the team’s forwards with relative ease; instigating dangerous attacks for his team.

“He’s done things that you don’t find predominantly in South African football. And because of this, we undermine and take them for granted,” Mokoena said.

“How many passes have we seen this season where Ronwen makes a [key] pass? These are the types of things you see at a level of clubs like Manchester City, with quality goalkeepers.

“Ronwen has been able to do that. He deserves a lot of praise and credit.”

Williams returned the kind words of his perfectionist, meticulous coach by stating that the move to Sundowns arrived at the perfect time for him, galvanising him to new heights after spending almost a lifetime at the same club.

“He [Mokwena] came at the perfect time in my career. He was someone I needed, just to give me that extra something that has been missing in my game for the last few years,” Williams said.

“I told [the coach] last year that ‘I needed you at this time.’ Because I was not enjoying football. I was just playing football because I had to do it. But now I look forward to training every day. Trying to be better.”

Williams and his teammates are still nursing the heartbreak of being dumped out of the CAF Champions League semifinals by defending African champions Wydad Casablanca.

For them to have the best opportunity of winning the continental competition next time around, everyone will have to be better. That includes Williams, even after his impeccable individual season. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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