Head coach Steve Barker has lauded his side’s tactical discipline in Stellenbosch FC’s win over Orlando Pirates and praised the impact the club’s new signings made on debut.
Stellenbosch FC opened their account for the 2023/24 DStv Premiership season with a victory after downing last season’s runners-up Orlando Pirates 1-0 at the Danie Craven Stadium on Saturday, courtesy of a first-half goal from Antonio van Wyk.
The result saw the Maroons win their opening match of a top-flight season for the first time, having recorded draws in each of the last four campaigns, and left head coach Steve Barker with a feeling of pride in his team’s performance.
“The ethos of our club, and the teams we have, is one of work ethic, team unity, positivity, accountability, and responsibility, and I thought in all of those facets we showed that,” he said after the match. “The shift that the players put in, the tactical discipline and tactical awareness that we applied, especially without the ball, was really good.
“We knew that they would have a lot of possession and move the ball around well, which they did, but we held our structure well and looked dangerous in transition. That was always going to be the key element in us getting one over Pirates, and I’m really proud of the hard work the players put in during the pre-season.
“Obviously, to start the season with a home win over Orlando Pirates is really good, and the challenge now is to make sure we maintain the work ethic, attitude, and discipline to Wednesday’s match against Polokwane City.
“But I’m really pleased with the performance of all the players and the shift they put in. There were a lot of changes to the squad, we brought in ten players, and a guy like [Kgaogelo] Sekgota only arrived a couple of days ago while we only recently got the work permits for some of our foreign signings.
“That made preparations challenging through some of the pre-season but I can only be proud of the players for the shift they put in.”
Saturday’s victory was founded on an assured defensive display in which new signings Thabo Moloisane and Ismaël Touré were integral, with the latter walking away with the Man of the Match award for his performance on the night.
“I’m very proud of both Thabo Moloisane and Touré,” Barker added. “Touré won the Man of the Match and I thought it was well deserved. We’ve always really wanted a centre-back who has that sort of presence, and those physical attributes and qualities. So, when he became available and we went into the market to get him, it was a big, big signing for us.
“Thabo is also a quality footballer. He’s calm, a good leader, and a good communicator on the field of play. He’s come through good structures in terms of his development, so he’s technically a very good player.
“One of our Achilles heels last season was conceding too many goals, 38 in total, which was something we needed to improve on, so to keep a clean sheet against a really good team like Orlando Pirates was a testament to their debuts. I thought they had really good debuts, as did Genino Palace, so really pleased with their performance.”
Kgaogelo Sekgota, one of 10 new signings, also made his debut as a second-half substitute after arriving at the club last week, and Barker revealed that he was pleased with the newfound depth and quality of his squad.
“I believe we are done [in the transfer market],” he said. “We have a full squad now and it was good for us to get Sekgota. He’s obviously not as match-fit and sharp as he could be, so we need to get him to a good level, but I think he’ll add a lot of excitement and value to the team. He has the ability to go past with pace, and that’s the way we play the game with our front players.
“…Part of the make-up for the squad was to have depth in every position. We brought in Basil Mphahlele, who is a really good right back, [Qobolwakhe] Sibande is a good player and will give good cover to [Fawaaz] Basadien, and upfront it is exactly the same.
“It will take a bit longer for the foreign players [Touré, Anicet Oura, Salifu Colley, and Prince Amponsah] to integrate and get used to the league, but besides the benefit of competition, we’re playing so many games with the MTN 8, the Carling Cup, and the league before December so it’s nice to have the ability to rotate and have fresh legs with the quality that they bring.”
“…There’s not one outfield player in our squad who is over the age of 29 so it’s a youthful and exuberant squad with a lot of running in them. If we can do that and get the crowd behind us, there will hopefully be some exciting times ahead.”
He also backed Iqraam Rayners, who scored 15 goals in 14 matches last season, to continue to aid the side’s attack this time around, despite anticipating that the opposition will place additional defensive attention on the striker, as was the case during Saturday’s encounter.
“If I was opposition teams, I would do that because he is dangerous. He knows where the goal is, so if given a bit of time and space… Last season he came back and was a bit of an unknown quantity again and had a really good run, but it might not be as easy for him this season.
“However, if that’s the case, we can use him as a decoy and if players are tight on him it creates space for others. It’s nice for a player like Antonio, for Devin [Titus] who scored seven goals last season, we’ve brought in KG, young Thulani Mini, and the two attacking foreigners, and we have Andre de Jong.
“We’ve got a lot of different options and variety in attack and part of our strategy going forward is carrying momentum into matches. We’ve got three matches in a week, so having the ability to bring on fresh legs by the time the third game comes around will hopefully play in our favour.
“But Pirates are probably the most difficult team to score against, perhaps besides Mamelodi Sundowns, because they are very organised defensively. [Thapelo] Xoki and [Nkosinathi] Sibisi are both really good centre-backs so it wasn’t easy for a player like Iqraam, but hopefully, in other matches, there will be more space and time for him.”
Despite Rayners not finding the net, Barker was pleased that his side were able to score from the limited opportunities created and credited the tactical preparation and clinicalness in front of goal for his side earning all three points on the night.
“We had some seasons where we struggled, not due to poor play but because we lacked the ability to take our chances,” Barker concluded. “Since the beginning of this year, when Iqraam arrived, our conversion rate and the number of chances taken have increased drastically.
“It’s never easy to do, but it does help. We didn’t create too many chances against Pirates, but the one we did make, we took. That will help us a lot if that can continue.”
“It definitely did help [that the club has pre-season analysis from Orlando Pirates’ pre-season tour to Spain] and I don’t think they had the same on us. We did our analysis on them and what they like to do is get their full-backs high, tuck in [Monnapule] Saleng, [Patrick] Maswanganyi, and [Fortune] Maswanganyi.
“We thought maybe it would be [Kabelo] Dlamini or [Ndabayithethwa] Ndlondlo, but they went with Makaringe so they almost played with three tens, with [Zakhele] Lepasa up front.
“The plan was then to block that middle pass and once it went out wide, shuffle and deny them. If you look at the amount of possession they had, they obviously hit the post and there was a great tackle at the end from Touré, but besides that, I don’t think Sage [Stephens] had a lot to do.
“We didn’t really test their ‘keeper either but sometimes in these games, you get one chance or opportunity and if you take it, it’s enough.”
Stellenbosch FC will be in action again on Wednesday evening when the club takes on Polokwane City at the Old Peter Mokaba Stadium, before meeting SuperSport United in the MTN8 quarter-final at the neighbouring Peter Mokaba Stadium on Sunday.