Stellenbosch FC head coach Steve Barker and assistant head coach Wesley Sergel achieved the unique distinction of overseeing their 200th match in charge of the club this past weekend.
Stellenbosch played host to Orlando Pirates at Athlone Stadium on Sunday in what was the club’s first-ever appearance in the MTN8 semi-finals, and while the result ultimately did not go to plan on the day, the occasion marked a proud personal milestone coaches Barker and Sergel who oversaw their 200th match in charge.
The duo assumed reins in the Cape Winelands ahead of the 2017/18 season while Stellies were still competing in the National First Division and successfully secured promotion as champions the following year, before solidifying the club’s status in the top flight over the past four-and-a-bit seasons.
A club-record fourth-placed finish in the DStv Premiership followed in the 2021/22 campaign and a first semi-final appearance was secured last season when Stellenbosch reached the last four in the Nedbank Cup, with Stellies only missing out on a final spot via a penalty shootout defeat.
Sunday’s MTN8 semi-final first-leg encounter was the latest in a string of milestones achieved in recent years and coincided with Barker and Sergel reaching the 200-match milestone in charge of the club, a rare feat in South African football, and indeed across the sporting code globally as well.
“It’s been a rollercoaster ride but I’m very proud to have been the head coach of this special club for 200 matches,” Barker said after the match. “It’s an honour and I am thankful for the effort and commitment of every single player who has played for me…
“It’s very special and I must say thank you to the management for the belief and trust they’ve placed in us. The club started out with a plan to be in the PSL within five years, we achieved that and achieved two semi-finals, a fourth and sixth position in the league.”
This sentiment was echoed by Sergel, who was quick to pay tribute to the club’s ownership and management structures for the faith and trust that has been placed in the coaching department over the last seven years.
“If you look at it, it’s been almost seven years so it’s 200 games in seven years, and I don’t think anyone in a professional sporting set-up expects to be at one club for so long,” he said. “That also comes down to who the owners are and who runs the club, and the trust that they’ve put in us.
“That’s something we can always be grateful for, to have owners and people like our CEO Rob Benadie in our corner and for the way they’ve run the club and the belief and trust they’ve put in us, especially in tough times when they’ve stuck with us. I feel incredibly honoured and privileged to have been at this club for such an amount of time.”
Trust is a common theme when it comes to Barker and Sergel who have enjoyed a long working relationship together. Prior to their spell with Stellies, the pair previously shared the dugout at the likes of AmaZulu and Tuks and over time they have developed a fruitful understanding and approach to football.
“I believe one of the great successes that Wesley and I have been able to build, is that we have a common respect for each other, in both a working relationship and as friends,” Barker explains. “Wesley brings a wealth of knowledge in terms of tactical preparation and tactical coaching, which comes from his background in analysis.
“I believe we complement each other very well with his tactical awareness and ability, and my man-management skills and abilities. It has worked well for us. Most importantly though, is that there is a trusting relationship between the two of us. We support each other and we’re not afraid to challenge each other as we push to achieve higher levels.”
“The secret is that it’s been a lot more than 200 games,” Sergel adds with a laugh. “It’s been 200 games at Stellenbosch but it was also about five years before that. The amount of time that we’ve been together gives that trust and confidence in each other to make the team work.
“It’s a kind of trust that can only be built over time, it’s not something that you can develop quickly, and it has to be mutual. I think we’ve only grown more, and improved and evolved over the last 200 games together, than where we perhaps were five years ago.
“It’s been a privilege and an honour to work together. He’s really taken the club to the next level as a people-first person, and when your club is driven by people-first leaders, then everyone looks to achieve and succeed. It’s been a great journey so far and hopefully it lasts another 200 games.”
Keeping an eye on the future, both coaches are unanimous in the direction the club is heading and with the goals that they have set for themselves and the team.
“We are in a good space,” Barker continued. “It’s been 200 games with highs and lows, lots of joyous moments, some difficult periods to coming through, winning a league title and being a penalty shootout away from a final, so it’s important for now to find ways to take the team to the next level.
“I do feel that we are getting closer, but we must ensure that we do everything we can to get to that next level.”
Sergel concludes, “The amount of growth as a club from where it all started is probably the best thing to see and I think the aim is to just continue to improve, or to supercede what we’ve accomplished already.
“If we can finish higher than fourth, that would get us into CAF which would be another milestone. If we can reach a final, again, another milestone. Winning a final? Another milestone. It’s about always looking to improve on what we have done.
“It’s not always the easiest thing to do, but continued growth is the aim. The more you grow your people, the more you grow results, and if we can keep improving, even if its small margins at a time, the goal is just to keep getting better.”