The rise of Bidvest Wits over the last 99 years is testament that great things are not done by impulse. Instead, they are a series of consistent sacrifices and small steps blended. It, therefore, goes without saying that building a brand such as Bidvest Wits demands all manner of sacrifices.
As the curtain comes down on the era of the Students, the aching of those associated with the club is perfectly understandable. Tony Coyle, who played for the club between 1998 and 2003, says over its formative years the club built a solid foundation and went on to produce top players.
“It’s horribly sad that’s happening. Wits is a club with such a great history that has produced many great players, and that was managed by great managers – the likes of Eddie Lewis – the man who gave me my first break in professional soccer in South Africa as Terry Paine. It hurts my soul,” Coyle tells FARPost.
The Clever Boys were formed in 1921 by the Witwatersrand University’s Student Representative Council. As if to gather strength and wisdom for the years ahead, the Students that spearheaded the formation of the club started off participating in a series of tournaments and competing in several divisions.
It would take a good 54 years before the team won promotion to the National Football League in 1975. After exactly a year, Wits found themselves playing in the top tier of South African football.
“It became arguably the best run club in all South Africa, thanks to the likes of Raymond Hack, Ronnie Schloss, and Derek Blanckensee,” adds Coyle. “I loved the club, and I cherish and honoured to have played with the players that I’ve played with. The likes of Roan Maulgue, Peter Gordon, Roger Da Sa, Kevin Rafferty, Gordon Ewen, Augustine Makalakalane.”
During the 1970s the club produced some of South Africa’s finest players – amongst them goalkeeper Gary Bailey, who went on to play for Manchester United and England and defender Richard Gough, who later played for Dundee United, The Rangers, Everton and Scotland.
The club’s first major title came in 1978 when it won the Mainstay Cup after beating Kaizer Chiefs in the final of the competition. Six years later they were crowned BP Top 8 champions, and a year later in 1985 they again beat Chiefs, this time in the final of the JPS Knockout Cup. The club finished 6th in the inaugural NSL season in 1985 while Scottish striker Frank McGrellis was crowned the League’s top scorer with a total of 29 league and cup goals.
It was mixed fortunes for Wits in 1998. They won two trophies, the BP Top 8 and the Coca-Cola Cup in 1995 under coach John Lathan. But a year later they dropped dangerously close to being relegated from the newly formed Premier Soccer League – only surviving thanks to a spirited win on the final day of the season against Jomo Cosmos.
George Mogotsi, who started working for Wits as a driver in 1984 as a 25-year-old, vividly remembers that encounter. In fact, he picks it as one of his most memorable matches. “I still remember that game very well,” Mogotsi tells FARPost, adding it was a dramatic turn.
Midtable finishes followed in 1997 and 1998 before the club finished sixth in 1999/00, thanks to the inspirational form of centre back Peter Gordon, who played over 400 times for the club and Sam Magalefa, who finished as the club’s top goal scorer.
In 2000/01 the club finished a disappointing 13th under new Scottish coach Jim Bone. A year later former Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Roger De Sa was appointed head coach, and he immediately restored order with the club finishing 7th in the PSL in 2002, thanks to a 3–1 victory on the final day of the season over Orlando Pirates.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to Wits. So many players have come through that club, they were probably the front-runners of a white team in a black league,” recalls De Sa.
Under De Sa’s reign things appeared to be looking up for Wits, with the club securing third-placed finishes in the PSL in 2003 and again in 2004. But in 2005 things took a turn for the worst, as De Sa’s ultra-defensive tactics, coupled with a mass player exodus at the start of the season, saw the side score just 24 goals in 30 league matches to finish bottom of the League.
At the start of the 2005/06 season, former Santos Cape Town and Maritzburg United coach Boebie Solomons was appointed as head coach, and his first season in charge brought a return to the PSL for the Clever Boys, with the club comfortably winning the Mvela Golden League after starting the season with six successive victories.
“I nor the club wants to spend another year in the Mvela League, so it is definitely our primary goal to gain promotion and get back in the PSL,” Solomons said after his appointment. Mogotsi recalls how tough their time in Mvela was.
“It wasn’t easy in the Mvela League. We fought hard and lost only two games on our way back to the Premiership,” he says.
In June 2007, De Sa reunited with the club after a two-year absence. He replaced caretaker Eric Tinkler who succeeded Boebie Solomons during the 2006/07 season. In 2010, Wits managed to win the Nedbank Cup after defeating AmaZulu 3-0 in a final that was the first match at the new FNB Stadium ahead of the 2010 World Cup.
However, it was the 2016/2017 title triumph that seemed the zenith of the fruits of the labour of many at Wits. “I was happy that we finally managed to win the league championship because it is what every club aspires to be‚” Mogotsi says.
They also won the MTN8 Cup in 2016 (beating 2016 CAF Champions League winners Mamelodi Sundowns) and the Telkom Cup (League Cup) in 2017. The Club would be celebrating its 100th anniversary next year had it not been for the sale.
Part 3 of the Countdown to the End of an Era will be published on Monday 31 August, 2020.
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By Mthokozisi Dube and Mauwane Raophala