When a then 36-year-old Gavin Hunt took over the reins at Black Leopards ahead of the 2001/02 season he was not certain he had the right players to do the job.
David Thidiela’s Black Leopards, who had been knocking on the PSL door for a number of seasons, had finally gained promotion to the topflight after a gritty campaign in which they left nearest challenger, Bloemfontein Young Tigers, 13 points in the lurch.
They had done so with a modest group of players, some who had never been in an aircraft. Your typical rural guys.
And Leopards supremo, Thidiela, had made a promise he intended to keep at all costs.
“I’d told them they would be the ones playing in the PSL, I didn’t believe in going to buy other players after they fought to win promotion,” he tells FARPost happily.
The likes of Christopher Netshidzivhe, Augustine Mabuya, Vhonani Mulaudzi, Godfrey Ramudzuli and Sibusiso Dlamini deserved to don the Leopards jersey and compete in the elite League, at least according to Thidiela.
His young coach had other ideas though. “When I got there, I will never forget, I said to him, ‘David, we need a few players and he said to me, ‘No, no, no. You will use these rural boys’. I used them and I coached them. They got better…,” Hunt has previously said of that memorable stint.
Of course, they were never going to win the League despite surprisingly sitting at the apex of the table three games into the campaign. Neither did they have the quality to maintain second place halfway through the season. But, the greenhorn trainer was keen to get the best out of them.
“He turned those boys into winners, he did magic,” says Thidiela.
It didn’t matter to him that he had to do drills on gravel and then play on turf on match day. It also wasn’t a concern that he had to work with a group of average players – he took it upon himself to get results out of them.
One man who laced up for Lidoda Duvha that season, Raymond Seneo, says Hunt simply got them to ‘play for one another’.
“We were a unit, he was like our brother and when there was a party (attended by the players), he would be part of us dancing like everyone else. So, when we got onto the field, everyone just wanted to fight for our brother,” says Seneo, who describes Hunt as a ‘black man in a white man’s skin’.
His then teammate Joel Masutha calls him ‘the player’s coach’ because of the admirable relationship he cultivated with his players. In fact, anyone who found Hunt boogying at a party with the players wouldn’t guess he was their coach. None of the boys were afraid of the then young man, but they still held him in high regard.
“The two times he won Coach of the Month during that season, he took us to the Phiphidi Waterfall and bought meat and drinks with all of it for everyone. I think the prize money was R5 000. He spent all of it on us. I remember it was a Sunday (on both occasions). The following day we all thought he’d ‘kill us’ at training, but it was a 45-minute session and we were done. You’d die for such a coach as a footballer,” adds a fanatical Masutha.
However, young as he was, no one was safe from his livid outbursts in times of defeat. This young volcano of a coach lived for winning and you’d better stay out of his way if the team had just lost.
“I once told Augustine Mabuya that ‘if our coach doesn’t win a League at some point I’d be surprised’. His winning mentality rubs off onto the players. I still say the only coach who can give Pitso (Mosimane) a go is Gavin. That’s precisely the type of coach he is – he is a winner,” says Seneo, who went on to play under the hard-to-please Hunt at Moroka Swallows.
At the end of that season, Leopards finished eighth, a club record yet to be bettered 20 years on. Subsequently, the former Seven Stars and Hellenic stocky right back was named the 2001/02 PSL Coach of the Season.
As he celebrated two decades of coaching in 2015, the disciplinarian mentor, known for pushing his players to the limit on the training field‚ singled out the Leopards job as the most pleasurable coaching gig he has ever held in terms of how the players responded.
“I have a lot to thank for a guy like (David) Thidiela, because he put faith in me,” he said.
Interestingly, Thidiela, who has gone on to hire over 25 coaches since Hunt left, turns all clergyman when he begins to talk about Hunt’s coaching journey. Of course, Thidiela is a pastor at the United Africa Apostolic Church (UAAC), but to drag divinity into the world’s most beautiful game comes unanticipated.
Justifiably so, the man knows the humble beginnings of Hunt. “I picked him on the street when he had been fired by Hellenic,” he says sarcastically. Hunt’s playing career was cut short in 1994 by an Achilles tendon injury. The following year, he transitioned to coaching.
He led Seven Stars for three years before joining Hellenic FC in 1998 until 2001.
“Hellenic is the only club that ever fired me in my coaching career,” Hunt told FARPost in May. Since then, no club owner has had any reason to axe him.
He held the Moroka Swallows job for five years before leading SuperSport United to their most successful spell after clinching three consecutive titles.
In 2013, he took over at Bidvest Wits, and steered them to their first ever League title at the end of the 2016/2017 season.
He also guided them to Telkom Knockout Cup and MTN8 triumphs during his seven-year term with the 99-year-old club that was recently sold.
As Thidiela begins to talk about the 56-year-old, you just know he is a man in deep admiration.
“To be Gavin Hunt he started with me, he is a workaholic and he is a coach who is easy to work with. You win, things don’t go right, he remains the same man. He doesn’t change,” Thidiela says.
Anyone who has worked with Hunt will tell you that he is clever, thorough, decisive and a winner. It is for that reason Thidiela has no regrets that he entrusted his newly promoted side with Hunt, who barely had any experience nor qualification as a coach.
“He was not qualified when he was recommended to me. I was also a new man in the game and so he was recommended to me,” he says, emphatically adding “Gavin was godsent”.
In his eyes, the former Hellenic right back joining him was God’s will.
Funny enough, Thidiela – the security chief who used to pace up and down the old FNB Stadium with a walkie-talkie in hand as he cajoled his men into position ahead of Soweto derbies – only knew ‘Gavin the nuggety right-back’. In a way, appointing him coach was such a huge gamble that he still can’t explain. Except to say, ‘it was the Almighty’s will’.
“I had faith in him, don’t ask me why and how because I can’t explain. I’d be lying to you if I try to explain.”
Pressed to clarify, he turns preacher again and says “what the Almighty says, it goes…”
When you track the events back, one would argue the divine element was fairly evident. And then there’s something Thidiela will never forget that would happen before big games. Hunt would drive from Thohoyandou, where Lidoda Duvha played their home games, to Vhufuli, 16km away, where senior Thidiela lived.
“My father was a pastor at UAAC, the church I lead, and Gavin would go to him to be prayed for before every big game. He was never forced, it’s something he did voluntarily,” he recalls.
So, to Thidiela, Hunt is reaping the rewards of one of God’s promises wherein the scripture says, ‘humble yourself before the Lord and he will lift you up’. He confesses he learnt humility from Hunt, who scored six goals out of the 302 appearances for Seven Stars and Hellenic, the only two teams he played for in his career.
“What makes him to be what he is, he is humble,” he conclusively says.
“I never saw his pride that he was a white South African. There weren’t too many whites in our area at the time.”
Besides the humility and prayer element, Thidiela says Hunt’s passion for his job was unparalleled.
The four-time League winner was recently handed the insurmountable task of bringing the glory days back to Kaizer Chiefs following the departure of Ernst Middendorp.
Thidiela has no doubt, whatsoever, that his former coach will turn the erratic Amakhosi into title winners.
“I don’t think, but I know for a fact that Chiefs won’t be the same. Gavin is a good man and he will change Chiefs,” he says insistently, something Masutha and Seneo concur with.
It remains to be seen whether Hunt’s knack of turning average talents into winners will manifest at Naturena. But the club’s trophy-starved faithful will be hoping he leads them to the podium come end of the season.
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By Mthokozisi Dube