How ‘AK47’ launched Bongokuhle Hlongwane’s career

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Sandile ‘AK47’ Ndlovu was meant to be elsewhere enjoying his retirement. A lethal forward in his prime, the man was done with his football journey that saw him capture accolades along the way.

But here he was, aged 37 and training with a third tier side Phenduka FC just to keep fit. The fitness bunny in him was concerned about the shape and condition of his body.

Little did he know that his path would cross with that of a teenager who just needed a push in the right direction!

In that team was Bongokuhle Hlongwane, who was fairly new to the team. The boy was only 17 at the time.

While he had been told he was good, that encounter with the 2004/05 PSL Players’ Player of the Season was the kind of coincidence his destiny desperately needed.

Funny enough, he didn’t know who ‘AK47’ was, yet this man, who was 20 years his senior, would be his strike partner in a practice match.

“Honestly, I didn’t know who he was the first time I saw him because I was very young when he was playing,” Hlongwane tells FARPost.

The young man will certainly be forgiven. At the height of AK47’s career, the boy was only a three-year-old toddler.

Ndlovu arrived at Mamelodi Sundowns in 2003 as a 23-year-old before being loaned out to Dynamos in 2004, where he went on to make his name.

He played 27 games and scored 18 goals in all competitions in his first season with the then Giyani-based side.

It would be another four years before the boy affectionately known as ‘Saniza’ started playing for his dad’s team – Nxamalala Fast XI.

“We have worked with his dad for over 16 years at this club he owns in Nxamalala. He actually brought Saniza when he was about seven. You could tell back then that he had everything it took to play at the highest level,” Thothi Cele tells FARPost.

It is common knowledge that in any youth team, not all youngsters will make it to the top. In fact, Cavin Johnson last week told FARPost that of the 20 youngsters they recruited when they started the Platinum Stars academy, only three are playing professional football a decade later.

So, Cele knew not all his prodigies would make the grade. But if there was one he never doubted, it was Hlongwane. Not because he was the boss’s son. But the youngster had all the makings of a superstar.

“It was the little things he did on the field at a young age. You just knew he would do very well,” Cele adds. “His ball control, passing ability, pace and eye for goal just set him apart.”

Interestingly, his dad, Wiseman Hlongwane, didn’t know his son had taken after him until Cele invited him to come and witness.

He started playing football when he was so young. Luckily he was coached by Thothi Cele, a friend of mine.

“Initially, I didn’t know he was talented until Cele invited me to come and watch him. I went to watch the boy and I was impressed. He was scoring goals,” Senior Hlongwane tells FARPost.

Playing off the right wing, young Hlongwane would often cut inside and unleash shots with his young weaker left foot.

When he talks about his trademark goals, it’s as though his delighted dad is referring to his son’s goal in Bafana colours against Uganda in an international friendly recently. Or even the goal he scored against TS Galaxy in a DStv Premiership tie this past season.

“He reminded me of my playing days. Unfortunately, I never got the kind of opportunities he’s gotten, but I was equally good,” he says. Seems he is the proverbial apple that did not fall far from the tree!

The youngster was the traditional number seven back in the day. Occasionally, he would also play number nine, as he sought to imitate his favourite players Sergio Aguero, who made his name with English Premiership champions Manchester City, and former Liverpool and Barcelona forward Luis Suarez.

Of course, dad operated in central midfield during his playing days. “I remember watching my dad when I was young. He had a massive influence on me as far as football is concerned,” Hlongwane admits.

For a good 10 years, he played his football under the watchful eye of his dad’s friend, Cele. He admits though that there were no favours from the coach. Tough love was dished out to make sure he turned out to be a good footballer and great human being too.

But that alone wasn’t enough. He needed the finishing touch. As fate would have it, Hlongwane left his dad’s team to go and try his luck at Phenduka FC, a Vodacom League team.

At the time, Maritzburg had already spotted him while playing for Nxamalala FC in the SAB League.

“They saw me playing in the SAB League for Nxamalala Fast XI. They invited me to a trial and I went there for a week. Because they didn’t say anything to me during that week, I left and went to Phenduka,” explains the striker, who turned 21 on Sunday [20 June, 2021].

Instead of returning to Nxamalala, he went to Phenduka wanting to play in the ABC Motsepe League.

“I went there because I wanted to grow as a footballer. Dad’s team was playing in the SAB League and Phenduka presented a bigger challenge for me. I also felt I had done a lot for dad’s team. I needed competition,” he explains.

When he lined up next to ‘AK47’, fate had landed him in the right hands. “I thought the boy was talented, he had the attributes of a good striker and just needed a bit of guidance,” Ndlovu tells FARPost.

Interestingly, on the first day he had to partner with his new mentor, their partnership yielded two goals. They got a goal apiece!

So good was the partnership that the owner of the team wanted AK47 to come out of retirement.

“I just wanted to get rid of umkhaba, my intention was never to return to playing football, but the owner wanted me to play,” says the former Moroka Swallows striker.

That stint, meant to deal with umkhaba, lasted almost two months. During that period, he sat on ‘Saniza’ and imparted his striking wisdom into him.

“When you guide someone you want them to be better than you. That was my desire,” he says.

Luckily, Hlongwane was like a sponge, sucking his mentor’s topflight wisdom acquired over several years in the PSL.

“I learnt a lot from him. I realised that when he saw me, he believed I had potential. Even today, he watches my games and gives me feedback,” says the 2020/21 PSL Young Player of the Season nominee.

When Ndlovu was done dealing with his potbelly, he left the club’s owners a worthwhile piece of advice. “I told them to keep this boy because he was the future.”

However, Maritzburg later returned for the striker, snapping him up for their development side that played in the SAB League.

“They came to fetch and sign me in September, 2018,” he recalls. Although Ndlovu later returned to coach Phenduka, which he now runs, his student had grasped the necessary lessons.

One of the lessons AK47 taught his prodigy was to lurk in and around the box as a striker. That predatory lurking that he often did during his playing days.

“When you’re young you have a lot to learn. I remember him teaching me to spare my energy when chasing for the ball because I’d need it when there’s an opportunity to score a goal.

“I was happy each time he gave me advice because he was a striker and knew what he was talking about. I grew a lot because of him,” says the soft-spoken youngster.

Just two months before his 19th birthday, he got his PSL team debut in a 1-0 defeat to Orlando Pirates.

A month later, he notched his first goal for the Team of Choice in a tie against Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila as the KZN side retained their PSL status through the promotion play-offs after finishing 15th in the top flight.

A Bafana Bafana CAF African Nations Championship (Chan) call up soon followed. “I told him not to worry about too many things, a Bafana call up would follow. I actually think he has everything to play overseas. That is where he should set his sights,” says Ndlovu, who enjoyed seven Bafana caps during his playing days.

The overseas talk is certainly something he yearns for. “I want to play overseas and I hope everything will work out,” he says.

But before he achieves that, his dad believes he is yet to reach the levels they envisaged. “He’s yet to hit top gear. There are things he used to do when he played for my team. He hasn’t done them yet and I’m sure it’s coming because he is surrounded by good people who continue to guide him,” he says.

Clearly the youngster lives by a J Loren Norris rule: “If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.”

As he rides on the guidance of those who have gone ahead, Hlongwane is set for dizzy heights!

RELATED STORY: PART 1: Fortune Makaringe: The boy living his dad’s dream      

By Mthokozisi Dube

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