Last dance for Sheppard’s MDC graduates

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Rowan Human caught South Africa by surprise with a superb performance in Bidvest Wits’ 3-2 Nedbank Cup semi-final defeat to Mamelodi Sundowns. However, in the eyes of assistant coach Dillon Sheppard, it was a long time coming.

Furthermore, the former Bafana Bafana international believes that by the time the season is done, Human could be just one of many Wits youngsters to have shone on the big stage.

Sheppard, who coached Wits U17 from 2016 to 2019 before being promoted to MultiChoice Diski Challenge [MDC] head coach, realised the attacking midfielder’s potential at U15 level.

It was not only his skill which caught the former Bafana international’s eye, but also his human qualities.

“He’s a very good character, hey. He’s one of those players who showed it from a very young age. I remember working with him from the under-15s,” Sheppard tells FARPost.

“He was still under 15 when he played in his first Future Champions tournament. I remember I brought him on as a sub against Torino and he changed the game. I mean, we were 1-0 down and he created the goal to come back to 1-1.

“I think from then, he started showing signs that the potential was there. He played in that whole tournament; he played every game. He played in the final against Atlético Madrid that year, and like I say, he played in another two more tournaments.

“He’s one of those players that, in the big games, doesn’t have fear. He’s got a lot of ability, and like I say, he’s also got huge, huge confidence in his ability.”

Dillon Sheppard.

Sheppard’s sentiments regarding the 19-year-old are shared by former South Africa U20 coach Thabo Senong, who is now in charge of the Lesotho national team.

“Rowan was in our database for this next under-20 generation of 2001s. He is a good no.8 or no.6. He is a combination of Andile Jali and Dean Furman,” claims Senong.

“He was well-coached in one of the best academies in South Africa, Bidvest [Wits]. He is brave and a strong leader. Helman Mkhalele coached him in the previous COSAFA [Men’s U20 tournament] and they brought back silver.

“He has a bright future as long as he keeps his feet on the ground and surrounds himself with good mentors in the game.”

Sheppard believes that Solly Khunyedi, 20, who like Human was gradually being introduced to the first team throughout 2019-20 even before the national lockdown, is a similarly gifted player.

“His [restart period] was quite a sad one, because in the training leading up to the first league game, he was doing brilliantly and he was supposed to start in his first game. Unfortunately, he picked up a hamstring injury, so he’s been out. That’s the only reason he hasn’t been playing,” Sheppard claims.

Head coach Gavin Hunt has previously been quoted by TimesLIVE as suggesting that Khunyedi was forced to miss training sessions in the build-up to the Nedbank Cup semi-final due to COVID-19 protocols.

Human and Khunyedi aside, Wits promoted eight players from their MDC ranks for the post-COVID restart. Keenan Phillips and Mpho Mathebula, pictured below, have already appeared for the first team since the restart, while Lisakhanya Mlonyeni, Cuwen Prince, Kabelo Makola, Janovane September, Deon Horn and Malik Mashinini are waiting in the wings.

Wits were top of the reserve league when the competition was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Phillips will be a familiar face to supporters who watched last year’s FIFA U20 World Cup in Poland. His red card cost Amajita dearly in their 5-2 loss to Argentina, but his teary reaction demonstrated his passion and understanding of his mistake.

“He plays the game with his heart on his sleeve. He had that little bit of — I wouldn’t say a problem — but throughout his youth career, he could at times be a little bit of a hothead, because he commits himself a little bit too much sometimes when he needs to cool down in certain situations” Sheppard continues.

“He picks up a couple of red cards, but it’s something that you don’t want to take out of his game, because it drives him to be better all the time. We’re kind of just trying to channel it. He has to control his emotions and that passion.

“In the World Cup, you saw that, I think, he learned a lot from that experience, which was really, really good for him, because players make those [mistakes] in big tournaments and they let the team down. Then, they see that they need to curb it and be calm.”

Sheppard decided to address the topic in a lighthearted fashion with the youngster when he was back on club duty.

“When we came back, we had a chat about it. Obviously, we kind of joked about it because we know that it’s happened a couple of times in big tournaments when we’ve played. I said to him that it’s a learning experience.”

Keenan Phillips.

Phillips was fortunate to have the support of Senong, too, in the aftermath of the sending-off.

“I spoke to Keenan one-on-one and spoke to him in front of his teammates, as we needed to use his mistake to educate all the youngsters. I told him that in youth football, all players qualified to make mistakes because that is one of the contributing factors to the learning process of becoming a fully-fledged professional player at performance level,” Senong reveals.

“The boy is in a transition phase of graduating from youth to professional. We were his transition coaches at national team level with Amajita. We knew that the characteristics of young players are aligned with committing errors during all the phases of the game.

“Keenan is a winner. He wanted a good result badly. He scored an important equaliser for us and he made one mistake and got a red card. After the match, I said to him that I was glad it happened at youth [level] because it will help him not make the same mistake when he plays for Bafana Bafana or his professional club.

“We supported him. We all gave him some support throughout the World Cup and beyond. We still talk because my job as their life coach continues.”

At this point, Senong shares a screenshot of a conversation between himself and Phillips from after the latter’s Absa Premiership debut against Kaizer Chiefs and follow-up appearance against Golden Arrows. After sharing the news of his breakthrough with Senong, Phillips wrote: “Thank you for always believing in me, coach.”

Thabo Senong.

To mentors such as Senong and Sheppard, who have earned their stripes as youth coaches, the man-management aspect of the game is particularly important. Indeed, Sheppard finds himself comforting not only the young players in Wits’ first team, but also their families.

“A lot of the youngsters have been in our systems for three or four years. I’ve spoken to [family members], whether it’s Mpho’s mom or it’s Malik Mashinini’s dad, who is a coach at Wits juniors. We always talk, because Malik’s dad helped me to get Khunyedi. Khunyedi, Mashinini and Mpho all joined us at the same time” Sheppard reveals.

“Lisakhanya’s sister, I chat quite a lot to her, obviously with his family [about the] organising of certain stuff. Most of them, with the parents, I try to keep in good contact with them to make sure that everything is alright at home, and from the human being side of it, that they are in a good shape mentally.

“It was Janovane’s birthday now in the bubble, so we were able to send a video of all the first team players singing and stuff like that [to his family]. You know, it’s nice for them to know that the children are in good hands.

“It’s nice to have a relationship, and it’s also going to be nice one day when they’re all going to be playing in the PSL and we can sit watching their games, knowing that we all contributed.”

It is said that every cloud has a silver lining. For these Wits youngsters, the looming takeover by Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila [TTM FC] casts uncertainty over their futures. However, as the season enters its crucial stages, Sheppard’s starlets have the opportunity not only to take part in the Absa Premiership, but also to catch the eyes of potential future employers.

The young men have had to grow up fast in recent months, but in a sense, this may serve as a blessing in disguise. Horn, for example, will undoubtedly have learned plenty about the trials and tribulations of the football industry, having already been at Mpumalanga Black Aces before they were sold to Cape Town City.

“Deon (pictured above) was a midfielder, and at the beginning of the season, we spoke to him and said: ‘Listen, we think that you’d do a good job at left-back. This year, he played at left-back and he’s been promoted to the first team in that position,” says Sheppard.

“He’s humble enough to accept that the coaches think that it might be better for his career to play in this position… He was probably one of the outstanding performers of the MDC this season at left-back for us. I’m sure there’s going to be one or two teams that he’s going to have options to go to and launch his career.”

Sheppard speaks from a place of confidence, as he says enquiries have already been made about some of the youngsters in his side.

“There might be an opportunity for them, you know. Now that we’re in the bubble, a lot of teams have been asking about our young players, because they’ve seen what they’ve been capable of doing,” he reveals.

“I think this bubble and being with us has given them the opportunity now where other teams can have a look at them and they might have the opportunity to move there next season.”

Ultimately, the decision on who is given the platform to showcase their talent in the first team before the season runs out will fall with Hunt. There are several factors to consider, and Sheppard confesses that for young goalkeeper Prince, his position could be an obstacle.

“Obviously, for Cuwen, as a goalkeeper, it’s difficult. He’s a very young ‘keeper, but we have to look at other positions,” he says.

“If you go through the players, Lisakhanya is a top, top youngster. I think potential-wise, he’s going to be one of the big, big surprises. I mean, he’s been under the radar. He hasn’t been part of the national team or anything like that, but he’s a top, top centre-back. I won’t be surprised if one of the big clubs comes calling for him.

“We’ve got the likes of Janovane and Mpho Mathebula — two top, top youngsters. This year, they were unbelievable in our performances. I think with those two there, there’s huge possibilities for them to play now.

“Malik has grown in leaps and bounds. I think he’s come a long, long way. He’s very skillful, a different type of player. He’s not your out-and-out 10, but he’s an attacking midfielder that can drop deep and pick up the ball. He’s got a lot of good attacking qualities.

“Then, you’ve got Makola, who has also performed really, really well coming off the winds of a striker.

“So, ja, I think, opportunities-wise, there’s huge [potential]… But like I say, we’ve got all our first team players here, so if our coach decides to use them, it will be totally up to him.”

Hunt is approaching the end of an era in his coaching career, as TTM FC have already indicated that he would not be kept on after this season.

For the prodigies vying for places in his final few XIs, the last dance for a grand old football club might come just in time for them to showcase the moves they have dreamed of performing on the big stage for all of their lives.

RELATED STORY: Human is the best player in SA at his age – Hunt

By Leonard Solms

Edited by Tiyani wa ka Mabasa and all pictures courtesy of Bidvest Wits.

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