Mandla Ncikazi: From the athletics track to the football pitch

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Until 1989, the only Mandla Pius Ncikazi known to Thembela Mbatha was an unbeatable track and field athlete!

The young man was invincible; peerless on the athletics track.

Just one stride covered at least five feet, his upper body following from behind, moving back and forth swiftly.

His feet pounded the track and rose briskly that his heels hardly touched the ground.

That was the Mandla Ncikazi he had grown to know. He was overpowering as soon as he took to the track for his favourite 400m race.

No matter how much Mbatha tries to jog his memory backwards, he can’t think of Ncikazi finishing second behind anyone in an inter-schools race in KwaZulu Natal.

The rural boy from Hlokozi – a village located in the southern part of KwaZulu-Natal province – lorded it over the province!

“He ran his own style,” Mbatha tells FARPost, as he describes his giant strides. “I’ve never seen someone run so fast. Actually, I can’t remember anyone running faster than Mandla at school, he was so fast.”

Mandla Ncikazi the athlete’s name is mentioned in the same line with 1992 Olympics 400m star, Bobang Phiri!!!

Yes, Bobang Phiri, the man who competed in three successive Summer Olympics – a major international multi-sport event normally held once every four years.

Back in the 90s, Phiri was one of the athletes who carried the country’s hopes going into athletics competitions like the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and the African Championships.

In fact, Ncikazi singles out Phiri as the one athlete who gave him problems in the national schools’ finals. “I competed with Bobang Phiri, he beat me in the 400m race, I was number three and he was first,” Ncikazi tells FARPost,jokingly adding that Phiri made him quit the sport.

At the time, Phiri was at Central High School in Soshanguve, a township situated about 30 km north of Pretoria. He remembers how the KZN boys, led by Ncikazi, gave him the stiffest challenge.

“They were our biggest challengers and we often met in the national finals when I was at Central High School,” Phiri tells FARPost.

On the other hand, Ncikazi was a student at Nkosibomvu High School in Tongaat Village, about 40 kilometres north of Durban.

Perhaps what gave him the edge over Phiri was that he was equally good with hurdles and long jump.

“I’d win more than one event, sometimes three or four events. The Victor Ludorum [a trophy presented to the most successful competitor at a sports event] was always my prize,” says Ncikazi, who was also head prefect.

Aged 20 in 1989, he became part of the formation of an amateur football team called Stone Breakers FC in Hlokozi, located to the north of Port Shepstone. That is where he started gravitating towards diski.

Mbatha and Ncikazi both hail from Hlokozi where their careers took off. They both reveal that there was little activity to do in the small village with a population of about 3 000 people.

So, young boys would often play sports, dominantly soccer. They pretty much all knew each other.

On the day Stone Breakers was birthed, Mbatha remembers hearing someone saying, ‘we’re waiting for Mandla’. Little did he know it was the athlete ‘Mandla’ he knew.

“I was surprised when he arrived because I knew him from athletics,” he says. He admits he immediately thought the fast-paced young man would make a good striker.

“At some point I was convinced he would take up athletics professionally. He was tall, slim on the upper body, and he looked like the lower body was not his because his thighs and legs were quite big. He was born with an athlete’s body, I don’t know where this thing with soccer came from,” says Mbatha, pictured below.

In the village, where there was little coaching, anyone gifted with speed was thrown upfront to beat defenders with their pace.

But not so with Ncikazi. He slotted in perfectly in the rear-guard with his athlete’s body. “He became a leader in that team, he hated losing. He would shout and demand that people pull up their socks whenever we were losing.

“We knew when he played at the back that no striker would beat him. When they beat him, he would catch up and win the ball.

“He would immediately release it without doing too many things. He was effective,” Mbatha recalls.

The following year, the two went to different colleges in Newcastle. Mbatha would often visit Ncikazi at Madadeni Teachers’ College until students started calling him ‘Pius’s boy’.

After graduating in 1991, Ncikazi, who was headboy at Madadeni, started teaching at the Siphosethu Primary School.

It meant he was now juggling his teaching job, with football and athletics also competing for his time. A decision had to be made or else he would burn himself out.

“I had to choose between athletics and football. I felt I was more talented in football so I settled for football in 1992,” he explains his decision to drop athletics in the year Phiri first represented the country in the Olympics held in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

In 1993, the talented midfielder, Mbatha, was snapped up by Reservoir Hills FC after being spotted by Professor Ngubane.

Of course, being a newcomer and youngster he spent much time on the sidelines. Ahead of his second season, defence stalwart Leslie Langa was on the verge of joining Kaizer Chiefs and Ngubane needed to quickly replace him.

“I told Professor Ngubane that I knew someone who could fit just perfectly and I had Mandla in mind,” says Mbatha.

But convincing his homeboy to come to training was such a nightmare. This was a man taking things at his own pace as his teaching career was fast gathering pace.

Pressure was piling on Mbatha as Professor Ngubane kept asking him where his ‘new’ defender was. He desperately had to make it work.

“He wasn’t interested, he didn’t think he could play with the guys at Reservoir Hills. He kept saying he had been watching them on TV and didn’t think he would fit in. I went as far as asking his partner to help convince him to give it a try,” adds Mbatha.

Eventually he agreed and he finally attended trials in January 1995. Ncikazi is on record as saying he ran away after his first training session with Reservoir.

“I had never seen a team run so much,” he says. “But Professor Ngubane called me back. He gave me my first contract.”

After just a season in Reservoir’s colours the club was sold. His football career, dominantly played on the right side of defence, then took him to African Wanderers where he played with Siyabonga Nomvethe and Sibusiso Zuma.

His playing career, however, came to an end while at AmaZulu courtesy of an Achilles tendon injury in 2000.

“I then went into coaching and worked professionally at many clubs, including Wanderers and Durban Stars where I was assistant to Fani Madida,” he says.

Former Ilanga newspaper journalist Nhlanhla Sithole, who later became a manager at Wanderers, was impressed by Ncikazi as he cut his coaching teeth with the University of KwaZulu Natal team.

“He was coaching the UKZN team and I was convinced he would make a good coach. So, I suggested his name and the chairman of Wanderers gave me a go ahead to engage him, only to find out that as an upcoming coach he was looking forward to that kind of opportunity. That’s how it came about,” Sithole tells FARPost.

But that stint was short-lived “because of the formation he wanted to play”. His bosses were of a different view.

Since then, he went on to coach in every football division in the country.  “I worked with Duncan Lechesa at Polokwane City and was also an understudy to Steve Komphela at Free State Stars and Maritzburg United. I also was once an assistant coach for Banyana Banyana and had a brief stint as head coach of Nathi Lions,” says the 53-year-old trainer.

In between, he worked as a school teacher before becoming a sports officer at the Department of Education. He eventually shifted all focus to coaching.

He then served under Manqoba Mngqithi at Lamontville Golden Arrows in 2007/08. Together, they guided Abafana Bes’thende to the 2009 MTN8 title in style, trouncing Ajax Cape Town 6-0.

When he finally got to be head coach at Maritzburg in 2015, after Steve Komphela left to join Kaizer Chiefs, he saw it as an opportunity to carve his own niche as head coach. But he lasted only five matches in the hot seat.

This time, when Komphela left him at the helm of Arrows he just swam just as well as he used to fly on the athletics track.

With two games to go before the curtain comes down on the 2020/21 season, the Durban side sit in third place after a fairy-tale run.

“The time was right [when I took over at Arrows this time]. When I didn’t succeed I felt the time was not right. It was right for me to start working as head coach.

“All the players that are playing I know how they came to the club, I know where they come from. That has been a factor. Some were youngsters when we would go to tournaments I took the bulk of them,” he says.

But for Phiri, Ncikazi is a hero as he is representing athletes in football. “Please tell him he has made us proud, he is representing us,” he says.

Once again, the athlete-turned-footballer and teacher-turned-coach wants to lord it over the world of football!

RELATED STORY: Manqoba Mngqithi: From the chalkboard to lifting football trophies

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