Njabulo Ngcobo: The roadblock that was almost mounted at KFC

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Every sane development coach dreams of seeing their prodigies go on to do great things in the game. That’s because junior coaches see the best in the boys they mentor.

Durban-based Nkosi Ngema was no different. Against the odds, he believed Njabulo Ngcobo was somewhat an uncut diamond. It didn’t matter to him that his previous football experience came from unknown amateur township teams Voyage FC and one Trouble Tigers [TT] in Umlazi. All he knew was that the boy was destined for greatness in the game.

His journey took off at little known TT in Umlazi, South Africa’s fourth biggest township located south-west of Durban, under the tutelage of Qaphela Misheck Ngcobo, affectionately known as ‘Ndoda’.

“He was 12 when he first came to Trouble Tigers before he left to join Voyage. You could see he was a talented youngster,” Ndoda, pictured below, tells FARPost.

Of course, he was never a regular at TT as he lived with his grandmother in Mtwalume, a small seaside village about 87 km south of eThekwini. That meant there was not much football for the ‘farm-boy’ except during the occasional visits to Umlazi.

At 18, he relocated to Durban after he was done with school. But the love for football was waning. Time was not on his side. On the other hand, there was pressure to start working and provide for the family.

“After moving to Durban [in 2013], I realised he had lost interest in football. He wasn’t seeing a career in football,” adds Ndoda.

Even when Sigcino Cosmos, who had bought AmaZulu’s youth team’s status in the ABC Motsepe League came knocking for his services, he was hesitant.

“He didn’t want to go, but we told him he had to go because we felt he would progress there,” Ndoda says.

Ngema’s first encounter with the boy was after he reluctantly agreed to join the ABC Motsepe League outfit. It was undoubtedly a step up from the township football he had previously played.

It certainly seemed the right thing to do because those that watched him in the township were convinced he was above kasi class. All he needed was just a chance.

Then again, there was a problem. An ABC Motsepe League team couldn’t pay him enough to put bread on the table. So, as ruthless life would have it, Ngema had to face a heartbreak in 2015 when talented Ngcobo opted for a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in South Beach Point.

“The mentality in the village was that when you finish school you find a job and provide for the family. I had to do the same,” Ngcobo explains to FARPost.

The move to leave football for a job at KFC was painful for Ngema, pictured below, because he had seen the boy’s potential in the two competitive games he had featured in.

The boy had the composure that reminded him of former Orlando Pirates captain, Mbulelo ‘OJ’ Mabizela. Calm, cool and collected he was under pressure. Sadly, there was little Ngema could do at that point.

For almost a year, Ngcobo was as good as lost to the game and those that had worked with him wondered if he would ever return to the beautiful game. Would he be one of those promising talents that never got a chance? They pondered.

Perchance he would be like your Teko Modises who went unnoticed for far too long, only coming to the fore fairly late in their careers.

One sweet day, Ngema and the late Mzwakhe Sithole, who served as a coach at Sigcino, had a conversation. They were both curious to find out what had become of Ngcobo. So, Ngema, who also hails from Umlazi was the one tasked to find the boy.

“It worried us with Mzwakhe because we knew how talented he was. So we started looking for him and we found him. I actually called him,” Ngema tells FARPost.

The day he called Ngcobo, around July 2016, he was on his way to training at Real Kings, who had just been promoted to the National First Division having reached the final of the ABC Motsepe League. Ngcobo was attempting to juggle both work and football. His love for football just wouldn’t let him stay away from the game any longer.

“I thought there was no harm giving football one last try, so I agreed to go and try my luck at Kings when I was invited. They had just gained promotion to the first division,” the soft-spoken defender recalls.

Well, at least he was willing to get back into the game. But Kings was certainly not where he belonged, Ngema thought. Coincidentally, AmaZulu were in the middle of a rebuild after being relegated at the end of the 2014/15 season.

“We were rebuilding the team because the majority of players had left,” former Usuthu coach Joey Antipas tells FARPost from his Bulawayo base where he coaches topflight side Chicken Inn.

Ngema, who was now with the AmaZulu youth side, invited Ngcobo to come and train with them. It was on a Thursday and it meant the then 21-year-old would have to drop Kings and try out at Usuthu.

“It made sense to train with AmaZulu because they were closer to my workplace. So I immediately agreed,” explains the Folweni-born star.

The first day went pretty well at training and warranted another invite for the following day. This time they were playing a friendly match against KZN Academy. His pedigree would be tested in a game situation.

Luckily, Antipas happened to be present at the practice match. “He stood out as a central defender amongst those doing trials,” recalls Antipas.

The joy Ngema had when Antipas invited Ngcobo to the senior team’s training was uncontainable. “Antipas told us he wanted him at the senior team’s training session the following Monday. That’s how he went. He trained for less than a week and he called me saying he had been offered a contract with the senior team,” says Ngema.

He became the man to partner Tapelo Xoki in the heart of Usuthu’s defence, featuring in 20 games in his maiden NFD season. So outstanding was he that Antipas remembers nicknaming him ‘roadblock’.

“The boy was outstanding and never put a foot wrong. I nicknamed him roadblock because he was uncompromising in defence. He grew into a reliable defender. I always knew that he would grow if given the chance in the PSL,” Antipas says, adding that if there were awards that year he would have been ‘rookie of the year’.

Surprisingly after that one season, following the departure of Antipas, he was loaned out to Richards Bay. “He showed he had the right attitude when he was loaned out, he worked really hard,” says Ndoda.

After two loan spells with Richards Bay, the comfy centre-back couldn’t understand why Usuthu would not take him back. After all, he was playing at least 25 games per season in the second tier. So, when there was an opportunity to join Uthongathi permanently, he jumped at it.

“I wanted stability, and the Uthongathi move offered me that. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, I enjoyed my football there and knew this was home. We were ninth when I joined them and by the time the league ended we were fifth. The following season we led the table for the entire first half of the season. I had a good time there.”

He shone like a beacon at the  Tongaat-based side, playing 29 times in all competitions, scoring three goals. On 14 March, he caught the eye of Brandon Truter after playing in the goalless draw between Uthongathi and Swallows FC. ‘Brakkies’ already knew him from his stint with Richards Bay.

“After that game Coach Brandon told me they would come for me at the end of the season. I had worked with him and had been impressed by the way he allowed us to play and enjoy football. I definitely wanted to work with him again,” adds the 26-year-old.

The Swallows defence stalwart has been in fine form this season, featuring in all 19 League matches for the Premiership returnees. The steady defender has ensured that Swallows have the second-best defensive record in the elite League this season. They’ve let in 15 goals in 19 matches, behind only Sundowns (nine conceded in 18 games).

“In the PSL you’d think he’s been there forever. It’s the way he takes care of himself. I’m so happy for him,” says Ndoda.

But all that is not enough for the lanky defender especially after Bafana Bafana coach Ntseki Molefi omitted him for the upcoming Afcon qualifiers against Ghana and Sudan citing he was protecting the defender.

“I’d love to play for the national team, I’d be happy to represent my country,” he says. And he wants to see the Beautiful Birds soar into a respectable position this season.

That being said, the farm-boy is in the game to stay and make a mark for himself.

RELATED STORY: How a stint with Kaizer Chiefs changed Mduduzi Mdantsane’s life

By Mthokozisi Dube

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