Peter Ndlovu and the unforgettable wagon of dreams

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You seldom expect an old 1987 Toyota Cressida model to evoke any worthwhile memories. In fact, its generation of cars are dumped in scrapyards with no hope of resurrecting.

But in the City of Kings – Bulawayo – Zimbabwe’s second largest city, is one such vehicle. The 4-door hardtop sedan is well taken care of. Purposely so.

Understandably, it is the jalopy where many footballing dreams were birthed.

The owner is one Cuthbert Chiromo, the man credited for recommending a raw, 16-year-old Peter Ndlovu to then Highlanders’ coach Roy Baretto. Chiromo was Ndlovu’s headmaster in the late 80s.

“I’m still driving the car; it would be very painful to part with this car. It reminds me of boys like Peter Ndlovu that I drove to games in it,” he tells FARPost via a WhatsApp video call.

He beams the moment he starts talking about his most illustrious pupil, Ndlovu, who went on to become the first black African to play in the modern English Premier League.

Clearly, the hullabaloo is not just about the car. But it’s the lives he impacted right inside it. The midsize car, he says, would carry eight boys at a time as they went to play games. Driving with his boys created the occasion to give them some good pep talk.

“I would put eight boys in that car, and I remember Peter would often sit in the luggage space of the Station Wagon with the late Benjamin Nkonjera. The rest would be carried by another teacher in his commuter omnibus. So, the car has sentimental value. Even my wife won’t let me sell it,” he says.

Melda Senderayi, who played basketball at the same school, remembers the jalopy too well.

“It was just a mere car, serving its purpose but now it has a great historical significance especially to a guy like Peter who was like Chiromo’s son. He would be in that car all the time,” she says.

And the first thing Ndlovu says to FARPost when shown the picture of the car is “yawina iCoca Cola Cup imota leyi (this car won the Coca Cola Cup tournament)”.

The tournament is a prestigious national schools’ football competition that has served as a springboard into the professional game for many top Zimbabwean players including Esrom Nyandoro.

Chiromo recalls how Ndlovu was instrumental when Mzilikazi High School won the inaugural competition in 1989. His countless sacrifices, which included keeping the school team at his house before games, started bearing fruit the same year Ndlovu broke into the Highlanders’ first team.

“I said to Roy Barreto (who later coached Orlando Pirates) ‘when the team is winning comfortably please introduce this boy in the last 15 minutes of the game’. He did so, and that was the turning point. Barreto never left him out of the team again,” he says.

With the 1990 Castle Cup final against nemesis Dynamos fast approaching, ex-Highlanders player and coach Lawrence Phiri tells of how the technical team decided to use Ndlovu for the crunch tie. But it had to remain a secret until a few minutes before the game.

Their newly found sensation was sent to the capital Harare, where that final would be hosted, days ahead of the game. The idea was to keep him far from the pressure associated with that game.

“While the team had a practice match in Bulawayo he was quietly training alone in Harare. There was already hype around Peter featuring in the game, but we denied that he would be part of it, even on match day, the rest of the team went onto the pitch without him,” recalls Phiri.

Luckily, at the time, teams did not have to share their team cards with the opponents but only gave it to the referee. So, the young man who would spearhead their attack on the day stayed put in the dressing room, only to emerge with the rest of the players shortly before kick-off, prompting a rapture of applause that rippled through the stadium.

According to Phiri, who remembers watching a 4-year-old Ndlovu play street football with home-made plastic balls, the rookie was nonchalant about being thrown into what seemed a deep end. After a composed performance, he scored the second goal, helping the team to a 3-1 victory.

For Botswana national netball team coach, Sithulile Mlotshwa, who attended the same primary school with Ndlovu, Lotshe, the instant impact made by her former schoolmate wasn’t a surprise at all. She had witnessed his gusto for the game as he snubbed athletics, another of his remarkable talents.

“He was good in athletics, but he never liked it. He didn’t develop interest in any other games which we were taught at Thabiso community club like drama, traditional dance and ballroom dance. For him, it was only football that mattered,” says the Gaborone-based Mlotshwa.

Later that year, FA Cup-winning manager John Sillett spotted the teenage starlet during a pre-season tour in Zimbabwe. When Sillet was sacked his replacement, Terry Butcher, heeded his recommendation and later signed the “Bulawayo Bullet” ahead of the 1991/92 Division One season, which was to be the final campaign before the inauguration of the Premiership the following August.

Then came Chiromo’s moment of gratification. The day was August 22, 1992. His prodigy made his debut for Coventry City against Tottenham Hotspurs, coming off the bench in the last 20 minutes of the game. The Flying Elephant then announced his arrival a few days later by scoring against Chiromo’s Arsenal.

“I’m a Gunners man, but at that point I came close to supporting Coventry City. It was an emotional moment for me,” Chiromo says.

The skilful and pacey ace, blessed with the deftest of touches, turned Coventry into one of the most exciting attacking teams in the topflight during that season. No wonder Chiromo almost dumped his beloved Gunners of London. His protégé found the net seven times but it was his speed and skill on the ball that caused opposition defences no end of trouble.

“He had speed, skill, strength and stamina,” Chiromo adds.

He then enjoyed a better season in front of goal during the 1993/94 season, netting 11 goals and turning the heads of managers at the top clubs in the EPL. Arsenal came knocking with a £4 million bid, but it was rejected. The deal would have made him the most expensive player in English football at the time.

The man known as “Nuddy” to Coventry fans remained at the club until 1997 and enjoyed some memorable moments that will live with football fans for years to come.

One of those moments came during the 1994/95 season when he became the first away player to score a hat-trick against Liverpool at Anfield in 33 years.

He made 154 appearances for Coventry, totalling 34 goals and 13 assists between 1992 and 1997.

Ndlovu, now 47, was sold to rivals Birmingham City in the Championship for £1.5 million but ended up moving to other Championship sides later. He arrived at Huddersfield Town on loan in December 2000 and joined Sheffield United on a free transfer on February 2001, respectively.

Ndlovu left English football in 2004 to play for Mamelodi Sundowns, where he is now serving as team manager.

Back in Zimbabwe, his impact was prodigious. He was capped over 100 times and scored 38 goals during his international career.

Nsukuzonke (everyday) claimed legendary status in 2004 when he captained The Warriors to their first African Cup of Nations appearance in Tunisia in 2004. The man remains arguably Zimbabwe’s greatest player of all time.

Interestingly, it all started in that metallic blue jalopy.

RELATED STORY: Sundowns looked after me – Peter Ndlovu

By Mthokozisi Dube

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