When the season kicked off in August last year, most football commentators believed the odds on Township Rollers successfully defending the league title were low.
One main reason for this negativity was the alleged instability in their camp after failure to reward players for winning the Coca-Cola Cup and the arrival of new coach, Wesley Mondo.
The well-built Zambian had just crossed to Mapalastina after his unceremonious departure from bitter rivals, Mochudi Centre Chiefs.
Another reason was that Rollers had just lost three of their most influential players, Itayi Gwandu, Terrence Mandaza and Edwin Moalosi.
While Mandaza joined South African Premier League side Platinum Stars, Moalosi headed to the United States to further his studies and Gwandu, as was expected, followed coach Rahman Gumbo to Chiefs.
Rollers’ supporters were hurt by the departure of the two players as they enjoyed watching the duo mesmerize the opposition with ease. But Rollers’ managing director, Somerset Gobuiwang, acted like a true leader and brought in nimble-footed Sekhana ‘Nandos’ Koko and striker Musonda Mweuku from Chiefs as replacements.
Most of the supporters were not convinced that the new arrivals would make a difference but Gobuiwang was unmoved. The performance Rollers posted in the opening game against rookies Black Peril left many of their supporters with a sour taste. It is a game which left many people criticizing Rollers for not practicizing ‘FIFA Fair Play’ after they scored their equalizing goal after the then Peril goalkeeper Reuben Thakadu sustained an injury.
It seemed Rollers’ season would turn into something else and follow the likes of Gaborone United, Chiefs, ECCO City Greens and Police XI, who in the past had won the Premier League title only to falter in the following season. But as the season unfolded, Rollers found their footing, posting some impressive results along the way. They were simply unstoppable, with captain Joel ‘16′ Mogorosi, Onalethata Tshekiso, Koko and Mweuku leading the onslaught. Other players, like left back Edwin Olerile, also came to the party in the campaign, scoring some beautiful goals, which proved vital in their quest to defend the league title.
Things nearly got out of hand when Uniao Flamengo Santos accused Mapalastina of ‘stealing’ their players Mogakolodi ‘Tsotso’ Ngele and Thato ‘Yellow’ Bolweleng who were reported to have been hidden in a lodge in Mogoditshane.
To their credit, Rollers management, once again, kept their cool and focused on the bigger picture, which was winning the league. When things seemed to have settled, Rollers suffered a major blow in January when Mogorosi joined Chiefs in a move which shocked the football fraternity.
This was after the captain was involved in a contract disagreement with the club. His departure nearly caused division amongst the Rollers’ family as some supporters accused Gobuiwang of being negligent, thus letting their most prized asset to leave.
At the time, Mogorosi was Rollers’ leading goalscorer, having rattled the net 12 times.
Things were not helped by the fact that Gobuiwang, in a bid to block Mogorosi’s move, claimed that the player belonged to South African giants Orlando Pirates and any side willing to sign him must negotiate with Pirates. But the Botswana Football Association (BFA) Players Status Committee dismissed that and allowed Mogorosi to cross the floor to the Kgatleng giants.
Some of the young players, including goalkeeper Kabelo Dambe and Simisani Mathumo tried in vain to convince their star man to stay at the Gaborone West-based side.
“It was very difficult for us to accept that he (Joel) has left, especially that he was the captain. For me it was not easy to live with it as we were very close, but we had to pick up the pieces and move on without his services,” Tshekiso told a national radio station on Monday night.
At some stage during this season, Mapalastina lacked the fantasy of the old when they used to dismantle their opponents with ease. Comparing the current team to the one which won the league in 2005 under the late Banks Panene, one would say Mapalastina’s side of six years ago was in a class of their own. Some even argue that the team, which won the championship last season under Rahman Gumbo played better football.
Who would forget the sublime skills of Mandaza and Moalosi that left the supporters asking for more?
Six years ago, Rollers’ side led by goalkeeper Lesego ‘Chokri’ Moeng, Mogogi Gabonamong, Tshepiso ‘Sox’ Molwantwa, Seabo ‘Seabee’ Gabanakgosi, Tshepo ‘Schoolboy’ Molefe, and Lolo Mosojane, were a marvel to watch.
They won the league in style.
On the wings, Phenyo Mongala and Thapelo ‘Pepe’ Balepi used to mesmerize their opponents with their skill and pace. Even the opposition supporters enjoyed their football.
Balepi told Sunday Standard on Friday morning that it would be unfair to compare the current crop to the 2005 side.
“In all honesty, the 2005 side was in a class of their own. At the time, we had experienced players if you look at players like Mkhari (Thebeetsile Raditsebe), States (Segopolo), Lolo (Mosojane) and Seabo (Gabanakgosi). These players were leaders, even when the going was tough, they always had belief that we can pull out something. The current side has mostly youngsters, some of them still adjusting to playing at a higher level, but believe me, they’re good,” said Balepi.
After nearly giving up on football because of personal problems, Balepi bounced back midway through the season and earned a place in the Rollers’ team. He was very influential in their game against Nico United last weekend and was unlucky to leave without a goal.
“I’m happy to be part of the team that has won back-to-back titles, it means when I decide to hang up the boots, I’ll have something to cherish,” added Balepi. This season, Rollers were at times na├»ve with some defensive horror shows, which was seen in the second round tie with Chiefs at the UB Stadium when they lost 3-2 in February.
What made it worse for Rollers then is that they were punished by their former skipper Mogorosi who had just joined their opponents. Even in some games after the Chiefs’ loss, Mapalastina still showed defensive weaknesses; fortunately for them, the opposition could not punish them.
Former Rollers’ captain and star of the 2005 team, Mmoni ‘States’ Segopolo concurs that his beloved outfit was not convincing in defence and, at times, were saved by the brilliance of goalkeeper Kabelo Dambe.
The other plus for Rollers this season, according to Segopolo, was their attack, which most opponents were scared of thus limiting their chances of exposing Rollers’ defence.
“I think most sides were scared of Rollers hence they were not exposed that much. When they played Chiefs, that is when they were totally exposed because Chiefs took the game to them. The departure of Itayi (Gwandu) had an effect because he was the pillar of strength and guided the youngsters at the back,” he said.
Segopolo further pointed out that Rollers’ rearguard was bailed out by the experience of defensive midfielder Lawrence ‘Tico’ Majawa. The Malawian anchor man was brilliant this season and at times was called to play in defence when Rollers were found short.
“I thought the experience of Ndobani (Mothuba) would come handy but he did not feature in most games this season. In all honesty, Rollers will have to buy experienced defenders ahead of next season if they intend to fare well,” advised Segopolo.
To prove that they have a problem with central defenders, Amos ‘Shoes’ Godirwang was played at the back with Mothuba against Nico United and were lucky not to have been punished on a number of occasions. According to Rollers’ captain Edwin Olerile, his teammates deserve the accolades, having managed to bounce back after their defeat to Chiefs, which has seen them lifting the trophy again.
“After Chiefs’ loss, we privately met as players and discussed the way forward. We knew that losing to Chiefs was not the end of the world and fortunately, we all managed to focus and posted some impressive results. Retaining the title is very important to us but we know that all sides will be targeting us next season,” said Olerile. He pointed out that the thorough pre-season they had also worked wonders for them as they managed to be at their best even when the chips were down. All in all, Rollers might not have been at their best this season but it is the spirit of togetherness which won it for them in the end.