AN ODE TO THE BEAUTIFUL Birds
Once one of the country’s top three clubs, Moroka Swallows are moving further into the wilderness. Die-hard fan Lucas Ledwaba weeps for a fallen giant
istory, no matter how colourful and glorious, does not win football matches. It never has and never will. The story of Moroka Swallows is more than enough proof of this.
Yesterday, Swallows had collected only 24 points from 29 games in the ABC Motsepe League, and they face a third successive relegation in three seasons to the lower division of South African football.
The club has been rooted second from bottom in the ABC Motsepe League’s Gauteng log standings for the better part of the season, putting paid to any hopes of a return to big time football.
Who would have imagined that during the year of its 70th anniversary, Swallows would barely be flying, but rather sit on the brink of being forgotten and relegated to the scrap heap of football history?
Who would have imagined that someday, while its peers such as Orlando Pirates boast appearances in CAF Champions League football finals and continue to be among the top clubs in local football, the once Beautiful Birds would resemble an old, faded beauty queen who has become the useful tool of young men who want to test their virility?
In a different time, this was unthinkable, an unimaginable impossibility, for this was no ordinary club.
Even as I pen this lament for the demise of a brand that was more than just a football club, but a way of life – a therapeutic package of flair and skill that brought so much joy, pride and an escape from the harsh realities of life to so many, including fans from the opposition – I can almost feel the vibration of the rickety grandstand at George Goch and Orlando stadiums.
Then the voices of the Izinyoni faithful powered into the sky, singing about the Soweto township called Dube, which gave birth to this giant in maroon and white. Or about how the time had come for Swallows to rise and shine and, when the chips were down, belt out a song urging on Congo Malebana to rescue The Birds with a goal, a feat the scoring machine often achieved.
It was the golden age of The Dube Birds – the time of Joel “Ace” Mnini, Fetsi “Chippa Chippa” Molatedi, Thomas “Who” Hlongwane, Aubrey “The Great” Makgopela, Andries “Cost Living” Mpondo, Mike “Sporo” Mangena, Sam “Happy Cow” Mnkomo, Noel “Mzala” Cousins and William “Kurra” Makhura. The list is too long to get through, way too long. In those days, fans would blow on bicycle horns, and whistle and sing the praises of the men on the field with tears streaming down their faces.
Those tears were not of their own doing, for Izinyoni played an enterprising brand of attacking football, dished out with the somewhat arrogant swagger and exuberance of carefree township youth, who played the game with such skill and flair as if they were born solely for that purpose.
Under the stewardship of the shrewd David “Pine” Chabeli, Swallows was the breeding ground of raw talent scouted from the amateur ranks of townships and villages.
It was a club where gems were gathered and polished into shining jewels.
Even fans from opposing sides admired the Swallows, and players from the opposition dreaded the prospect of coming up against this bundle of energy and skill.
Swallows were never a league championship-winning side, but they were always there, hovering in the top four.
During what was arguably their most successful period – between 1980 and 1993 – Swallows twice won the Bob Save Super Bowl (1989 and 1991), the Mainstay Cup (1983), the Iwisa Charity Spectacular (1992) and featured in many memorable Cup finals.
Even as their fortunes dwindled in the new millennium, The Birds managed to win the Nedbank Cup, the Absa Cup and the SAA Supa 8.
But where did it all go wrong? Why are Swallows where they are today? There may never be one solid answer. But the reality is that this has been a long time coming.
Swallows never managed to reinvent themselves, even after being given the label Hlala kwa bafileyo (Remain among the dead) in the mid-90s, they battled relegation season after season.
Although the club underwent a form of revival in the early 2000s under Gavin Hunt and Viktor Bondarenko, they never fully recovered.
When the likes of Pirates, Chiefs, Sundowns and even newcomers such as SuperSport United were adopting modern trends of running a club, building solid development structures, technical teams, a wide network of scouting for talent, going on aggressive drives to acquire sponsorship and rebrand themselves, Swallows remained stuck in a time warp.
Run from the cellphone of one Leon Prins, the man fingered by fans for the club’s demise, Swallows became somewhat of an old-age home, where out-of-contract, faded players looking for a retirement package could play out their last few seasons. No more was it the launching pad for young talent.
When other clubs hired top, experienced coaches, Swallows management appeared to relish having mediocre, unproven journeymen such as Craig Rosslee, Ian Gorowa and European Rainer Zoebel on their bench.
The result was an indifferent string of results and a brand of football that was so uninspiring, the fans stayed away.
For most of their last seasons in the top flight, Swallows played to empty stands at Dobsonville Stadium, a venue in the heart of Soweto – the ancestral and spiritual home of the Beautiful Birds.
In the boardroom, the minority shareholders and Prins bickered over control of the club. Players complained of having to run on zero as the club failed to regularly pay salaries. There was still hope when Swallows got relegated from the PSL in July 2015; hope that management and all involved would appreciate the gravity of the situation and get together to map a way forward.
But no. They attempted to buy the status of Free State Stars for a reported whopping R80 million, a short-cut that would not guarantee an end to the problems that landed the club in the National First Division in the first place.
Perhaps that money would have been best used to rebuild the club over a five-year period, and ensure its return to the PSL.
As they say in Sepedi, “O se bone go akalala ga bo nong, go ya fase ke ga yona”. Loosely translated, this means no matter how high a bird can soar, it still has to return to the ground to feed and drink.
Swallows have returned to the ground and it appears highly unlikely that the Birds will take to the skies and soar again.
MEMORIES Benjamin Reed of Kaizer Chiefs fights for the ball with Moroka Swallows’ Andries “Chaka Chaka” Mpondo in this 1993 file picture