Can Hendrick Ekstein avoid sinking into the hazardous comforts of being a luxury midfielder who remains a mere fan darling, doing little to benefit the team’s tactics? He boldly states that his past has shaped him into growing his game into an all-weather
From working on the mines to being a Kaizer Chiefs superstar! But can “Pee” fulfil his potential at Naturena?
Four years ago Hendrick Ekstein was a casual mine worker who had to put up with the challenges of waking up at 02h00 in preparation for the morning shift at Kloof Gold Mine in Westonaria. Like plenty of his older workmates, he was fending for his family, a situation made even more difficult by the fact that he was an orphan who also had a child to cater for. Yet behind the baby-faced mine worker was a hidden football talent desperate for a platform to shine on, and so good that only slight polish was needed before blowing up just like the explosives that he was working with in the mines. “I used to work on the surface, loading explosives into the scotch carts which would then go underground to blow up the rocks in order to eventually get to where the gold was,” ecalls Ekstein, as he discloses his ast for the first time.
‘It was not easy at all’
“In that line of work it meant waking up at 02h00 because my shift started at 03h30 and I would work until 11h00, then take off the overalls and be ‘clocking out’ at 12h00. Luckily the mine wasn’t very far from where I stayed which is why I was only waking up at 02h00. At that time I was grateful that I had a job and I was able to work and provide for my family and my child. The experience of working at the mine built me into being the man that I am now. “I told myself that if I could work those shifts at the mines then I could survive under any working conditions and provide for my family. I was 21 when I started working on the mines, while some of my workmates were in their late 50s. Being an orphan, I had to do it for the sake of my family because I am not from a well-off family,” he discloses. That experience helped Ekstein find new respect for his job – nowadays as a professional footballer – and gave him a different perspective on life. His voice and thoughtful look leave nothing to doubt when he talks about the path that he has taken to be where he is now. “As a human being you must respect life and never ever take it for granted because you never know what will happen next,” he advises, suddenly speaking more like a man thrice his age. “At times I tell some of my teammates here at Chiefs about the experiences in the mines, but some take it as a joke while others are literally shocked. Some suggest I should write a book about my life, but I just laugh it off because for me this is what shaped me into being a man amongst men. Most of these guys don’t understand that working
at a mine doesn’t mean you are always going underground. “I worked at Kloof Mine for a year, only getting off-days on Sundays and every second Saturday. Those madalas I worked with at the mine constantly told me about being a kid that needed to go back to school and I promised them I would do that once I had settled in at the mine. While the money that they were earning was little, the madalas made it known that the priority was always to look out for their families. They had no other option than to work for those peanuts because if they stopped, there would be no income and they would be stranded. I had told myself I’d go back to school, until the Kaizer Chiefs situation came up,” he explains. All the football that Ekstein had played back then, having already reached the age of 23, was in kasi tournaments around Bekkersdal and Mohlakeng – the two townships on the shoulders of the West Rand. Prior to that he had only been with Junior Rangers through his teenage years before doubling up playing for the mine’s team and LMP Stars in the amateur ranks. Though there had been widespread talk about a gem of a footballer nicknamed “Pee” in the West Rand, the prospect of moving up the ladder to the professional ranks, let alone Kaizer Chiefs, was a mere distant dream.
Fortunately, Chiefs legend Ace Khuse also hails from the West Rand and was to become the catalyst that helped Ekstein end up with the reserve team of th he country’s most popular club. “With coach Ace I was ac ctually playing in a tournament in his neig ghbourhood of Mohlakeng which is 10 mi nutes away from the mine in Bekkersdal. He e approached me wanting to know how old l was, and I told him I was 23,” recalls Ekstei n. The age factor was surel ly the reason why Khuse – then the Chie efs reserve team coach – initially appe eared hesitant, but when the Ch iefs reserve team came to play a friendly match at Kloof Mine again st Ekstein’s team, it presented d another opportunity. “Ace was not there, but I still knew that I had to prove myself m and I knew that being 23 made this my last chance to t impress the team that I gre ew up supporting. So on that particular day I played my heart out, so much so that t coach Arthur [Zwane] was impressed and immediately y made a further recommendation to the reserve team coach, who was Ace. . The following week we played again and coach Ace told me right away that I must come to training the following week. That is how everything started for
“I DIDN’T COME HERE TO ADD NUMBERS. I’M HERE TO WIN TROPHIES…”
me,” he detailss with his face lighting up. Having alre ady proven that there was absolutely no need to doubt his breathtaking talent after a charming with his skills, the big questiion remains whether or not he will live upp to his potential instead of being swallowwed by the comforts that come with beeing a fan favourite. Since makinng his first team debut in February 20155 as a substitute, Ekstein has shown that foor him, playing a through pass is as easyy as rolling a coin into a slot machine. What needss to be fixed is remaining visible at all ti mes during a game, a trait that will no dooubt win greater support from his coac h along with the appreciation from those in the stands, which he already enjoys in abunndance. “When I camme to Chiefs my aim was to build a name for myself, just like others,” he says. “I didn’t ccome here to add numbers. I’m here to wi n trophies so that I can be remembered for having played in the squad that woon this and that, instead of being remem bered for being the worst. We want to mmake the fans happy because we are not onnly playing for ourselves, but our fans, the cchairman and everyone who supports us. I really want to win trophies with the club..”
Raising h is hand
The rise of Ekstein’sE influence is also evident fromm the growing number of appearance s that he has made since his debut iin the 2014/15 season, but he insists he is yet to reach the level that he wants in his game. “Whaat I know is that I haven’t made tthe kind of impact I want to make hhere at Chiefs just yet. I want to be a seasoned player. I know that everryone else wants to play, but I want too raise my hand through my performancess so that the coach sees how keen I am to pplay. The coach is always asks the so-called yyoungsters what we will do when [Bernardd] Parker retires, and I feel I have raised mmy hand to show that I am one of the players that will stand up and show that I really waant to play for this team. I came here wi th the intention of wanting to play and win things. “For now I am not happy with what I have done for the team so far and it is for that reason that I want to step up this season. I haven’t done enough as yet. My plan is to create and score for the team,” he promises. Yet just how does he avoid the easy path of being a fan-favourite, luxury player who is detrimental to the team’s system? “How I play now is not the same as I did for the past two seasons,” he insists. “The coach has told me ‘yes, you are visible when you have the ball, but then you must also be seen even when you don’t have the ball [so that it can be seen what it is that you do when the team doesn’t have the ball]’. So I am building on those words from the coach, so that I don’t get to be referred to as a luxury player. “Whenever I play I always make sure I watch all my games when I get home to improve my game. In that case it helps me analyse my game and if there is something I feel I didn’t do well, I then ask the coach about what I have to do. He then tells me that I have to do this and that so that is how I build myself. So far the coach is happy because I do track back and I can also mark. So for now the coach has told me that I am playing well and I can also see that myself. However, considering that I am a creative player, I am yet to get to where I want to be … I want to create chances and also score for the team,” he emphasises further detailing how Steve Komphela has influenced his game. “The coach always tells me I can make the team function whenever I have the ball. Not to say the team will play according to me alone, but most of the time if I get the ball then it should be the same way as to what happens when “Shabba” [Siphiwe Tshabalala] gets the ball. So for us attacking midfielders we have to make the ball work so that Parker and [Gustavo] Paez can get clean supply,” he spells out.
Making up time
Due to turn 27 on the first day of the new year, Ekstein also knows just how much time he must make up for as he continues to get rid of the stigma of being seen as a youngster. “I am no longer a youngster now because I am 26. Even the time when I got here at Kaizer Chiefs I was already 23 and not a youngster anymore. So for me to
“I am yet to get to where I want to be…”
be called a youngster is all because of my body size. I just have to accept that reference, yet I know what matters most is getting the job done on the field of play. Maybe being referred to as a youngster is because I am still relatively new in the PSL. I suppose that I now need to build my name here in the team,” he notes. The name Reneilwe Letsholonyane provides the inspiration whenever he thinks of being a relatively late bloomer who is only really getting to impose himself now. “When I got here to the first team I spoke to my grootman “Yeye” and he told me about his own story in football,” Ekstein says. “He told me that when he started at Cosmos people were saying he is too old and all that. What he then had to do was step up, raise his game and play football without giving much of a thought to that. Though he only really arrived in the PSL at 24 you can’t tell that this is the case now. It is like he arrived in the PSL at 18 because he has now gone on to make a name for himself. “So I also want to go the way he went in his career. Not to say I am comparing myself with him, but he inspires me and I want to do the same: arrive late, but then show that I can do the job. The team must benefit from me in the same way that I want to benefit from the team.”