The midfielder looks reborn in the number 10 jersey this season and is tipped to enjoy a successful season, with the player himself acknowledging what he has to do to achieve just that.
Siphelele “Stash” Ntshangase was signed amid great expectation by Kaizer Chiefs in January, but fell somewhat short of his billing in his first six months at Naturena, where he was restricted to a host of substitute appearances. Now playing regularly under a new coach in a different system, will the playmaker prove to be the missing cog Amakhosi have longingly yearned for in the middle of the park? Lovemore Moyo investigates.
The creative central midfield challenges Kaizer Chiefs have faced since the departure of Reneilwe Letsholonyane could finally be overcome following the emergence, or rather the utilisation, of Siphelele Ntshangase this campaign. Ntshangase cannot be described as “new” at Chiefs, having arrived at the beginning of the year after a short stint at Baroka, who he had joined from Black Leopards. What has however been different to his plight at Chiefs is his sudden change of fortune this term, where he has become a prominent figure under new coach Giovanni Solinas as opposed to his numerous cameo appearances as a mere second-half substitute under previous coach Steve Komphela. The 25-year-old started every game Chiefs played up until the September Fifa international break, proving his qualities in his new role as the fetch-and-carry man in midfield who provides the link between the defensive unit and strikeforce of the team. He has played with flair, providing the penetrative balls that popularly became known as “champagne passes” last season, while still assisting defensively, tracking back without the ball when needed. “I think it is all about confidence because in football, the more you play, the more you gain confidence,” he responds when quizzed about the difference in his play from the season past. His new role means that while still familiarising himself with marking and knowing how to keep the team’s shape, he remains the man carrying the pot from which he must feed Leonardo Castro and Khama Billiat. Yet despite his much-improved performances, the Chiefs number 10 feels he still has a lot more to give. “If you look at the numbers, I had only two assists in the first five games,” he notes. “For me that is not normal. If you had said five games and four assists, then I’d have been happy. When I go to training, I always want to improve. I enjoy my new role, but to adjust has not been easy – when the coach told me to play as a number eight, it was difficult for me in the beginning, but I am now enjoying it because I can mark and I can attack which is something that wasn’t there in my game before. What was lacking in my game before was my ability to mark, so I think I have improved in that regard, and I am hoping to fix my finishing as well.” Ntshangase then details his role further, highlighting how his responsibilities have been made easier by the contributions of his teammates. “When I play football there is never any pressure because I know all the important things I have to do,” he says.
"WHEN I PLAY FOOTBALL THERE IS NEVER ANY PRESSURE BECAUSE I KNOW ALL THE IMPORTANT THINGS I HAVE TO DO
“If we don’t have the ball, I have to defend and when we have it, I have to play. In terms of keeping the shape, sometimes you will find that I am not in the right position, so that is what I really need to improve on. I am hoping that day by day I will improve. Castro and Billiat make my job easier because every time I have the ball, both are always available to receive it. The most important thing for me is that when Willard Katsande wins the ball, I must always be there to pick up the second ball. My first option from there then becomes either Khama or Castro, so it is that easy.” It is evident that Solinas has been charmed by Ntshangase, judging by the belief he has shown in the former Leopards star by plucking him off the bench and moulding him into a regular starter. “Ntshangase is a very good player, and we needed a midfield player who could play in that position. But he still needs to learn the defensive movements and needs to also focus on his defensive job while playing closer to Katsande. I am satisfied because he has performed very well,” says the Italian coach, who is also well aware of the need to practice some level of patience. “Last season Ntshangase was not playing and he was not an important player for Kaizer Chiefs. This season he is playing and playing well, very well for that matter. He is a young player who has come from the First Division – the First Division is not the PSL. Kaizer Chiefs is another environment and another dimension. He is a talent, a good passer who is good creatively, so I am happy. The goal is coming for Ntshangase – I am very sure about that.”
Almost giving up on football
Now a prominent name featuring for one of the biggest clubs on the continent, it becomes almost inexplicable to recall a time when Ntshangase nearly gave up on football following his failure to make it through the Mamelodi Sundowns development ranks. Worse was to follow as he then failed to win a contract at neither Golden Arrows nor Thanda Royal Zulu, only to be rescued by Kosta Papic following trials at then First Division side Black Leopards in January 2014. Papic needed just half an hour to be convinced that he had found a gem. “He came for trials and I took him off after a few minutes just so that I could explain to him what was expected of him should he go ahead and sign a contract with Leopards,” the Serbian coach, who was most recently at Angolan club Kabuscorp SC, recalls. “He said, ‘No problem coach, I will do that.’ “For me he is one of best talents in South Africa at the moment. The way he plays now and the way he responded to my style of football is the reason why I rate him so highly. In my opinion he should have joined one of the ‘big five’ a lot earlier than he did.” For all his talent though, Ntshangase would still play three-and-a-half years in the NFD before breaking into South Africa’s top tier. “You know it is a different story when you are playing for Black Leopards after having come from nowhere, and then you become a big star,” Papic continues. “If you remember correctly, he only signed for us in January and in June he was playing for the national Under-23 team which is an amazing achievement. I always said that it would have been good for him to have moved earlier. When I heard that he had signed for Chiefs, I told one of my friends that he is the next super star in South Africa, and it is still going
WHEN I LOOK AT HIS GAMES KNOWING WHAT HE IS CAPABLE OF DOING HE IS FAR FROM HIS BEST
THERE IS NO DOUBT HE WILL REACH SUPER STAR STATUS, HE CAN STILL GO AND PLAY IN EUROPE
The coach who then worked with “Stash” in the season he ended up breaking into Bafana Bafana in March 2015 was Zeca Marques. The former Leopards, Moroka Swallows and Santos coach says he found a talent merely waiting to be unlocked in a season in which the stylish midfielder reached double figures on the scoring charts. “I saw a player with huge potential, a player that with the right direction, right vision and right human connection, I realised could be able to transform,” Marques says. “In him I also found a player who was eager to learn to get to the next stage in his career. So when I went there [to Leopards] I was able to unlock the talent that he had. “Ability-wise he always had that X-factor, with the plus being that he was disciplined, hardworking, always eager to try new things and above everything else, always eager to play for the team.” In his honest opinion, however, Marques feels the Chiefs midfielder has slowed down in his progress. “I think he has stagnated,” his former coach says. “I don’t work with him every day so it is difficult for me to say why. Having watched him play for Baroka and Chiefs, he is far from the player he was at Leopards. Players like him need to be emotionally challenged on a regular basis. When I look at his games knowing what he is capable of doing, he is far from his best. I cannot blame him because as a coach, you must take players to the next level and if you don’t do that, then they will stagnate. “The environment at Leopards was conducive for him to perform well. Leopards had good chemistry within the team and there was humbleness in that team. The environment that you play in makes a big difference and I think that is why he flourished at Leopards where he was surrounded by colleagues who were humble, eager to work and who had a common vision. No one was arrogant. No one was above the team and he thrived in that environment because everyone had a common vision. He has now entered a bigger environment where there are plenty fish bigger than him. The environment is a key ingredient to success.” The overbearing question on the Amakhosi faithful’s minds is whether or not the talented midfielder will live up to his expectations at Naturena. And another former coach believes he’s on the right track. “He always wants to buy into the instructions he is given and if he is going to add his own input, he will first ask you as a coach. He is always keen to come up with solutions whenever there are problems,” says Ntshangase’s former coach Sello Chokoe, who is now in charge of Limpopo-based First Division club Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila. “The best thing about him is that he loves football and enjoys playing his natural football. He is a player who you might not always get the best out of because he likes to try take a lot of initiative himself. I think Chiefs is playing him in the right position, considering he is not the most mobile of players. Some coaches prefer a number 10 who will run around, yet Ntshangase is more of a good passer who will feed the strikers. When he comes from deep, he is the kind of player who can make the team play. “It will help them dominate games when he plays where he is being played now. You need players like Ntshangase to make play move fluently when you are starting from the back because he is always immediately available in midfield, so it doesn’t take long to get into the attacking third. When played deep he can still provide the clever passes from range and when he joins late, he is still key in making the final passes to open up opponents. His vision is exceptional. Don’t expect him to score goals because he is more of a provider, but he does that intelligently.” The pressure and expectations at a club such as Chiefs is something Ntshangase would not have experienced before, yet Chokoe feels the midfielder has what it takes to thrive. “It is expected that when you play for a team of Chiefs’ calibre, this pressure will come naturally unfortunately,” he says. “But he has all the ability to cope with whatever is expected of him to make the team tick. With time he will excel and what needs to be understood is that since there is a new coach, this will be a process. I think he will live up to expectations. Ntshangase is suited to Chiefs because this is a club that always enjoys possession which then allows him to play his natural game. Where he is now suits him better because this is a team that attacks more tthan it defends. I have also been impressed by his hard work in dropping deep to defend when the team loses possession. I think he will definitely be one of the best players in the league – it is just a matter of time.”