Owen da Gama
The Highlands Park coach takes us through his journey in the dug-out and what changes have taken him to new heights in the last few seasons.
Highlands Park coach Owen da Gama has become a student of the science behind the Beautiful Game, which he says has revolutionised his methods for preparing teams. He takes KICK OFF’s Nick Said through his fascinating coaching development, which includes leading Bafana Bafana, and taking South Africa to the 2016 Olympic Games where they had to face off against star-studded hosts Brazil. KICK OFF: Was coaching something you were always interested in? We know you have a family farm as well that you ran for a period … Owen da Gama:
It was not something I thought about so much while I was playing, but when I was at Beerschot in Belgium we would be asked to go on Saturday mornings to coach the youngsters, just to motivate them a bit. I really enjoyed it so maybe that was the start of something for me.
You later became player-coach at NSL side Leeds United. How did that come about?
It was in 1988. I had been at Spanish side Figueres but could not get a work permit due to the sporting boycott of South Africa that was in place because of Apartheid. So I returned home and Leeds United asked me to come and be the player-coach. They were bottom of the league when I joined them but we ended up finishing 14th and made the semifinals of the Bob Save [Super Bowl]. We narrowly lost to Orlando Pirates on penalties. That was my first proper coaching job, but it only lasted a season and I then moved to Moroka Swallows to keep playing.
Were you not tempted to stay and keep growing as a coach?
No, I actually did not enjoy being a player-coach at all. I still desperately wanted to play and the coaching part was a bit of a distraction. It was difficult to give both things all my energy, and for me, at the time, the playing was the most important part. I left for Swallows and had a great time there, winning trophies and was really enjoying my football until I picked up a serious knee injury that ended my career.
So where did your coaching journey really start in earnest?
There was a consortium of Venda businessmen at Dynamos and in 1992 they asked me to come and play. I told them I could not because of the knee injury, but I said I can assist with the coaching. They were second bottom of the NFD at the time and we eventually finished third on the log. But there were a lot of problems at the club, there were
13 directors with equal shares, a lot of disagreements and a lot of financial problems. I could not carry on and left. I went back in 1996 when Peter Rabali had taken over the team and in the first year I got the side promoted to the PSL. But then we had a falling out, there were a lot of disagreements on the way forward and how to prepare the side for the PSL, and I left before I could coach them in the top-flight. I became a bit disillusioned with football after that and started working with my father on the family farm. I was fed up with football to be honest.
But you came back to the game …
Yes, I came back. Silver Stars were in the third tier and the owner Tycoon [Joseph] Mapfulagasha approached me. I promoted them to the NFD but then a similar thing happened to Dynamos, there was a very big disagreement on how to go forward. At the same time, my cousin and a few partners had bought HP Parkhurst, who were in the third division, and they asked me to set up the structures there. Ian Palmer was the coach and I was the scout, but by December we were bottom of the table and I became coach. That was where I picked up Sailor Tshabalala. We ended third but at the end of the season there was a split with the partners and ultimately the club was sold to Larry Brookstone. He gave me 50% and retained the other 50%. Eddie Lewis was to be the coach and I would be his assistant. I later took over from Eddie when things were not going so well, but we ended second on the log [in the third-tier] but missed out on promotion to the NFD. After that, Silver Stars reappeared and asked
“I WAS FED UP WITH FOOTBALL TO BE HONEST.”
me to go help, to which Larry agreed. I then brought Tycoon and Larry together and the club became HP Silver Stars, as in Highlands Park Silver Stars. We were in the NFD, but missed out on promotion by one point, with Dynamos going up instead.
But it was at Silver Stars where your profile as a coach rose …
Yes, we got promoted to the PSL in the 2002/03 season and then finished 11th, 7th, 5th and 2nd in the league in the next four seasons. We also won the Telkom Knockout in 2006/07, so we were building all the time, despite losing a lot of players to bigger clubs. Every year we lost one or two of our top players, but we were able to find replacements and kept on getting better and better. The year we won the Telkom I got the PSL Coach of the Season award, which was a great, great honour for me. It was an unbelievable season.
You have a long history with Larry Brookstone … what is the key to that relationship?
Yes, some of my best seasons as a coach have been with Larry. I think it is because he has always given me full authority to scout players and train the team how I see fit. There is never any interference. Never. He always gives me his full trust and support, we are like partners. That is very important for a coach, to know that the decisions you make are yours and are supported. We sold players like Sailor Tshabalala [to Orlando Pirates], Surprise Moriri, Koketso Mmotong and Oscar Ntwagae [to Mamelodi Sundowns], Thuso Phala [to Kaizer Chiefs] and Edward Williams [to SuperSport United]. Silver Stars had no sponsors and was a selling club. Larry was carrying the team himself financially. But we went out there and found replacements and he always backed me because he knows I can identify players and get them to work hard for the team. I was envious of coaches who could just buy any player and challenge every season for silverware, but my calling has been a different one. It is to hunt for players, polish them, work on them and produce fresh stars for the South African game. I am still doing that today at Highlands Park. I think there is a lot of mutual respect there between Larry and I. There is today and always had been.
Who are some of the coaches that have shaped your philosophy?
I think I have probably taken bits from just about every coach I worked under. In
Ireland [at Derry City] it was Noel King. He later took over as interim [Ireland] national coach from Giovanni Trapattoni [in 2013] and like me had a taste of international football. Jim McLaughlin in Ireland was great too. In Belgium I had a Dutch coach called Aad Koudijzer, who was very good. But I think the coach that had the biggest impact on me was Eddie Lewis. He coached me at Moroka Swallows late in my career and I learned so much from him. Then, obviously, we worked together later on at HP Parkhurst and it was great to watch him operate with me as a coach and not a player.
Football has changed a lot since those days though, do you try and stay on top of the latest trends?
Yes, definitely, and I think I can point to three quite recent things that fundamentally changed me as a coach. When Shakes Mashaba asked me to become part of the national team [in 2014] and to lead the Under-23s, that was a massive eye-opener for me. I came from club football into a national team environment and suddenly you have to up your game big-time. I was maybe a little naïve, my work as a coach was based on my experience as a player and my passion for the game. Now, suddenly, you are working with the best players in the country and I had to come up with topnotch training sessions and video analysis, and that is where I started to evolve bigtime. Secondly, you ask about coaches that influenced me, but also one of the greatest influences on my career has been working with [Highlands Park biokineticist] Simone Conley. The new understanding of the sports science approach to football specifics and how to build training sessions with a more scientific methodology. I started doing a lot more research and this has opened a whole new chapter in my career. My sessions are now guided by a much more scientific approach. Third, I was probably also the oldest person on my A License coaching course. I could have got some credits for my years spent in the PSL, but I chose to do the full 20 days and it was fascinating to work with younger coaches like [Arthur] Zwane at Chiefs and get their perspective on the game. It was a great experience that taught me a lot about modern trends.
“I WAS MAYBE A LITTLE NAÏVE, MY WORK AS A COACH WAS BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE AS A PLAYER AND MY PASSION FOR THE GAME.”
You had those three games in charge of Bafana Bafana after Shakes Mashaba left, and also led the Under-23s at the 2016 Rio Olympics. What was that like?
Starting with the Olympics, I think that
was the greatest moment of my career.
It was hard, because there were very few Under-23 players in the PSL and those that were, were mostly not playing for their teams. So trying to put together a squad was difficult. But we did well to qualify as we beat hosts Senegal on penalties to earn our place [at the 2015 African Under-23 Championships]. And then we get to the opening match at the Olympics, against Brazil in Brazil! They had a squad they were building for four years and the most expensive player in the world at the time in Neymar. [Mothobi] Mvala got a red card early in the second half and we had to battle on with 10 men, but we managed to get a 0-0 draw. That was an unbelievable feat as Brazil would go on to get the gold medal. We then lost 1-0 to Denmark and drew with Iraq, which was not enough to go through, but the whole experience was just amazing. With Bafana Bafana, I replaced Shakes as interim coach when he was relieved of his duties [in November 2016]. The first match was against Mozambique away, after we had played Senegal. We gave everybody else in the squad a run and we drew 1-1. We then played Guinea-Bissau, it was my first official match, and we beat them 3-1. It was a great result. We also drew 0-0 with Angola when we again gave the other members of the squad a chance to play.
At the time you said you would like to continue as national coach before Stuart Baxter was appointed. Would you like to get another go?
My first priority right now is to win trophies with Highlands Park and to be successful with this club. But every coach dreams of leading the national team and maybe with the way things panned out, I do have some unfinished business there. I hope one day I will get the opportunity again.
You mentioned earlier that 2006/07 season when you finished second in the league with Silver Stars and won the Telkom Knockout. What was it that ‘clicked’ that year for you?
That is an interesting question, because like I said, it was achieved with very little resources and after we sold most of our best players. There are a few things. First, we were like a family, everything we did as a squad was as one. We knew what we wanted and there was a great understanding and respect among the players. No egos. They were hungry and they stood for each other. There were a lot of leaders in the team. Then we also managed to get Simba Marumo, who had been having terrible injury problems. We sent him to the High Performance Centre in Potch [Potchefstroom] and they sorted him out. We were patient with him, we showed him support and he came back and repaid us with a lot of goals [13 in 24 starts]. He was hungry as well to prove a point. And that has been something we try to do as well. You have younger players, but it is also about helping older players revive their careers.
Who would you say is the best player you have worked with?
Oh my, there are so many … that is very tough. I certainly think Peter Shalulile, who is with me now at Highlands Park, stands out if I look back at my career. He has great natural ability, a great attitude and works very hard for the team. He just oozes quality. Two others that I could mention would be Sailor Tshabalala and Surprise Moriri. Surprise was also hard-working, humble, had a very simple style and was highly inspirational to his teammates. But there are so many others I could mention too.
You also spent time at Orlando Pirates, Bloemfontein Celtic, Free State Stars, and then made a return to Stars …
Yes, after that amazing season with Silver Stars I joined Pirates for the 2007/08 season. They were bottom of the log when I got there and we managed to finish eighth, so I think I did a good job under the circumstances. My aim there was to a build a foundation, to have a long term plan, but at the end of the season I was released, which was very disappointing. I then went to Free State Stars as their technical director, but was told I would be head coach when David Duncan left after only one game, which was not my agreement and I resigned shortly afterwards. In December 2008 I was asked by Celtic to come and help them, they were also bottom of the log at the halfway point of the season, but we finished 14th and escaped relegation. The next year we finished sixth, so we turned them around. That is when I went back to Platinum Stars, as they were then known [after being purchased by the Bafokeng Nation). But there were lots of changes, the budgets were cut by 41% and they had these players on massive contracts. I would say that was one of the most challenging jobs I had. There was a lot of management issues, I was accused of doing certain things. It was a mess. But I was cleared of everything and thankfully I can now say it is a story for the past. It was very unpleasant.
“EVERY COACH DREAMS OF LEADING THE NATIONAL TEAM AND MAYBE WITH THE WAY THINGS PANNED OUT, I DO HAVE SOME UNFINISHED BUSINESS THERE.”