Owen da Gama

Kick Off - - INSIDE -

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


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.


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.


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