Pirates’ goalkeeper conundrum
New goalkeeper coach Andrew Sparkes talks about solving Orlando Pirates’ perennial problem and his role in bringing stability between the Bucs’ posts.
Being a football coach is most certainly one of the toughest jobs around, so it’s no wonder many people believe coaches need to have played football at the highest level to make it in the job. But that’s not always the case. Some, such as Orlando Pirates assistant coach Rhulani Mokwena and former Baroka FC mentor Sello Chokoe, are born to be coaches, not players. They fall in love with the art of coaching at a young age and take to it like a duck to water. Another man who is just like the two mentioned above is the Buccaneers’ goalkeeper coach Andrew Sparkes, who was appointed during the off-season as a replacement for the departed Ivica Vukusic. After finishing second in the Absa Premiership last season under head coach Micho Sredojevic, the Bucs are looking to go one better this season and replicate their league success of 2012. This blinkered target goes some way in explaining the reasoning behind the change in their technical team, as they look to conquer both locally and continentally this season: Pirates will make a return to the CAF Champions League for the first time since they lost the final to Egyptian giants Al Ahly in 2013. Sparkes, who has held coaching seminars around the world, has worked mostly with junior players, developing goalkeepers for the clubs that he has worked for in various countries. The Uefa A-Licenced goalkeeper coach has worked in the USA, Austria and Wales, and also briefly worked for Sierra Leone during the 2014 Fifa World Cup qualifiers. Having openly admitted that Mokwena
played a big role in bringing him to the PSL, Sparkes was then convinced that Pirates would be the perfect place for him to progress in his career. “I am a Uefa A-Licenced goalkeeper coach, which is the highest qualification possible,” he starts. “I worked at New York Red Bulls for seven years, Red Bull Salzburg in Austria for one year and Swansea City for six years. I have been fortunate to have high-profile jobs at some high-profile clubs, where football organisation is massive.” Sparkes dismisses the notion that one has to have played the beautiful game in order to coach it, citing various other coaches who were not professional players in their earlier years. “I played when I was a youngster, but nothing serious,” he says. “I played part-time when I was in the Welsh league when I was 19 or 20. I was given a coaching opportunity at Swansea, working with the younger goalkeepers. That was my introduction into coaching, and where I found a real passion for it and where I developed my education as a goalkeeper coach. “Look at some of the top goalkeeper coaches around the world … you have Luis Llopis who was at Real Madrid – he never played professionally. Javi Garcia who is at Arsenal never played professional football. There are countless goalkeeper coaches who never played professionally. And it’s the same in my case. “But I think we have the benefit of studying the game, much like coach Rhulani. He has done a lot of studying of the game and he has learnt the methodology. I have been doing this for 12 to 15 years and I have worked with very good goalkeepers from academies, and first team goalkeepers like Michel Vorm [of Tottenham Hotspur] and Lukas Fabianksi [ West Ham]. That’s the kind of thing you get with experience. Whether you’ve played professionally or not, at the end of the day you need to produce players and performances. If you played professionally, it does not really matter.”
From working with young players, Sparkes now has the big task of working with Pirates’ first team goalkeepers in Brilliant Khuzwayo, Jackson Mabokgwane, Wayne Sandilands and Siyabonga Mpontshane – four experienced shot-stoppers who have all represented the senior national team at some point or other in their careers. The goalkeeping department has been a concern for the Soweto giants since the departure of Moeneeb Josephs and the tragic passing of Senzo Meyiwa. Brighton Mhlongo, now in the colours of Bidvest Wits, was seen as someone who could take the opportunity given to him following the death of Meyiwa, but he was unable to prove himself as the Bucs’ long term number one. Last season Sandilands, Mabokgwane and Mpontshane all got a chance to play, yet neither asserted themselves nor looked convincing enough to make the position their own. Yet Sparkes is ready for the task given to him by the Soweto giants in sorting out the goalkeeping scramble between the sticks. “I have a lot of experience in developing goalkeepers, in the playing style which is so massive for the club,” he says. “For me it’s just another journey and I want to make the team t successful and make the goalkeepers successful. We’ll make the team compete in all the t competitions we will be in this year. “This is probably my biggest role in terms of o a club and what it means to the supporters. Pirates is a massive brand that even people in the UK have heard of. I am very pleased to be here.”
Competition for the number one jersey will w be tighter than ever following the acquisition a of Khuzwayo. Having four experienced e goalkeepers could tempt coaches c to give each of them a chance to prove themselves on different match days, but Sparkes is a fan of having a consistent number one between the sticks. “To be fair, I don’t think you are going to get g a better group of goalkeepers in the PSL, or o in any club where you have such a high calibre c of goalkeepers,” he says. “Normally you have an outright number one and then you have a drop-off after that. “We have four top goalkeepers who want w to play in the PSL. For me it’s healthy competition. c From what I have seen there’s a lot of hard work going in. The attitude and application has been fantastic. I am excited to see who wants to take that number one spot because last season all three goalkeepers played between 10-15 games. “I want someone who wants to play week in and week out, who wants the number one jersey and can keep hold of it. That’s important for me. There’s lots of games this season, but we need someone who can step up and say, ‘I want to be the number one goalkeeper’. That person should want to play as many games as possible. “For the last three years, I think Lukasz Fabianski missed only two or three league games for Swansea – that’s consistency. You look at the top clubs and top goalkeepers in the Premier League, they play week in and week out. “In cup competitions all around the world, it’s important for the other goalkeepers to
get a chance, but it’s important to have that consistency for the relationship with the back four, that there’s no chopping and changing all the time. I am really intrigued to see who will step up.” With new signing Khuzwayo out injured, Sandilands was trusted with the gloves for the first game of the season against Highlands Park, yet a horrendous error in failing to clear a routine back-pass which resulted in a goal saw him lose his position between the sticks, with Mpontshane taking his place. The 32-year-old kept two clean sheets and conceded four goals in five games thereafter, while teammate Mabokgwane, who last took to the field for The Bucs in February, is yet to play.
Sparkes is part of the new generation coaches who are vehemently against goalkeepers hoofing the ball forward when in trouble. He wants a goalkeeper who can keep it together under pressure, control the ball and pass it to a teammate who is open. This is an attribute Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola demands from his goalkeepers, and something Joe Hart could not grasp, which is why the club let him go. City now have Brazilian shot-stopper Edersen who is more than comfortable on the ball as their number one, with Sparkes hoping for something similar from the players in his goalkeeping department. “I think Pirates wanted a coach who could match their game model,” he says. “The philosophy I worked under and implemented at the clubs I worked for is to develop goalkeepers who are comfortable with the ball at their feet and who can fit into the game model. The club therefore had me in mind and I am very happy about that.” Not known to many is the fact that this is not the first time Sparkes has landed up in South Africa. He was in the country with Swansea City for the renowned Under-19 Bayhill Cup tournament which has unearthed some of the country’s finest talent. “I had been to Cape Town twice, in 2015 and 2016, for the Bayhill Cup with Swansea City,” he reveals. “So when I got the call to come to Pirates, I already knew a lot about the South African football landscape in terms of the football. “When I was in Cape Town, we played the junior teams, but we got to know more about the PSL and the country, and I knew some of the top players and obviously the [PSL] brand. Having that insight made it easier for me to make my decision to move here.”