I felt the love!
“It’s like the football gods are not answering you…” “We have much more to play for and we are going to do our best.”
Justin Shonga experienced a dip in form in the early stages of the current campaign, but being a former police officer, it was always hoped he would arrest this slide. Today, the Zambian forward is happy to report that hours of work on the training pitch and encouragement from his teammates and the technical team led to a change in fortunes. Having scored five goals and made five assists so far this season, he is still looking to do more as Orlando Pirates chase their first piece of silverware under coach Milutin Sredojevic. Soccer Laduma’s Celine Abrahams caught up with Shonga as he opens up about how he remained sane in what was a challenging period…
Celine Abrahams: Bayer, before we get talking about Orlando Pirates’ progress at the halfway mark of the season, how would you describe your campaign from an individual point of view?
Hmm, I would say the season is going the way that I wanted it to go from the start. It was a bad start, I missed a lot of chances, I wasn’t scoring enough goals for the team and, ja, I didn’t start very well. Things were just looking like it was going from bad to worse. In our games, I had opportunities to score, but it wasn’t happening for me. But now I have the right boots on and things are working out. The club is doing well and we are all working hard behind the scenes to make sure that we give our supporters something to smile about.
CA: Many weren’t expecting to see you scoring only one goal across all competitions in the first three months after 13 appearances. What would you say contributed to this bad start as you have called it?
JS: Eish, on that one, I would say it’s just how football is. You might expect something different because of all the hard work that you put in, neh? Like, you want to do well, but then the football is not giving you the results that you want to see. You want to play, you push yourself, you want to score, but nothing is coming. It’s like the football gods are not answering you the way you want them to. But, with time and with patience, everything comes into place. You get your confidence back and then, once you start scoring again, it helps to make you relax a bit because you know that now you are starting to find yourself again and that was what I wanted for myself. We had a good pre-season, so I can’t blame that for my poor start. I would say that I was trying too hard, I was forcing things on the pitch and I was rushing because I wanted to score because that was what everyone else was expecting to see from me, instead of me taking my time to make good decisions, get into the right positions and score properly. I think I let everything get to me, so I would say that pressure did get to me. I didn’t want to play in three or four games and not score because I knew that I could score. I kept telling myself that I have to score and that’s when things weren’t happening.
CA: Was the technical team saying to you that they were expecting you to bury those chances?
JS: They (coach Milutin Sredojevic and Rhulani Mokwena) sat me down and told me that it is not only about scoring but I must also assist. We did talk about me not scoring and they did say that it does not look good that I was not scoring, but that I mustn’t look down on myself and that I must keep on working because it will work out soon. They said to me that they understood that there comes those times in football where as a striker goals don’t always come, but they always see that I am in the right places on the field and that I create chances for my teammates. So they encouraged me a lot to pick my head up and to raise my game again and I worked hard to make that happen. With coach Micho and the way he came out to defend me in the media when there were people talking about me not scoring, I felt the love and the confidence that he has in me. He was like, “Justin, with time all of this is going to pass. Just accept what is happening and keep working hard.” The coaches gave me an opportunity and they gave me time. I appreciate them and they motivated me so much that I never wanted to let them down again. My teammates also helped me a lot. CA: How so? JS: People like (Augustine) Mulenga, my captain Happy Jele, Siyabonga Mpontshane, Jackson Mabokgwane… ja, these guys encouraged me… even Thembinkosi Lorch, Vincent Pule. The whole team, in their own ways, would tell me, “You know it’s never easy and don’t focus on what everyone else is saying. If you listen to them, then you are going to break. Football is played on the pitch, so you must focus on that. If people want to talk, let them talk and you just keep working on yourself.” I listened to my teammates and now things are looking better. I kept on going and I was never going to give up because too many people have belief in me and I would never want to let anyone down. As a team, we are very united. We are together and we help each other whenever we can. You will see that before a game we sing together. In camp, we sit around and make jokes with each other. On the training field, we always give each other advice and, most importantly, we have fun together. I think that has not only helped me, but it has helped us fight for each other on the pitch.
CA: Now the picture is a more beautiful one – five goals and five assists in 22 appearances in all competitions!
JS: That is a motivating factor and it brings me back to life because now I have started to enjoy my football and I don’t worry about anything else. But I still have to work on my finishing because I know I can score a lot of goals in a game, looking at the chances that I get. I would want to score at least two in a game, but I don’t want to force myself because once I start doing that, I’ll end up missing clear-cut chances.
CA: Your free kicks in the latter stages of the season’s first round have been one aspect of your game that has caught the eye of the spectators…
JS: (Laughs) Ja, I have been working on them in training a lot. I have always liked how the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo take free kicks and I would say that I used to copy those free kicks. I always had a bit of power, but I needed to work on the perfection. At training, our finishing coach (Stephane Adam) tells me to work on my free-kicks all the time so that I could start scoring from them. I practise all the time and it has been working, so I am happy with that progress. And now, even my teammates, when we get a free kick, they give it to me to take. We always make sure that we use those free kicks because you never know if we will score in open play.
CA: We are going to go back to the relationships that you spoke about with your teammates and one that stands out is the brotherly love that you share with your countryman, Mulenga.
JS: This partnership and relationship that we have started back home. I think it has been two years that we have been together playing for our national team and we are very close both on and off the field. I think the understanding that we have in terms of movements, the way he plays and the language that we share has helped us both. It’s really nice. We stay in the same complex here. If we want to go to the mall, we go together, we watch games together and we analyse our games together. That has also helped us with our understanding of each other on the field because we would look at our previous games and he would tell me when he does something and where I should be so that he can pick me out and I would do the same with him. We know our movements so well, but sometimes when you are in a game, things happen so fast and then he could come to me and tell me, “But I told you that you must be in that position!” (Laughs). He is a great player. He is skilful, he has a good football understanding, he knows what he has to do and he works very hard. Just like everyone else in our team, he wants to do well so that we can win trophies for the club. CA: You came so close to winning one, the Telkom Knockout, but Baroka FC happened. JS: Firstly, I think it was nice for us to get to the final because we all know that it had been a very long time since the club had been in a final of a cup competition. It felt good to be there after so many years. The coaches came in, changed the philosophy, brought in the game model and I think it has really helped the team to be where we are at the moment. It was unfortunate that after we worked so hard in that game, we lost in the end, but I guess it wasn’t our day at all. We lost a player (Marshall Munetsi) so early in the game and we had to fight with 10 players on the field. It wasn’t easy at all, but we wanted to win so we gave it our all. I mean, we came back twice and that just shows how much hunger we had to win the trophy for our supporters. We wanted to do well for the badge. But, ja, unfortunately things don’t always go our way and I just want to congratulate coach Wedson (Nyirenda) and his team for their win on the night. We have moved on now because there are other trophies to fight for. We need to win trophies for the club. For me, going to take that penalty was a nervous moment. After I took it and I saw that I had missed it, I was heartbroken. I was sad because that’s a cup we really wanted to win.
CA: We can only imagine the mood after that match.
JS: (Takes a deep breath) After the game, nobody talked; we were all quiet. But we had to realise that what happened is something that we couldn’t change and we had to keep our spirits up because there are still other trophies that we can work for. The coaches told us that we have a league to focus on, we have CAF Champions League to play and there is still the Nedbank Cup, so we are focusing on that. We have learned from our mistakes and we are moving on. We have much more to play for and we are going to do our
CA: As we speak, Bucs are second on the log standings.
JS: Ja, we are just taking it one game at a time and making sure that we get all the points that we can get. There isn’t much that I would say about the league because there are still many games to play, so we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.
CA: Thank you for your time, Justin. All the best for the second round of the campaign and this weekend’s CAF Champions League match against FC Platinum.
JS: Thank you very much!
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