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Experience was key

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Maritzburg players disapointed, sad, but not crushed by defeat says coach

Cape Town-180520 Free state Stars celebrating after free state stars winning the Nedbank Cup final in Cape Town Picture:Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency/ANA

Free State Stars claimed their first major trophy in 24 years when they won the Nedbank Cup at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday night – and they did it with a very simple recipe: experience.

In a 1-0 win over a young, exciting Maritzburg United side, Stars always looked calmer and so much more in control of proceedings. While the KwaZulu-Natal club hogged possession and held territorial advantage for most of the 90 minutes, at no stage did Ea Lla Koto ever look uncomfortable.

As soon as they scored a minute before half-time, they were never in danger of losing. They managed the game effectively, while they made full use of their superior composure and experience of having been in such pressurised situations before.

It was Liverpool defender Alan Hansen who famously said in 1995: “You can’t win anything with kids.” At the time, he was talking about a young Manchester United team who would eventually go on to win a league and Cup double that same season.

For a long time after that quote, Hansen had to endure quite a bit of stick for his assertion about young footballers.

But, while that may be so, there is no doubt that there is also a lot of truth to Hansen’s opinion.

Occasionally, a good crop of youngsters can prove to be the exception – but, more often than not, there is, as the cliche goes, no substitute for experience. This was aptly demonstrated in Saturday’s final, where Maritzburg’s kids struggled with nerves and failed to deal with the occasion.

In contrast, the seasoned campaigners in the Free State side strode the field with poise and confidence.

Leading from the front was Stars captain, Paulus Masehe. Now 34-years-old, the industrious footballer dominated his opponents through the sheer force of his on-field presence and intelligent positioning.

Not far behind was experienced 36-year-old central defender Rooi Mahamutsa; the former Orlando Pirates man was the rock upon which Stars’ resolute defensive shield was built, ensuring that the Team of Choice were able to make no headway despite their overwhelming possession.

Stars coach Luc Eymael paid special tribute to his captain Masehe.

“I have great respect for him,” said the Belgian coach. “He is a leader at training, he is a leader in the dressing-room, and he plays, the way he trains. He, and Rooi are important players because of their experience.

“A team needs players who don’t lose focus and who help the younger players in the team. It is always important to have players like that in a team.”

Maritzburg coach Fadlu Davids, while disappointed, admitted that, in the end, Stars’ greater experience was the difference between the two teams.

“We have to take the loss as a team,” he said. “As a young team, I thought we made a few mistakes, but we will learn from it. Stars had one chance and they scored from it.

“You could see the tension and the nerves in my team. In (the) end, Stars probably deserved to win because they had a bit more experience.

“But we have to grow, we have to learn from this defeat. The players are disappointed, they are sad, they put everything into the match, but, overall, I’m proud of what the team achieved this season: to finish fourth in the league and a place in (a) Cup final. Next season, we have to be better.”

Eymael gave some insight into the game plan he designed to limit Maritzburg’s effectiveness.

“When you arrive at a team, you have to assess the players you have to manage,” said the Stars coach. “You have to adapt and deal with the quality you have in the squad. We looked at Maritzburg and we knew that they had rotation, movement and a good attacking game. We knew they had strengths, but, at the same time, we also knew what their weaknesses were. We were happy to let them have the ball, but we made sure that we avoided any danger. We stayed compact and we defended very well.”

While the Belgian celebrates his team’s success, Maritzburg’s Davids is already focusing on next season.

“I think the Cup final loss will be a good lesson for us,” he said. “It proves that we are not yet where we should be.

“We are still evolving.”