By Alwyn Mabehla
Lloyd Chitembwe, on Saturday etched his name in the history books of CAPS United — becoming the first to win the league title at CAPS United both as a player and coach.
Ascot Stadium, only 4km from the Gweru central business district was the venue — and a victory at the end of only 90 minutes would confirm United the league champions for the fifth time in their history, having won the title in 1979,1996, 2004 and 2005.
Business ground to a halt from around midday in the Gweru CBD as the green army invaded the City of Progress with a number buses ferrying hundreds of vocal United fans from the capital sounded horns — announcing their arrival on a mission to spur their side towards carrying the league title back to the capital.
United had a strong backing of their 12th man — even Nyasha Mushekwi, who made his name at the Green Machine — was among the thousands that packed Ascot Stadium to drive their beloved club to glory 11 years after they last won it.
Watching Mushekwi embrace his former coach, and club president Farai Jere, after the medal presentations told of the fine story of a player who hasn’t lost any of his affection for his boyhood club.
On the other side, assistant coach Mark Mathe broke down into tears at the sound of the final whistle, knelt down to thank the heavens for what surely has been a rollercoaster ride of a season for him and his boss Chitembwe.
The palpable joy that engulfed Ascot Stadium summed up the frustrations that United fans have had to endure over the last decade.
Chapungu, who had to be kingmakers for FC Platinum, to their credit played the game in the true spirit of fair play, and showed why over the years they have never been an easy opponent for United, especially when they are at home.
But playing against a title-chasing side is never easy and a Simba Nhivi goal in the second minute was the sucker punch United needed to fend off Chapungu.
Ironically, this season, United started off their campaign against the Air Force of Zimbabwe side — brushing them aside 3-0 — and they ended up in need of another victory to avoid having to bank on Tsholotsho.
In all that, this has been one rugged road for the former United midfield enforcer, he has had a love-hate relationship with the United faithful and this season presented its fair share of challenges for him at the Green Machine.
From the court drama involving former skipper Method Mwanjali and perfidious star Archieford Gutu, a divided fan base to the dramaturgy of watching his players threaten not to fulfil some of their matches due to delays in payment of their salaries and bonuses — all presented challenges to the teak-tough coach.
In all thespian art Chitembwe, at one stage thought of throwing in the towel but somehow stood fast to steer his ship on course to the shores of Ascot.
“Credit to the boys, they deserve this title. Despite all the challenges, they remained determined to do well on the pitch. They worked hard for this moment. Even the club’s leadership played their part in motivating the boys. It is not about me only but the whole team,” Chitembwe said after the match.
When the mid-season transfer window opened, many of his critics questioned his wisdom in not signing any new players, instead releasing Allen Gahadzikwa and registering giant goalie Edmore Sibanda and Devon Chafa — a duo that he had at the beginning of the season.
Chitembwe, however, must surely be regretting his decision to sign Gutu.
Gutu, absent at the medal presentation on Saturday, did his relationship with the CAPS United faithful no favour when he vented his frustrations with the coach and club on social media a few weeks ago.
This United side of 2016 is far in comparison to any of the swaggering title-winning sides of 1979, 1996, 2004 or 2006 but they proved their mettle in working for each other.
Jorum Muchambo, despite keeping guard of the goal for the first half of the season, never looked the right pick for the number one choice and the return of Sibanda surely stabilised the United rearguard.
Title-winning sides are certainly made of solid defences and Chitembwe’s secret to winning this year’s league title, especially after the departure of Mwanjali in mid-season, undoubtedly lay in his decision to stick to a stable back four of Dennis Dauda, Stephen Makatuka, Hardlife Zvirekwi and Ronald Pfumbidzai.
Skipper Moses Muchenje did not have the best of campaigns this term due to injuries but still showed his class and guile whenever he was called to do duty by his coach.
Chafa, to his credit, revitalised the United midfield when he returned for the second half of the season.
Forward Leonard Tsipa, for a 34-year-old player, throughout the season showed cunning intelligence for goal while midfielder Josta Ngodzo battled his ghosts and, throughout the season, played with renewed vigour.
This United side will certainly look back to some of their highs and lows of the season but if there is to be one moment that will stand out above the rest is the tie against perennial rivals Dynamos on match day 27.
Losing 3-0 with only five minutes to go United, true in the spirit of champions, somehow defied all the odds. Even with a good number of their fans making their way out of the National Sports Stadium, the Green Machine rallied through goals from Amon Kambanje and a double from Dauda to deny their eternal rivals three points.
This was also a season when United broke their six-year league win-less run against Dynamos and the coach who had last beaten Dynamos in 2009 was Chitembwe and the man who carried the day for United that afternoon — Mushekwi — was there to witness his club’s crowning moment 11-odd years after winning their last one.
For now, Chitembwe has an early Christmas present to savour as he looks to lead his side back into the wilderness of African continental soccer. Daily News