By Stephen Walsh
Former Highlanders head coach Bobby Clark was delighted to hear about Bosso’s 1-0 win over TelOne on Sunday.
“Highlanders still means a lot to me,” he says from his home near Aberdeen, Scotland. “I look out for the results of all the teams that I’ve been involved in, but obviously Highlanders was very special and still is. We’re big Highlanders fans in the Clark family.”
Those who know the club’s history will know that Clark came to coach Highlanders as the first overseas coach of the Independence era, arriving in 1983.
“I’d just finished playing for Aberdeen in the Scottish League. In my last five years as a player, I had been helping with the coaching, and I’d done my qualification badges. It was a good time to be at that club — Sir Alex Ferguson was the coach there, before he went to join Manchester United.
“I met Malcolm King, who was the chairman of Highlanders, who was over in the UK looking for a coach who might be prepared to come to Africa. Long story short, my wife and family all came out and we had a wonderful year or two.
“My wife worked as a teacher, at Henry Low Primary School. My boys played for the Highlanders youth teams. One of them speaks isiNdebele to this day.”
But those who know the club’s history will also know that Clark’s first season at the club began desperately badly. Just like this in present term, Bosso could not buy a win during the early weeks of Clark’s reign.
Clark, who is now 73 and semi-retired after a long career coaching in the United States, says: “Believe it or not I actually spoke to Madinda Ndlovu about this just about a week ago. I was asking him, “Can’t you remember how difficult it was in the opening part of the season?” For Madinda, now of course Highlanders’ coach himself, was the star striker for Clark’s team.
With a foreign coach in charge, the Bosso supporters expected an immediate improvement in Highlanders’ results in 1984. But Clark says, “We could hardly win a game to begin with. It wasn’t that the team was in a transitional period as such. I didn’t really know a lot about the players, but I knew they had not been very good the year before. I think they just weren’t good enough. So we had to sort that all out.
“We were able to find a few important players in the opening weeks. We got Bigboy Ndlovu, from Eagles. We got the right back, was he called Chifunya? And we took Willard Khumalo from the youth side into the team. He was a 16-year-old at the time, but he would lift the crowd.”
Even so, the season was moving on and Highlanders were languishing at the bottom.
So was it hard to be facing a run of poor results in his first job?
“One thing that was good was there wasn’t any pressure on me personally. When you’re not a local boy, you don’t feel the pressure in the same way, so it was quite easy. And I was young myself. I used to say to myself, if I start to feel the players aren’t enjoying themselves, I’ll go. If I felt I had lost the team I would have obviously have gone. If you’re a coach and you’ve lost the team then you’re in trouble.
“But when I went to training I felt they were all working hard, they were all having fun. Cosmas Zulu came in as my assistant, and we also had a guy called Doctor Dlamini. Although he wasn’t a coach, he was a good person who got things working. And it changed slowly. We gradually began to tie games. And then by the end of the season, we were beating the same teams by four or five that had beaten us early in the season. It was wonderful.
“The key was that the guys were great, even when results weren’t going our way. Peter Nkomo was the goalkeeper. We had Fanuel Ncube at full back, Dougie Mloyi would be the centre back — there were really good players. Bigboy, like I said. Willard was a great young player. I remember the crowd chanting, “Zhii”. And of course, Madinda himself. Madinda was the talisman. Madinda was very good. He would always try to hit them from everywhere and suddenly they started to go in.”
So what was his message to Madinda when he spoke to him recently about Highlanders’ present travails? “It was simple really. I told him, “You’re a great guy. You’ve been through this as a player. Keep the faith. It will turn, as long as you stay positive and make the right decisions.”’
It’s a reminder that Madinda Ndlovu and Clark go back a long way. While he was coach, part of Clark’s remit was to take coaching sessions at the local schools, and Madinda would go out with him to help. On these trips he encountered some Bosso legends-to-be.
“I would go to Madinda’s house to pick him up,” says Clark, “and there was a little boy who’d be peeking around the door. That was his younger brother, Peter Ndlovu.” At Msiteli High, he met Dumisani ‘Savimbi’ Nyoni, and brought him into the team from the youth side.
Clark’s tenure ended in 1985. “It was a difficult time, we all knew that, and we decided as a family it was better to go home.” But his son, Tommy, got a Highlanders bug. He returned as an adult and played for the club himself after leaving Dartmouth College. It was Tommy, says Clark, who found Methembe ‘Mayor’ Ndlovu and took him back to Dartmouth.’
“Tommy goes back to Zimbabwe frequently,” says Clark .
“When he went back to Zimbabwe he found that many of his school friends had died from HIV, so he set up Grassroots Soccer, a young people’s health charity. He’s a qualified doctor, Tommy, but these days he doesn’t do very much doctoring.” The charity does work in Cape Town, Zambia, and of course Zimbabwe.
What about himself? Clark says that when he returned to the UK he had several offers, some of them from Zimbabwe, but his career took him in a different direction and into the US College soccer scene. He was 19 years as Head Coach of Notre Dame University, in Indiana, and he enjoyed bringing his student team to Zimbabwe in 2014.
“When I came back it was like old times. Methembe was running Bantu, and Netsai Moyo was working there as well.”
Now he coaches part-time, working under his daughter Jen with the women’s team at Claremont-McKenna College, in California, and divides his time between the US and Scotland.
“But I’d love to come back to Zimbabwe,” he says now. “Methembe has just been to visit me. And I said to Madinda when I spoke to him —maybe you can get to a cup final this year and I can come over.”
Bosso fans will be hoping this will be the year, and Bobby Clark can be guest of honour as they lift some silverware. The Chronicle