| Wits’ PSL stay ends tragically on 99

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Gavin Hunt of Wits (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

Gavin Hunt of Wits (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

  • Bidvest Wits’ PSL status sold to Limpopo-based side Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila (TTM) Football Club
  • Wits University transitioned from a mid-table plucky young side to a title-driven superstar team, Bidvest Wits.
  • Wits were the first “white team” to play at Orlando Stadium after joining the multiracial National Professional Soccer League in 1977.

The irony is that Wits, whose Premier Soccer League (PSL) status was sold to Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila (TTM) Football Club, for a long time were a “selling club”.

They would float around the top division between Top 8 qualification and the drop, grooming young players and selling them to bigger clubs when they matured, until a Bidvest takeover turned them into proper title contenders.

They brought in, among a number of renovations, multiple title-winning coach Gavin Hunt and his ambitious CEO Jose Ferreira (both from SuperSport United’s dynastic 2008 to 2010 era) to signal that their intentions were no longer to remain fillers in the 16-team league.

Wits University finished the 2011/12 season just six points from the drop zone in 12th. Soon it was clear that their youth policy needed to be replaced by a more aggressive transfer policy – one that would see top talent enter their Braamfontein gates and not just exit them.

The following year, as cash investments were ploughed in, they finished fourth. And from the time Hunt took over before the start of the 2013/14 season, they have never been out of the title conversation, and finished third in Hunt’s first season in charge (nine points adrift of champions Mamelodi Sundowns).

By the 2016/17 season, the Students had graduated as Hunt delivered their first topflight Premiership title in almost 100 years since their founding in 1921.

Between 2011 and 2016, the Premiership had only been in the hands of the top three South African clubs, Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs and Sundowns.

Wits broke the stranglehold in the 2016/17 season. After beating Pitso Mosimane’s side 3-0 in the MTN8 final in Mbombela, they inflicted more pain on the Chloorkop side by pipping them to the post by just three points at the end of the season.

That, three years after their historic league triumph, the club will cease to exist in the PSL is nothing short of a tragedy.

Wits were one of the most groundbreaking and plucky clubs in South African football. They were the first “white team” to play at Orlando Stadium, a 1-1 draw with Moroka Swallows, when they chose to play in the multiracial National Professional Soccer League in 1977.

That same historic season they took on and triumphed over the mighty Kaizer Chiefs in the Mainstay Cup final at Rand Stadium, under the late and legendary football coach Eddie Lewis, who played in Matt Busby’s Manchester United during his playing days.

Over the years they have playing alumni such as Jimmy Cook, who played international cricket for South Africa on their return from sporting isolation, Gary Bailey, before he became a famous Manchester United goalkeeper, later Bafana Bafana midfielder Eric Tinkler and in recent times Daine Klate, Sibusiso Vilakazi and Moeneeb Josephs.

The current crop, which includes Bafana captain Thulani “Tyson” Hlatshwayo, Sfiso Hlanti and Buhle Mkhwanazi, have been informed by TTM CEO Sello Chokoe that they would have to relocate to Limpopo but TTM would not “stand in their way” if they chose otherwise or other clubs.

Hunt, who was unavailable for comment at the time of publishing, could soon be looking for a new coaching position following the sale of the club after the new owners said they could not afford his wages.

The university could rebuild from scratch, using their association with Wits Juniors, the Johannesburg amateur club with which the professional club Bidvest Wits had no ties or barely a relationship. They could revive their own in-house academy, like the old days, but to build from the ground up could be a painstaking and decades-long process.

The PSL’s policy enabling topflight status buyout was inevitably going to claim a major scalp. But it’s tragic that in the year leading up to their 100th year anniversary – as the oldest team in the league – Wits will most likely fizzle into oblivion.

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