WHILE world soccer has celebrated the fabled “Fergie’s Fledglings” as a football phenomenon, there appears to be our own local version of a similar spectacle — “Dhlakama’s Ducklings”.
“Fergie’s Fledglings” famously refers to the group of the game’s youthful players which was identified and recruited by the legendary former Manchester United coach, Sir Alex Ferguson who superintended their progress, development and graduation into the senior team.
The most notable faces among this set include David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt as well as the Neville siblings, Gary and Phil. These later turned into superstars and formed the spine of the sides which enjoyed storied success under Ferguson.
Dubbed the “Class of ‘92”, the height of their Old Trafford careers culminated in them helping the Red Devils coast to a historic and unprecedented “Treble” in 1999.
Going by this notion, it would not be far-fetched to hypothetically place one of Zimbabwe’s unsung, yet prosperous, coaches, Rodwell Dhlakama in this bracket.
The unassuming gaffer, who is of Chipinge origin, has over the years identified and nurtured budding talent that has gone on to blossom and flourish at the big stage in the game. His uncanny eye for prodigies is virtually unrivalled.
For a period spanning a decade as he prepared Zimbabwe’s national youth teams for regional and continental competitions, he unearthed rough gems in three different peer groups.
As they got polished, they dazzled at the peak of their athletic powers. Others like Warriors captain, Knowledge Musona shone with peerless distinction and he today stands out as the finished article.
The Smiling Assassin, Khama Billiat, George Chigova, Elvis Chipezeze, Eric Chipeta and Archiford Gutu number among some of the big hitters who passed through Dhlakama’s hallowed hands in his second class of apprentices.
The first batch comprised the likes of reigning goalkeeper of the year, Ariel Sibanda, Ovidy Karuru, Costa Nhamoinesu, Honour Gombami, Obadiah Tarumbwa, Munyardazi Diya, Darryl Nyandoro and Brian Mapfumo.
Livewire winger, Talent Chawapiwa and defender, Kevin Moyo were in the last group of the cast which can sentimentally be described as “Dhlakama’s Ducklings” under the 2007 Annual National Sports Awards (ANSA) coach of the year.
Other players he has handled, in no particular order, are Mutare-born duo of Onsirmo Bhasera and Washington Arubi, Kuda Mahachi, 2016 Premiership soccer star, Hardlife Zvirekwi, Denver Mukamba, Ronald Pfumbidzai, Evans Rusike, Qadr Amini and Abba Amidu. The former skippered the Nash Under-20 team.
In spite of suffering an excruciating ankle injury which cruelly forced his career to crash-land just as it was taking off, the game’s gravitational pull on the then 20-year-old did not wane. He did not turn his back on football.
But how did he manage to bear such spirit-dissipating disappointment?
“My career was abruptly cut short and this forced me to hang my boots prematurely. However, I did not lose my interest in the game and was so keen to continue being involved with football. At that juncture, I decided to turn to coaching.
“That transition was smooth for me because of my love for the game. What I had failed to achieve as a player I was now itching to accomplish as a coach. I was keen to turn a new page and write another chapter in my career. Although I did not go far during my playing days, I strongly felt I still had something to give to the game. That burning passion, desire and drive kept me going as I embarked on a new journey,” said Dhlakama in an interview.
The now seasoned tactician then cut his coaching teeth while training school teams after graduating from Belvedere Teachers’ College with a Diploma in Education.
Owing to that background as a trained school teacher and him being still relatively young, he seamlessly struck some telepathy with the starlets he had started training. Armed with several coaching badges such as the Fifa Solidarity Course, Olympic Committee Certificate for Football Coaches and British Eurospace Certificate for Coaching among other local qualifications, the instructor turned into a football academic and intellectual.
He explained: “I could easily relate with budding players because that was the age group I was working with in school as a teacher. We understood each other well and enjoyed working together. The idea was to tap into the grassroots and develop the talent from there. Taking these players through the mill, therefore, came naturally for me. Musona, Khama, Nhamoinesu and Chigova are some of the players whose development I was involved in along the way.”
Unsurprisingly, the rising gaffer was handed his first coaching reins of the Zimbabwe national Unde-17 team at the age of 25. He would then double up at the now-defunct then Premiership champions, Monomotapa as a caretaker coach. Training roles with the national Under-18 and Under-20 teams ensued.
While he Was in charge of the younger age-group team, he would be an assistant with the older side in order to ensure continuity.
The coach’s sweat in the dugout did not go unrewarded as there was something to smile about. His fruitful tenure with the youth teams earned him a haul of half-a-dozen gold medals. Six sweet podium finishes!
The Holy Grail started when led the Midlands provincial team to the Peter Ndlovu Trophy in 1998.
The Chipinge son also went on to win the 2006 National Youth Games with the Midlands Under-20 side, before his exploits with the Zimbabwe national schools select squad secured two gold medals in separate occasions during the tri-nation tournaments featuring Malawi and Zambia.
On the African front, he blazed another trail by lifting the Cosafa Under-17 Cup and also triumphed at the Anoca Zone Six Games in 2007.
Alongside another football star from Manicaland — Lloyd “Samaita” Mutasa — as his assistant, another imperious show took Dhlakama and his charges to the 2009African Youth Championships finals in Algeria.
Dhlakama purred about his contribution to the game.
“The ultimate goal in football is winning trophies. With that silverware, I am happy with the role I played in aiding the development and growth of our game. In fact, it fills me with blissful satisfaction to have fulfilled my long-nursed and deeply cherished dream. One looks at the players who came through from my time with them and it shows we were doing something right. What I have achieved and won together with the boys is a reflection of the amount of work and dedication I put into those efforts. I can only look back and smile now with gratification because this has always been my devotion,” enthused the Ngezi Platinum Stars coach to Post Sport.
For someone who has served the cause of nurturing blossoming talent with peerless distinction, the former Zupco Mutare and CPMZ player bemoans the lack of proper football structures functioning as conveyor belts churning out future talent.
“Our domestic game has sadly stagnated over the recent past years. There appears no proper and coordinated junior football organisation to sustain our first teams. We have overly concentrated on the senior sides and neglected the supply line. Such structures are non-existent at most local elite league clubs. We have to immediately get to the basics because this is where the future lies. This gap has to be bridged,” Dhlakama said.
He even went nostalgic: “In the olden times one had to come from the area zone setup and work their way up through the lower leagues to the top-flight. This required a combination of outstanding talent and hard work.”
The well-travelled trainer cited the late Dangamvura-bred midfield gem, Blessing “Yogo-Yogo” Makunike who burst into the limelight at the age of 16 and attracted heavyweights, CAPS United’s interest whom he joined when he was just 20.
Sakubva-born goalminder, Nelson Bandura and Godwin Madziwa together with Patrick Chapoterera were still in school at Mutare Boys’ High and Marist Brothers respectively when they made their Premiership debuts with Tanganda.
“There are copious amounts of football talent in Zimbabwe yearning for expression. Mutare is such a bedrock that has consistently produced many sterling stars over the years and several other prominent footballers have also emerged from Manicaland,” said the ex-Chapungu coach.