Gavin Hunt: Still Going Strong

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  • Post published:March 27, 2024

Gavin Hunt is a stalwart of South African football. He shares insights into his storied career with SportsClub Editor Mark Gleeson.

Gavin Hunt has been a fixture in South African football for more than four decades, from his debut as a teenager in the Hellenic defence to a stellar coaching career now unmatched for its omnipresence.

The SuperSport United boss will turn 60 later this year and early next season – barring any changes – celebrate 1 000 matches as a coach in the top flight of South African football.

This is on top of a playing career with more than 300 league and cup appearances, giving him the kind of longevity that is unlikely to be matched.

Hunt has won four league titles, three in a row with SuperSport United and one more recently with Wits, making him the only coach to come between Mamelodi Sundowns and the DStv Premiership over the past eight years.

On becoming a coach

“It was a process I started young. I was playing at Hellenic and I needed a bit of extra money. We were only earning R400 a month. Holy Cross Convent school approached me to coach their under-10s. I was still in my 20s,” Hunt told SoccerClub.

“I loved it. I coached the under-10s, under-12s. They paid me cash. The next thing, Western Province asked me to coach their under-18 provincial team. I did that for about three months, two or three times a week. I was lucky we didn’t have a game the weekend when the national tournament was played, so I coached them there, too.

“Then I was picked as the coach of South Africa’s under-18 team! We never played any games but at the end of the week they picked a select team and named me coach. Vasco da Gama was my first club.

“I got injured in October 1994, snapping my Achilles tendon against AmaZulu. I was going to be out for eight months. When the pre-season started the next January, I was still limping, and despite being at the club for 14 years, Hellenic would not give me a new contract.

“We didn’t have physios in those days, so I was just left to jog on my own. It’s funny how life works, but I was sitting in the pub at Vasco da Gama, for whatever reason, and Mossie de Nobrega, the chairman at the time, said they needed a coach.

“I wasn’t sure; I had only been coaching kids. I thought: ‘Let me do this for a month or two.’ I hadn’t officially retired from football, and they paid me R1 500. They played in the coastal stream of the First Division and I was there for three months. We played 12 games, we were about third or fourth from the bottom, we didn’t have many players, but we did okay.

“We played Seven Stars and beat them on Sunday and straight after the game their chairman, Rob Moore, called me and said he wanted me to coach Stars. Vasco hadn’t paid me, I didn’t have a contract, so I said to Moore, ‘tell you what, pay me the three months’ salary that Vasco owe me and give me R1 800 and I’ll join.’ I told Vasco I was going and the next day I was at Stars’ training session. After 12 games they were bottom when I joined them, but we finished the season second and almost won the league.”

On bringing youth through the ranks

“I came through a youth system. Budgie Byrne came to watch me playing in the schools cup final for Rhodes High. I was 16 and he told me after we won, ‘come to training on Monday’. “I went straight into the first-team training and a year later, aged 17, I made my Hellenic debut. There were never any qualms about age. He said, ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’. A lot of it has to do with size. When Benni McCarthy was 17, he was a striker, but I played him as a right wing. Why? Because we can protect a young player out there. The hardest position in football to play is No. 9 because the opponents are coming at you from the front and the back. When Dillon Sheppard came to me at 17, he was a left back. I said, ‘Not a chance he’s a left back. He can’t tackle, he cannot head, he’s not going to be able to keep his end up there… but boy, he can pass, he can cross. What a player’. He had to play centre midfield or up the wing.”

On his best of the four titles he has won

“With Wits, it was a first title for the club in 97 years, a club with no chance, no hope. But there was a progression there: third, third, second, first. We were building. The first year I got to Wits I thought we should have won the league, but we lost some bad games – Maritzburg and Polokwane at home. I think my second year at SuperSport was the best side I’ve ever had. It was like autopilot: pick the team, play! Come in, train, do a little bit of shape, keep reminding them, reiterating what’s important, play! Not that we won the league by a million miles. We won it on the last day because while maybe the other teams had better quality, we had the organisation.

The players had the drive and will to want to win it. That year [2009] we had to draw against Santos to win the league and Pirates had to beat Golden Arrows at Ellis Park. So, I said in my team talk, ‘Right, gents, there are two ways we can do this: either we can play our normal game because we are better than Santos or we can come back 10–15 metres as a team and play in a defensive block’. I made the call, I said, ‘Let’s come back 10 metres, play in a block, don’t go anywhere. If it goes down a channel we’ll chase it but let’s not risk too much’. We get to the 89th minute. There hasn’t been a shot at goal, It’s the most boring game. Pirates were winning. Suddenly [Santos striker] Eleazar Rodgers gets through, from just the other side of the halfway line and Andre Arendse makes a save like I’ve never seen in my life. I can still see it. I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh no, here we go, it’s all over for our title hopes’ but he makes an unbelievable save to tip the ball around the post. They have a corner, we clear and then comes the final whistle. We won the league!”

On the best player he has coached
“I’ve had a few who have won the Player of the Season award. It gives joy and satisfaction to see players getting national-team call-ups, winning Player of the Season. I always say the ones I really like are the kind of players I would pay to go and watch. The player I’ve won the most with is Daine [Klate], I only had Benni [McCarthy] with me for a year but to see where his career went and how well he did and then go on and coach gives me pride and joy … even though he was then opposition! Chippa Molatedi played for me in his late 30s, and his career was over, but what a player! I think Domingues [Elias Pelembe] for me. He could beat you inside a telephone box with the ball! He won Player of the Season in his first year. I used to sit on the bench and watch in awe as he twisted and turned the defenders.”

Photo by Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix