Stuart Baxter has returned for a second spell in charge of Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs, who have not won a trophy since he left the club in June 2015.
He claimed two league titles, the MTN8 and Nedbank Cup in a highly-successful first stint with the team, and is looking to restore former glories again, with the immediate carrot of a CAF Champions League final in front of him.
You are back in the Naturena hot-seat, give us a snap-shot of where you have been since leaving the club in 2015 …
I’m feeling very comfortable with the decision to come back here. Since leaving Chiefs I have been all over the world again. I have been Bafana Bafana and SuperSport United coach in the interim. Immediately before coming here I was in India and then back in Sweden. I have also been back in South Africa visiting my children. [My son] Lee works with Kaizer Chiefs [as goalkeeper coach] and my daughter Natalie lives in the [KwaZulu-Natal] Midlands. The family always take every opportunity we can to come to South Africa.
What do you see as the biggest task ahead for you at Chiefs?
It is important that people understand that the coaches that have been here before me are not bad coaches, they are good coaches. They are some of the top coaches in this country. This is not about me coming and dismantling everything that has been done, this is about me trying to find a better balance and rebuilding the culture around the team. Kaizer Chiefs have moved forward a lot since I was here last time. There will be a lot of expectation, I will have to manage that. It is a tougher league [now], the league has improved in terms of the bottom teams, they are all tight games. The game has moved forward and changed. I remember when I came last time and spoke about ‘transitions’, people laughed and asked what they were. Now they are an integral part of everybody’s game. I have to find what is new and what can I use that will bring us an advantage and that edge. It will be a challenge, but an interesting one.
Chiefs have not won a trophy since you left, the longest barren spell in the club’s history …
When I came here last time , I know Chiefs had not won anything for quite a while too. So when I came in, I knew winning something was a priority for them. But I did not look only at winning trophies, I was trying to build a team, I was trying to bond with the supporters, trying to help us find an identity. I think that will be the same again now, if we can keep our eyes firmly on the pathway and not the destination. That will be very important for Chiefs right now. We are the hunter, gradually we became the hunted during my first stint. I thought the boys did fantastically well, the whole club handled the success very well. The memories I have are from lifting trophies to seeing young players come through and become stars, seeing the club develop and the building at Naturena. [But] for me it was about the happiness we created for the supporters and the they identified so strongly with how we played.
You had that amazing 24-game unbeaten run in your previous stint, you must be looking to restore that reputation for Chiefs as a team that was hard to beat…
The streak was … again, I don’t think any of us were thinking about the streak. We had games of football to go out and win. It became that teams played us with a little bit of the hand-break on, and if we scored [first] they believed they would lose. We have to recreate that … no crowds have been a handicap for the previous coaches to work with, and a handicap for the supporters to bond with the players. Gradually, as we get back to normality, and it won’t be immediately, we have got to rebuild that. That is one of the strengths of Kaizer Chiefs.
You have a CAF Champions League semifinal against Moroccan powerhouse Wydad Casablanca this month, which means you have to hit the ground running …
There is a challenge for me there in that I have got to try and identify a couple of things, maybe tactically, for these games that will impact big on the contest. It is a strong opponent, but we have shown in the home game [in the group phase] that we can match them. We have to improve on our first leg and tactically and mentally we have to grind out a result there. That allows us the opportunity to bring them back here and have a real go at them. It will be a challenge in the build-up, but I am hoping that if we do them properly, then these two games, and hopefully the final, will serve as good preparation and a springboard into the new season.
You will be reunited with your former Bafana Bafana assistant coach Molefi Ntseki, who is now the head of technical and development at the club …
Kaizer Chiefs have been in a period of expansion for quite a few years, it probably started picking up speed when I was here last time and it has continued. Even now when I come back, things are changing. On the commercial side things have expanded and in terms of youth development it has progressed. It is great to see Molefi joining Chiefs, he is a top-class football person and I am looking forward to working with him again.
Are you also looking forward to working with assistant coaches Arthur Zwane and Dillon Sheppard?
Coach Arthur and coach Dillon have had to take the reins [as caretaker coaches] and I think they have done really well. Both of them are potentially top-class coaches. If I can do anything to help them equip themselves for the future, be it at Chiefs or somewhere else, then I hope that can be the case. I hope together we can produce something to make the fans proud.
You left your job in India due to some comments that were made in a post-match interview, and which received widespread criticism. What do you say to people who were offended by those comments?
Given the unfortunate nature of my exit from India and the unfortunate, and to be very honest, stupid comments that I made, I felt strongly that I needed to make another apology before recommencing my work in South Africa. Anything that I said that offended anybody, I humbly apologise. I know that it [rape] is a heinous crime that it looked like I made light of it, but I was not. That was absolutely not my intention. That does not reflect me as a person. But I do know that many were upset and for that I am truly sorry. In the future there will not be an issue with me making such clumsy, insensitive and downright stupid comments. I really hope that anyone who is offended by my insensitive words will accept this really heartfelt apology.
What would be your message to Kaizer Chiefs supporters?
We are living in massively difficult times, but that doesn’t change the fact that the supporters will want us to win. They will have a bit more patience, but not unending patience. I understand that, I know there will be expectations now. I will do everything I can to live up to those expectations, but we need to do things together. It is more difficult when supporters are not in stadiums to feel together. But we have to get that feeling back. The supporters need to know the players are giving their blood to give them what they want. The players need to know the supporters are still there with us.