A goalkeeper is the under-loved player between the sticks, whose errors are forever remembered and whose heroics are often forgotten. Goalkeepers are the last line of defense against an opposition attack and can be the fine line between success and failure. Great goalkeepers will improve confidence in the team, and inspire the out-field players to perform better.
Sipho ‘Shilton’ Dube was just that in the all-conquering Mbabane Highlanders side that dominated local football in the 90s. Brilliant saves, a great catch just as a striker was about to connect with a bullet header, rushing out to break down an attack, and the odd penalty save, all added up to the ‘Bull’ team trusting ‘Shilton’ between the sticks.
A poor goalkeeper will always lower confidence, to the point where the fans and rest of the team hold their head in their hands every time an opposition player lines up a shot but that was not the case with ‘Shilton’ who went on to cement a place in the senior national team after joining Highlanders from Bhunya Black Aces back in 1993.
If a player doesn’t trust in their keeper, the pressure on them to perform will increase and the likes of Tholeni ‘Schuster’ Nkambule, Aaron ‘Macaron’ Tsabedze, Charles ‘Mnumzane’ Masango and Willy Nkola can confess in their graves where they are resting peacefully that they performed under no pressure as they trusted the man between the sticks.
Fantastic teams have been undone by a poor goalkeeper making mistakes but not with the Highlanders of 90s. It is rare as a hen’s tooth that a goalkeeper wins the prestigious Premier League of Eswatini (PLE) Player of the Year but ‘Shilton’ won it twice 1997 and 1999.
In the 1997 award he won an all-catered trip to London, England to watch and study ironically his favourite club Chelsea training sessions at their Stamford Bridge base. The trip sponsored by Her Royal Highness Inkhosikati LaMbikiza, a staunch football supporter who also serves as giants Manzini Wanderers patron included Dumisa ‘Dodge’ Mahlalela (Coach of the Year), Mangaliso Sihlongonyane (Referee of the Year)- both late and top goal scorer Vusi ‘Jika Majika’ Mahlalela who played for XI Men in Flight.
In the 1999 prize, Highlanders never tested defeat all-season long, playing a whopping 36 games, a performance that won them the Castle Lager League and the Trade Fair Cup. Currently, ‘Shilton’ who accumulated over 60 caps with Sihlangu is employed by government as a panel beater at the Central Transport Administration (CTA) under the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. After retirement in the 2005/06 season, he went into goalkeeper coaching and was part of the Harries ‘Madze’ Bulunga’s Sihlangu technical team that won a bronze medal in the COSAFA Cup in 2016.
“Signing for Highlanders was every footballer’s ultimate dream. Highlanders were the Pinnacle of club football,” he says. ‘Shilton’ describes the Highlanders of old as star studded, courageous and hard-fighting. A team that hated losing. “That group played with passion and supporters would always get their money’s worth from watching us,” he adds.
His most memorable game in the many he played was a Trade Fair Cup game against Manzini Wanderers which was scheduled to start at 9pm but ended up kick-offing at 10.30pm. It was a double header and the first match had gone all the way to extra time and was decided on penalty shootouts.
“We played until 1am the following day and Wanderers were leading 2-0. We scored two goals in the last five minutes, forcing the game to extra time and it finished 2-all. I saved two penalties and we won the game. It was a great game that I still remember vividly to this date,” he recalls. The late Tholeni ‘Schuster’ (Nkambule) is described as phenomenal footballer who made playing football look easy by ‘Shilton’.
Being a goalkeeper obviously gave ‘Shilton’ the platform to study his teammates shortcomings and contributions, and he names Aaron ‘Macaron’ Tsabedze as one player he feels never reached his full potential. “‘Macaron played with Tholeni in our central midfield but because the attention was always with ‘Schuster’, people never noticed his brilliance. To an extent I feel he was better than Tholeni and he should have achieved a lot more had it not been the fact that arriving at Highlanders back then meant hitting the ceiling of your career. Aaron could have easily got a professional deal, maybe in South Africa,” he adds.
Comparing the standard of play then and now, he feels there is room for improvement with the current crop of players.
“It is difficult to blame them especially because football now is professional. These players are chasing the best contracts but on the negative, it is greatly affecting our national team. A player plays for two or three seasons now, leaves that club in search for another bigger contract. There is no consistency. During our time, you knew when they selected the national team, there was a ‘Mbazo’ (Gamedze) at Wanderers, a ‘Fash’ (Dlamini) at Rovers and so on. The players were always there, performing season after the other.”
Confidently naming himself between the sticks, rightfully so in his best XI from former teammates, he goes for Charles ‘Mnumzane’ Masango right back with Barnes Mkhulisi on the left. His central defence pairing is Khotso Mncanyane and Mlungisi ‘Madzala’ Ngubane while prefering the duo of Aaron ‘Macaron’ Tsabedze and Tholeni ‘Schuster’ Nkambule.
On the wings, he names Phumuza ‘El Khatib’ Ntshangase on the right and Nathi Thwala on the left. In a fierce frontline pairing, he goes for Thulani ‘Mau Mau’ Dlamini and Willy Nkola.
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