Atop South Africa’s Premier Soccer League sits Soweto giant Kaizer Chiefs, barely halfway through the season, yet seven points clear of second-placed SuperSport United and with two games in hand.
The man overseeing it all is Ernst Middendorp, a 61-year-old German manager who, though no Jurgen Klopp, is an accomplished trainer in his own right. In his earliest years as a coach, Middendorp had caused a small stir in his homeland, notably with Arminia Bielefeld and VfL Bochum, but it was in Africa that he really found a home. Here, he is best known for his work in South Africa at the helm of five top-flight clubs, albeit mostly middle- and light-weights.
Middendorp’s entry into the African game, though, was via Ghana. At Asante Kotoko, where he took charge at the dawn of the millennium, his two years didn’t yield much (a solitary FA Cup title aside), as arch-rivals Hearts of Oak were still dominant and very much in their pomp. Still, he could be credited for building the foundations of the team that countryman Ralf Zumdick would carry to the finals of the now defunct African Cup Winners’ Cup in 2002, and which, exactly a year later, won Kotoko’s first league title in a decade.
Before long, Middendorp was back — this time with Hearts. He lasted even shorter, however, resigning just after he had led the Phobians into the group stage of the inaugural CAF Confederation Cup with an aggregate victory over AS Douanes. Hearts would go on to win the trophy, beating Kotoko in the final. As happened with the Porcupine Warriors, Middendorp departed in a storm, but he was never forgotten — and neither has he.
Middendorp has barely rested ever since, always on the move but seemingly settling on South Africa these days. He has reserved some attention for Ghana, however, especially the fortunes of his former employers.
“I have been consistently following them because I have had a fantastic time at both clubs. They [Kotoko and Hearts] need a good spirit in camp and I am sure both clubs will bounce back,” he told Accra-based Atinka FM.
That was in 2015, at a time when neither side was having a particularly pleasant run in the league.
“To be in a position near the relegation zone, knowing the history of both clubs, is unbelievable,” Middendorp lamented. “I keep wondering what really is wrong with these two great clubs.”
Given the little success — in terms of silverware — that has characterized Middendorp’s career thus far, as well as his struggle with achieving longevity, some did wonder what really was wrong with Chiefs when they re-appointed him on this day last year. At the time, Chiefs only had four wins and 18 points from 14 games; 12 months later, from a dozen matches, the Amakhosi have 31 points in the bag already, failing to win just twice. At this rate, Middendorp could be in line for his biggest feat yet as a manager in Africa, two decades after first touching down, becoming the first expatriate and Chiefs coach to win the PSL since Stuart Baxter five years ago.
For a fellow who remains arguably Ghanaian club football’s most popular coaching import of this century (so popular, in fact, that Ghanaian artiste Sony Achiba couldn’t help but name-check him in one of the early hits that survived his short-lived ‘Hip-Dia’ experiment), it would bring recognition — delayed but finally served.
Kow Frimpong — Daily Mail GH