After Stellenbosch FC picked up their first win of the season against Polokwane City, left-back Marc van Heerden paid tribute to coach Steve Barker. The 31-year-old has a longstanding relationship with Barker, who was recently rumoured to be on the verge of losing his job.
Citing unnamed sources at Stellenbosch FC, KickOff reported that Barker was a “dead man walking”, suggesting he would face trouble should Stellies fail to beat Golden Arrows.
The team from the Cape Winelands drew 2-2 away to Abafana Bes’thende, but Barker lived to fight another day and led Stellenbosch to a 2-0 win on their visit to Polokwane City.
“It’s difficult because he’s been working so hard — both him and [assistant coach] Wesley Sergel have been working extremely hard since day one that I’ve been here,” said van Heerden when asked whether or not Barker was particularly relieved after the victory.
“I think it was hurting him to see us not getting over the line because of all the hard work that he sees us doing and the hard work that the whole technical team, backroom staff [has done] — everybody that has put massive amounts of effort in.
“Yes, it was hurting him, but it was hurting everybody that we were doing so well but not being rewarded. Finally, when we got the win, he came in and said that we, the players, deserved it. That’s just the kind of person he is. He doesn’t take credit for it, but the whole team deserves it.
“Yeah, there was excitement — of course there was excitement, but [it’s] business as usual.”
Barker joined University of Pretoria in 2006, serving as first the technical director, then assistant coach. He became head coach in 2008, the same year that van Heerden left for AmaZulu.
However, their paths crossed once more there, with Barker coaching van Heerden at Usuthu from 2014 to 2016 before signing him at Stellenbosch. The former Orlando Pirates defender knows that with the 51-year-old around, he can expect stability even in the chaotic industry that is football.
“There are few people in your life that you attribute to how far you’ve come not only in your profession, but as a person. He’s one person that I’ve always looked up to — as a mentor, a coach and a father figure,” said van Heerden of his relationship with Barker.
“He knows where I’ve come from and what I’ve done and he’s been through a lot with me as a person and as a player. We have a close relationship, but it’s also a professional relationship. When it’s time to work, it’s time to work.
“On the field, we can work as professionals, and then off the field, we can sit and enjoy a coffee together. We are close.”
Barker will take on another coach who has faced intense scrutiny when Stellenbosch clash with Rhulani Mokwena’s Orlando Pirates. After the Telkom Knockout tie on 19 October, they will meet again in the Premiership on 26 October.
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Leonard Solms is a freelance South African multi-sport journalist who has written for a number of regional, national and international newspapers and websites. He won a Rhodes-Investec Top 100 Award in 2018, the year in which he completed his Bachelor of Journalism at Rhodes University.