Micho's Orlando Pirates title mission nears completion

Orlando Pirates coach Milutin Sredojevic has been with the club, his second stint, since 2017. He is on the brink of his first PSL title, and Pirates' fifth. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Orlando Pirates are on the brink of winning the South African Premier Soccer League after seven years without a title, the silverware set to crown a campaign underpinned by the coaching prowess, and sleepless nights, of coach Milutin 'Micho' Sredojevic.

The 49-year-old Serb originally joined the Buccaneers back in 2006, but departed after just over six months at the helm, despite overseeing the club's best continental campaign since they won the African Cup of Champions Clubs (now the CAF Champions League) in 1995.

Now back in Johannesburg, after more than a decade of further success across Africa, he's primed to finally leave a lasting legacy with the Soweto giants, and bring home the title that's evaded them since 2012.

The Pirates sit atop the PSL table with two matches to play, level on points with CAF Champions League semifinalists Mamelodi Sundowns, but ahead by virtue of a +4 goal-difference advantage.

"Millions of supporters have been waiting seven years for this dream to come true," Sredojevic tells ESPN.

"The biggest power is the power of keeping people happy, and this is what drives us during those sleepless nights and hardworking days, to not allow any stone to be left unturned to put Orlando Pirates where they belong."

Orlando Pirates, formed in 1937, rank amongst South Africa's oldest clubs, and one of only three to have won silverware on the continent. Notably, they were the first -- in 1995 -- to win Africa's biggest club prize, then called the African Cup of Champions Cups They were also finalists in the CAF Champions League in 2013, and in the CAF Confederation Cup two years later. They also won the CAF Super Cup in 1996.

Domestically, they were also the first club to win the treble since the formation of the PSL-- having achieved this feat in 2010-11, and they have won the South African title on four occasions. They were also previously champions of South Africa on five occasions before the league adopted its current guise.

Hence they are genuinely one of Africa' genuine powerhouses, but Sredojevic says: "We're still not thinking about the [PSL] league trophy, because we need to give respect to our nearest contenders Mamelodi Sundowns."

"The competition will still be fierce."

The prospective title this season will complete a remarkable turnaround from the 2016-17 campaign -- their last before Micho's arrival - when they finished 11th under Swedish coach Kyell Jonevret, the club's lowest finish since the inauguration of the PSL in 1996.

"After the most disastrous year in Pirates' history... the chairman [Dr. Irvin Khoza] called me to come in and rescue the situation," Sredojevic says.

"I joined forces with assistant coach Rhulani Mokwena and the rest of the technical team, and we [embarked] on a road to show the power of coaching, and to make the players aware of what Orlando Pirates is, to make them mentally strong, physically fit, technically and tactically effective, and competitive.

"Turning them from losers, who lost 6-0, 6-1, 4-1 in matches the season before, to winners was not an easy task, but we've gone step by step, in phases."

After picking up a team that was recovering from its miserable 2016-17 season, Sredojevic reshaped the team -- only two or three regular starters from that campaign were regulars last term.

He's also placed his faith in various young players -- a Micho trademark -- with Thembinkosi Lorch, Marshall Munetsi and Justin Shonga among some of the unheralded players who have grown into key performers this term.

"We started to perform last year, when we were close to winning the league, and we've performed even better this season. Last year we got 55 points; this year we're already on 53 with two matches to go."

Sredojevic believes the support of his technical team, headed by Mokwena and second assistant coach Fadlu Davids, has also been critical in giving him a platform to prompt such a quick reversal in fortunes.

"We overlap, we discuss each situation, we are widening our knowledge, following big teams all over Europe, and looking to learn from everyone to add something in our game," the Serb says.

"We grow by enriching and complementing each other. With such an approach we have reached this far, but we still believe there's still far to go."

While Sredojevic and his team have overseen a transformation of the team's fortunes since their appointment, they face arguably their greatest challenge yet as they look to get the Pirates over the line and bring home a fifth PSL title.

The coach has unswerving confidence that the 'power of coaching' will alleviate the pressure on his team during the final 180+ minutes of the campaign.

"When the season reaches the end, with a few matches to go, you have a situation where you need to find the formula that will maintain focus, concentration, and total composure in the team," he says.

"You're focusing one match at a time.

"I've won 15 major trophies in my 19 years on the African continent. I could say that every single trophy was like a Hollywood film, and this situation at Pirates is no different.

"We've not won the trophy for seven years. Two years ago, when I arrived with Rhulani, we told ourselves that we will show everyone what the power of coaching could do."

That statement was borne from the success he had enjoyed since leaving the Pirates previously, after which he had moved to Ugandan giants SC Villa in 2001.

Sredojevic subsequently enjoyed success with domestic powerhouses in three different countries -- including league titles in Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan -- and he also won the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations Cup with Uganda's national team, the competition's most successful side.

"In that 'power of coaching', instead of putting pressure on the players to get a result, we focused the heads of our players on individual partnerships, departments and overall team contribution," he adds.

"We focused concentration on important details that could -- with the quality and talent of our players -- get us performance [-based] results.

"We are analysing previous matches, correcting what was wrong, maintaining what was right, and, for every match to come, [focusing on] the deepest possible details that could, in the tiny line between winning and losing, turn us into a winning side."

The Pirates are in pole position in the table with two games to go, but they face one of their sternest tests to date on Saturday when they face Benni McCarthy's Cape Town City FC away.

"We had a perfect run in the most important part [of the season] -- in April -- to put ourselves in this position, and now we have two matches to go, with a crucial game ahead of us against Cape Town City, who, until recently, were contenders for top spot.

Mido says: "We're looking at the players instead of hearing the pressure of the millions of Orlando Pirates supporters, and we're looking to increase competitiveness within the team and [shift] the attention of the players to the field instead of having pressure on their shoulders that could lock their legs.

"We, as a coaching team, take the pressure on our shoulders, leaving the players with unlocked legs!

"Let their football speak enough for themselves and for our project. Already, we are [telling them that they] are heroes, that [they are taking] us beyond expectations."

Beyond the target of ending the Pirates' seven-year itch, Sredojevic has his personal reasons for restoring them to the pinnacle of the South African game after left the same post prematurely 12 years ago.

"My trophy cabinet is extremely rich, but all those 15 trophies I've won in my 19 years in Africa count for nothing in this case with Orlando Pirates.

"I arrived on 7 June 2006 as a young coach who had come to a very huge club, and even in that time I already put a very important stamp [on the club] because we reached the semifinal of the CAF Champions League, falling short against CS Sfaxien with one goal that went against us.

"At the time I was not an established and mature coach, and the fact that the chairman left to take his place on the organising committee for the World Cup put me in a position where I did not stay for long. The nature of a coach is to go somewhere where you will grow in a way beyond where you are at present."

The PSL title would be a thorough validation of Micho's work in Soweto to date, and would represent a realisation of the promise he showed during his first brief stint with the club, but the 49-year-old insists it would represent only a starting point for much grander ambitions for the club.

"[The aim is] to be constantly top of South Africa and among the best on African continent," he says.

"This is a mission, it's in process. It's lasted for two years, and we want to improve even more, push higher and get further. I'm happy with how far we have come, but we are still far from what we are supposed to be.

"With me, or without me, we want to give our best and see if we can win the league. The prayers of millions of supporters are behind us, so we're very motivated, but looking at the bigger picture, we want to put Pirates where they are supposed to be, to put that second star [on the shirt], to be the best in Africa, and to reach the Club World Cup.

"This is the target that we're putting ahead of us. It's still in process, still a work in progress, but I'm very happy where we have reached.

"This is what drives us on a daily basis."