Gunners: The soul of Lobatse

Staff Writer
The illustrious history of Lobatse Extension Gunners is linked to that of the town and the decline of the once mighty "Peleng Boys", seems to be indicate of the general decline of rest of the town, writes correspondent MODIRWA KEKWALETSWE

Who could have imagined it? The emotional roller-coaster ride of three years of ecstasy followed by 11 years of misery. It seems many fans of the once mighty "Peleng Boys" are bracing themselves for yet another dry season - the 12th in succession.

Abdul Rahman Kgwengwenyane, a Gunners' fan since 1976 considers the 2005-2006 Season one of the darkest in the team's recent past. Last season they once again scrapped through in a nerve-wrecking encounter with Tafic. Kgwengwenyane could not bear to watch that episode.

He closed his eyes and opened them only when the scales had turned in favour of the boys in black and white.

"I left Gaborone to watch Gunners play Tafic in Lobatse. When I arrived I could not muster the courage to leave the car. I was too numb, too scared to watch. I only left the car when we were leading 2-0," Kgwengwenyane recalls.

On that fateful afternoon, Gunners won 4-1 - with David Tsalaile scoring all the goals, including Tafic's consolation. More importantly, the victory secured Gunners status in the elite league. For Kgwengwenyane, this was the lowest of the low, but by no means an isolated case. Life for Gunners' fans has not been the easiest in recent times.
Since 1994, it has been season of discontentment after another. "Eleven years of misery," Kgwengwenyane stresses.

Two years earlier in 1993, Gunners was at the top of Botswana soccer, losing 0-1 against Kaizer Chiefs in a continental cup game at the National Stadium. Although they were dumped 5-0 away, the team emerged with their reputation intact. The game also sent the team asunder.

Extension Gunners, the oldest team in the premier league has a chequered past. Former Maletamotse and Gaborone United (GU) legend, Horatio 'Chippa' Mahloane says Gunners was a breakaway from Young Tigers.

"Initially, Gunners' players were the B-side of Young Tigers and would play friendlies games against Krugersdorp Extension Gunners of South Africa."

As a young boy barely in his teens, Mahloane was there in 1962 when the breakaway happened. They adopted their rival's name; Extension Gunners. He went to school at Moeng College and upon return, Extension Gunners had grown phenomenally. Young Tigers, whose feeder team had outgrown it, died two years later.

Mahloane: "It had grown beyond my wildest expectation." He was one of the victims of this growth. There was no place for him in the team and he decamped to old rivals - Maletamotse and later GU.

To this day, Mahloane believes that he played his best football during the seven years he spent at Maletamotse. The line of those begging to differ is long and tedious.

Former BFA chief, Ashford Mamelodi is one of them. He says at GU, Mahloane matured. As a young boy he marvelled at his play: "Small in stature, he had tight control and phenomenal vision. He simply was the best thing on the ball."

That Mahloane could find a place in the Gunners' team accounted for something. Of the legends of Gunners, one unforgettable star is the late left-winger, Ramagwinya 'Jomo' Bogatsu.

They say Gunners then played with style and verve. And swing. Finesse was in abundance, exemplified by defender, Bushy 'States' Hirschfelt.

Football was truly the beautiful game then. Players dressed at the ground. Everyone could listen to the team talk, some overzealous fans even chipped in with a word or two of wisdom. It all evolved before Kgwengwenyane's eyes.

In 1979, Gunners, together with BDF XI were promoted to the elite league. To date, the two are the only sides that have never tasted relegation. In 1980, a major change occurred. The Lobatse Asian community began taking active interest in the team. A woman, known to the people as Mma Sabera had a son who loved Gunners: Rashid Chopdat Ismael.

Gunners continued to fall more and more in the care of Rashid, his brothers and other family friends.

Gunners' players were employed in their businesses, they were released in time for training and they were taken care of. Players milled around Danna Restaurant, owned by Chopdat. No problem was beyond him: a player has run out of cooking gas, no problem - he had it refilled. Dead relative, here is money for transport.

Kgwengwenyane says, "the man was prepared to go an extra mile for players."
Kgwengwenyane says in 1990, Lobatse Cash Store (LCS)

began to formally sponsor Gunners. Lobatse was about to explode and nothing - nothing - could ever be the same. It was time of ecstasy.

The windfall came two years later, in 1992, when the late Kenny Mwape won a cup and league double. The game against Kaizer Chiefs was just part of the beautiful tale that was the story of Gunners.

The names of the players who delivered the Holy Grail to Lobatse are always mentioned in awe. Jojo Mogotsi, Itumeleng Duiker, Edison Mulubwa, Solomon Moipolai, Naphtaly 'Scara' Kebalepile, Mosepele Moswai, Isaac 'Brenda' Ncenge, Joe Tembo, Pro Mauco, and Kopano Phakedi.

But to Kgwengwenyane, one man stood above all: Kenneth 'Computer' Jere. It is said that he could determine the course of the game with one stroke of genius. To fans - those for or against - Jere touched them all, sending sensations with every turn he made, every twist he executed. Kgwengwenyane cuts it short: Jere was a match winner.
With an entertaining brand of football, matched by impressive results, Gunners matured into a national outfit. "It grew from Gangwaketse-Morolong team into a national one," Kgwengwenyane says with a serious face.

The fault lines erupted after the Gunners vs Kaizer Chiefs game. Following on the game the talk was that, with the national stadium full to capacity, the team had made a huge kill. The media ran wild. Calculators rolled numbers. Figures were crunched and conclusion made. A section of Lobatse residents began to ask persistent questions.

Asian community had fingers pointed at them. According to Kgwengwenyane, "no one bothered to ask himself what has been sustaining the team all along."

Above all, one bothered to call Gaborone Sun and ask how much Gunners as the host team paid for Kaizer Chiefs' lodging. Kgwengwenyane says people just focused on the gold pot.

In 1993, Gunners again won the league, this time under the guidance of Samuel 'Zoom' Ndlovu. Ndlovu wove his magic again, Gunners won the championship - the team's third on a trot - in 1994.

Described as 'a father figure,' Ndlovu played mind games with his players. In 1994, Gunners were playing a dull goalless draw against Tasc in Francistown.

At halftime, the coach offered his players refreshments and told them to get back to the field. There were few words spoken. "This time follow my instruction," was all he said. Tasc were duly disposed off, 1-0. But times were changing, dark clouds were gathering. LCS did not renew their sponsorship for 1995.  Kgwengwenyane says as the Asian community in Lobatse stepped back Gunners' support base split into lobbies. The tune changed. Successive regimes have not been able to return the team to its glory days.
Sorrow seeped in. Supporters became wary. Impatient. Explosive. Disillusioned.

Dangerous. On many occasions they have stepped over the line and the consequences have been dire. Gunners are regular customers of the Premier League's Disciplinary Committee, where they are regularly punished for fan violence.

At times it is a ban on home games, leading to travels to Jwaneng and Gaborone for matches. Sometimes they are hit in the pocket.

Two seasons back Gunners were suspended from the Coca-Cola Cup after fans were captured on television beating up a match official in Orapa.

Kgwengwenyane sits in the team's disciplinary committee, whose mandate is to right the past wrongs. By the look of things, it promises to be a challenging role, for the fans have attracted notoriety. The focus is nurse the fans' hurting and then move forward. He feels that the past 11 years have pulled the team backwards.

Kgwengwenyane: "Teams like Township Rollers, Centre Chiefs and Notwane are advanced. We are lagging behind them. We must catch up."

He is optimistic that this is a season of change. He says the team now has a structure in place to raise funds.

Kgwengwenyane is adamant that long gone are days when players played for the love of the team. His view is that Gunners can only attract and retain quality players if they can meet the players' needs.

Kgwengwenyane was lured to Gunners with its black and white colours, when he arrived from Mafikeng (South Africa) where he supported Montshiwa Pirates that dons black and white.

He could not have imagined it - the prolonged misery that followed 1994. No one could.



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