A good man in Africa

Legendary Dons keeper Bobby Clark once held the world record for consecutive match-time minutes without conceding a goal, but many of his fondest memories are saved for the time he spent coaching Highlanders in Zimbabwe.

By Stephen Walsh

This article first appeared in Issue 20 which was published in September 2021.

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Bobby and I had come new to this new country around the same time, both of us symbols of change in our own way.
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Bobby’s first season in charge of Highlanders started in shadow, with a memorably uninspiring series of draws and defeats so traumatising they are still remembered as “that season”

My one brush with football greatness happened about 40 years ago in the grounds of a secondary school in Zimbabwe. On a parched, sloping dust pitch with a five-foot termite hill in the corner, I got to play keepie-uppie with the great Aberdeen goalkeeper Bobby Clark.

This was in the first years of Zimbabwean independence. That nice Mr Mugabe had just announced The Year of Transformation; I still have a ruler the Ministry of Education gave out, with that slogan embossed. I also have a black-and-white picture of that red-letter keepie-uppie day; I sent it back to Glasgow to my Dad, who always liked the cut of Bobby Clark’s jib. In full white saviour mode, Bobby and I are playing a coaching game, swaddled in the admiring gazes of African schoolchildren.

Bobby and I had come new to this new country around the same time, both of us symbols of change in our own way. He was the glamorous overseas coach, his appointment a sign that sanctions were over and that Zimbabwe had been admitted into the world of sport. I was more humbly employed as a teacher, one of many parachuted in to transform township schools where white people had previously feared to tread. When Bobby came to visit, I was the glamorous overseas coach of the school team.

Bobby was to stay in Zimbabwe a football season or two; I stayed a year more, and might well have lingered longer, but The Year of Transformation gave way to The Year When Comrade Mugabe Sent The Fifth Brigade To Massacre Ndebele Civilians, for which no commemorative stationery items were issued. I was regretful and am still nostalgic for those days when everything was new. I’d sort of assumed Bobby never looked back, which turns out to be a long way from the truth. Maybe it was the keepie-uppie, but Bobby too has held a torch for the joys we shared.

It wasn’t hard to see why Bobby caught my father’s discerning eye. A clean cut, square-jawed goalkeeper of gentlemanly bearing, Bobby joined Aberdeen from Queen’s Park in 1965. The mark of his longevity is that he was there when Eddie Turnbull’s Dons won the cup in 1970, and was still there when Alex Ferguson won the League in 1980. His four hundred and more games for Aberdeen were mainly in goal. In best Billy the Fish mode, he also played a few games in the back four after losing his place to Ernie McGarr, that pin-up boy for prematurely ageing footballers of days past.

Like the haggard McGarr, he was also what only Scots call an internationalist, his 17 caps won at a time when Scotland goalkeepers were quite good, the golden years between Frank Haffey singing in the bath after conceding nine goals at Wembley and Alan Rough standing like Baldric in No Man’s Land as Brazilian artillery sailed over his head. In 1970/71 Bobby went nearly 13 games without conceding before being beaten by the equally clean cut and square-jawed Pat Stanton of Hibs, another of my dad’s favourites. It was a record that stood for decades.

When he signed for Aberdeen from the Spiders, Bobby’s father was determined to save the lad from the ruinous culture of afternoon drinking, gambling and snooker and insisted Aberdeen permit him to continue to work as a PE teacher after training was over. Such upright living, and an apprenticeship under Sir Alex, naturally led to a coaching career. He managed New Zealand for a while, and recently retired after many years on the US College circuit. His first appointment, though, was with the Bulawayo club side Highlanders, including outreach to local schools.

“I’d just finished playing for Aberdeen,” he recalls, from Lossiemouth. “In my last five years as a player I had been helping with the coaching around the club, and I’d done my badges of course. With Alex Ferguson there it was a good time to be at Aberdeen, but the time came when it was time to go. I heard Malcolm King, the chairman of Highlanders, was in the UK looking for a coach. To cut a long story short, myself, my wife and my family all went out. We had a wonderful year or two.”

Bobby soon learned that Highlanders is one of those “més que un club” teams. The comparison with Barcelona is not to scale, obviously, but for supporter intensity it carries some validity. To oversimplify, Zimbabwe has two main population groups, Shona and Ndebele, and just as Barca has come to be a political representation of the red and yellow of Catalunya, Highlanders carry the black-and-white flag for the Ndebele minority who largely live in a strip running from Victoria Falls down to the South African border. For Barcelona read Bulawayo. For “més que un club”, read “siyinqaba”.

While Highlanders is not the only team in Bulawayo, there is only one team in town culturally-speaking. The brothers who founded the club in the 1920s were descended from Mzilikazi, who broke away from Tshaka Zulu to found the Ndebele nation; they were grandsons of Lobengula, the last king, who disappeared from view after being duped out of mineral concessions by Cecil Rhodes. While Zimbabwe was Rhodesia, the team was a successful side with a regional flavour. In the 40 years since independence each discriminatory political action of the Harare/Shona majority has served to sharpen the club’s representative identity.

Well before the massacres in Matabeleland which confirmed that Zimbabwe’s rainbow nation would have a limited spectrum of colours, my Ndebele pupils left me in no doubt as to whom I should be supporting. The headmaster, a Shona-speaker, tried his best to lure me to Zimbabwe Saints with a pre-match tour of the shebeens and a good seat at a 2-2 draw with Gweru United. It was useless. Within weeks I was making the follow-the-crowd walk to Barbourfields, where ‘Bosso’ play. There, in the tall, concrete, shrill-whistly grandstands I enjoyed some seasons in the sun.

In point of fact, Bobby’s first season in charge of Highlanders started in shadow, with a memorably uninspiring series of draws and defeats so traumatising they are still remembered as “that season” and were back under discussion in Chakariboy’s Saturday column in The (Harare) Herald during a lean spell in 2020. The manager in 2020 was a star man in 1983, Madinda Ndlovu, the eldest of Bulawayo’s answer to the McGinns. His brother Adam played in Belgium and was a whisker away from being signed for Manchester United instead of Eric Cantona. Peter played for Coventry and Sheffield United.

“I was actually speaking to Madinda not so long ago about this,” continues Bobby. “I was asking him, ‘Can’t you remember how difficult it was in the opening part of the season?’ We could hardly win a game to begin with. Of course, you question yourself. It was my first real coaching job. I would say that when you’re not local you don’t feel the pressure. I used to say to myself if the players aren’t enjoying themselves, I’ll go. If I felt I had lost the team I would have gone. If you’re a coach and you’ve lost the team then you’re in trouble.”

Perhaps Bobby should have taken a leaf out of my coaching book, which entirely disproved this axiom. The Msiteli Secondary XI were sweeping all before them, even though I had lost the team entirely. It turned out that the pupils I was “coaching” included the goalkeeper for Young Warriors, the national under-21s, and two or three others playing in the premier division. After a session or two they suggested a new division of the coaching responsibilities. They would pick the team, decide on a game plan, and deliver it; and I would slice the oranges. It worked like a dream.

From trips home I brought gifts. Gloves for John Sibanda, who would eventually take over from Bruce Grobbelaar in the national side. Shinpads for Garikayi Rwodzi, who was breaking through for Saints, and for Dumisani “Savimbi” Nyoni, whose nickname, based on his resemblance to an Angolan revolutionary leader, stuck with him through his long professional career. In exchange I got to sit on the bench and watch them train, with tactical talks in isiNdebele football Franglais: Ibhola. Ibox. Ikeepa. Ipressha. Amagoalposts.

I was learning fast. We knocked out Sobukhazi, the favourites, and made it to the Matabeleland regional finals. This was a big deal, played out over a weekend at Highlanders’ stadium and the pitches alongside – a sort of Lesser Barbourfields. We beat a Mission school with a wily Jesuit coach, and finally Milton High – a cosseted school from a former white suburb, now full of the black bourgeoisie. The Dunlop Trophy was ours. The headmaster finally forgave me my rejection of Saints. He came up and shook my hand, as if I had something to do with it.

Meanwhile, in less important matters, Bobby was getting to grips with Highlanders and starting to spin black-and-white straw into gold. Not that he puts it that way, of course. “There’s no mystery to it, you know. Personally, I wouldn’t say the problems arose because the team was in a transitional period or any of that stuff. I didn’t really know the players, but I did know they had not been very good the year before. I think they just weren’t good enough. So we had to sort that all out.”

And he did. He was clever in his choice of lieutenants. “Cosmas Zulu came in as my assistant,” says Bobby. Zulu is a legendary figure in Zimbabwean football, over 50 years a coach and still working. “We had a guy called Doctor Dlamini. Not a coach, but he was a good person who got things working. We found a few players in the opening weeks. Bigboy Ndlovu. Douglas Mloyi, known as ‘British’ for his no-nonsense style. Willard Khumalo, from the youth team. He was a sixteen-year-old, but he could lift the crowd. And Madinda. He would hit them from everywhere, and they started to go in.”

Bobby’s perspective, from the bench, is measured. “It changed slowly. We gradually began to tie games. And then by the end of the season, we were beating the teams by four or five that had beaten us early in the season. It was wonderful.” From my perspective, in the cheap seats, it really was wonderful. I was there when Bosso beat Bata Power (The Gweru Shoemakers), Dairibord (The Harare Milkmen), and Rio Tinto (The Kadoma Goldminers). In iClassico, the Harare bigwigs Dynamos needed all the felinity of their goalie ‘Short Cat’ M’parutsa to escape with a draw. Highlanders were safely in mid-table, and Bobby had done his job.

I, meanwhile, was spinning gold into straw. It turned out that the Dunlop Trophy was like Eurovision – the prize was to administer the contest the next year. I became a glamorous overseas Sepp Blatter, processing results from around the province, including the rural sections where distances were too large to play weekly matches. Schools would get together for weekends of sport and teacherly drinking, and trouble often followed. The Disciplinary Committee (i.e. me) had to deal with one school where the headmaster had stabbed the referee for disallowing a goal.

As if in sympathy, my own headmaster lost it completely when Msiteli defended the cup. Perhaps it was second season syndrome, or the absence of a coach, but the team failed to click and needed extra time to beat a barefoot school from Donkwe-Donkwe, who arrived from the countryside in a garbage gorger. The final against Sobukhazi, in their Highlanders colours, went to penalties. The head decided the referee was not making the Sobukhazi goalkeeper stay on his line, and tried to take the ball away. Fair Play Freddie here snatched it back and put it on the spot and the opposition boy smashed the winner past John.

My last few months in the country were a bit sad. The football was fine, but it was clear we’d been made a fool of in terms of events in the wider world. Terrible stories of what had happened in the bush came to light. In town things were tense, with the townships regularly sealed for violent searches for amadissidents. Our flat was robbed, which in pre-interweb days meant an informational blackout, though articles in the international press warned that a disease affecting haemophiliacs and homosexuals in California seemed to be making its way down Africa, following the truck-routes.

I had assumed that Bobby’s Zimbabwe story ended in the same sombre tone. Only recently, when Highlanders made their terrible start to 2020, did I think to ask him, and he filled in the blanks. “I finished off in ’84, I think. It was a difficult time, we all knew that, and we decided as a family it was better to go home. We were all affected. My wife had a job in a primary school and my boys – well, I told you that they played for Highlanders youth teams. They had really absorbed themselves into the Ndebele way of life, learning isiNdebele and so forth.”

Bobby’s son Tommy was fourteen. It was a year of transformation for him, too, a time when the world was new, and he has “memories of wonderful, carefree years, wandering the dusty townships with my friends.” After college, he returned to Zimbabwe, working as a teacher, and he actually played for Highlanders for a year before returning to the US and medical studies. The autobiographical circle was squared, but more; while in football terms he did not make an impact, an impact has resulted.

Tommy says: “When I was playing in Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS was a problem but I don’t think I had one chat about it. Later I realised that people were dying, footballers who had nothing seemingly wrong with them; that out of three centre midfielders I played with at Highlanders, two had died. There was a culture of silence. While people were struck down all around, communities remained mute.” Tommy set up Grassroot Soccer. The charity’s name has the Stateside twang shared by both Clarks, but it is a remarkable force, using football to enact health education programmes in high-need areas around the world. Including Zimbabwe.

Bobby finishes the story. “Yes, Tommy goes back to Zimbabwe frequently. He’s a qualified doctor, Tommy, but these days he doesn’t do very much doctoring. Myself? I’d love to go back soon. I said to Madinda when I spoke to him – maybe you can get to a cup final this year and I can come over. Highlanders means a lot to me, you know. I look out for the result of all the teams that I’ve been involved in but obviously Highlanders was very special and still is. Oh yes. We’re big Highlanders fans in the Clark family.”

This article first appeared in Issue 20 which was published in September 2021.

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