Phillip Ndlondlo was constantly overlooked by football coaches for being too small as a teenager growing up in Thokoza. But a defiant Ndlondlo’s stance was: “If you’re good enough, you’re tall enough”.
“I don’t know how many times I got told I was too small,” the 1.6m star tells FARPost.
Perhaps, nothing else shows his diehard attitude than the fact that he had to travel as long as 40km away from home every day to turn out for Izinyoka FC in the SAB League as a young lad.
Without a doubt, many teenagers in football-mad Mzansi love the beautiful game. How many, however, would have the determination, let alone the discipline, to make such a daily pilgrimage from Thokoza to Duduza every day for a game of footie in the lower rungs of Mzansi Diski?
“I met Phillip when he was in Grade 10, playing a tournament for a team called Snake & Snake,” recalls Christian Xaba, his then coach. “I was coaching SAB League Ekurhuleni; they played at 9am, so we went with Themba Ntuli, my assistant coach. We called him and asked if he would be interested in club football. He joined us at Izinyoka.”
Moving to Izinyoka meant that the pint-sized midfielder had to slither and navigate the 40km distance between Thokoza and Duduza daily. For Xaba, the Tisetso Secondary School learner was worth the investment. Ever since he saw him turn out in that amateur tournament, Xaba had been smitten with this lion-hearted pocket rocket from Thokoza. Dynamite comes in small packages, the cliché goes. Ever since he was a young boy at Leratadima Primary School, where he started sharpening skills that would make defenders wail in later years, his gift was obvious to even a half-serious judge of talent.
Given his talent, it would not be long before Ndlondlo found himself in the developmental setup at Wits, one of the country’s best football nurseries.
At Wits, the attributes that have made Ndlondlo one of the hotshot midfielders in the PSL were already there to witness. The skill, the tenacity and the technical ability were already there on display. Former Santos left-back Ashley Makhanya, who was at Wits as a development coach, picked Ndlondlo out of 300 trialists. What impressed Makhanya was Ndlondlo’s intelligence and game awareness. Even at that age, with all the chaos that comes with a football match in the younger age groups, Ndlondlo already had enough “between the ears” to suggest he would succeed and thrive at a higher level.
“On the first day of trials, I picked him. What he’s doing now, he was doing it that day. He’s got high football intelligence, technical passing, dribbling, and shooting; he can do anything with the ball with both feet. The mentality. He’s a very confident and fearless player with high technical ability. The guy can jump. He’s got such a good spring,” Makhanya tells FARPost.
Ndlondlo’s talent has never been in question, and so some might wonder how this dynamo from Thokoza got a reputation for his determination and tenacity. Indeed, the adversity that Ndlondlo has faced in his career cannot even be measured by the number of kilometres he clocked on his way to Duduza before he even matriculated. It perhaps all boils down to one thing–height.
Ever since Ndlondlo got within a sniff of senior football, his height has been an issue.
“I played for a season at Wits Juniors, but I was told I’m too small when it was time for promotion. At Maccabi FC –I played and won promotion, and after that, I went to TTM. I was training with Babirwa; that’s where they saw me. It was tough at TTM because the coach didn’t believe in me because of my height,” Ndlondlo says.
Lucky ‘King Muchinchwa’ Nelukau remembers how he had to fight tooth and nail to get Ndlondlo signed at TTM and get him into the matchday squad. So fierce was the battle over the inclusion of Ndlondlo that it eventually claimed the scalp of one coach who did not believe that the diminutive midfielder deserved any spot on the pitch because of his stature.
“When I first saw him, he was training with Babirwa, and I said: ‘I want him,” Muchinchwa tells FARPost. “People were saying he is not tall enough to play in the PSL. I convinced the president to give him a chance.
“One day, the president called to instruct us to put him [Ndlondlo] during one of our games in the first division.
“The head coach walked away from the bench. He refused to make the change, and I had to do it. We were 2-0 down, and Ndlondlo scored the two goals. We were playing TS Sporting, and it ended 2-2. The coach was fired that same day.”
When the time came for Ndlondlo to make the step up to the top-flight, his path was no less thorny. Even after firing his side for promotion, doubts about his height persisted. Was he big enough to handle the hustle and bustle of the PSL?
“It was not simple for this boy to go to the PSL. Even when I was still assistant to Joel Masutha, he didn’t want him. I was forcing him to play him. He started playing when we were now Marumo Gallants because people now believed in him.
“I loved his long-range shots, eliminating opponents, skilful and football brain. I was even surprised at what was going on. Even Calvin Johnson rejected him at AmaZulu. He is still going far,” says Muchinchwa.
Ever since he was a child, Ndlondlo believed that football came first and foremost in his life. He worshipped at the altar of the beautiful game, and despite heartbreak after heartbreak, because of something he could not control, he stuck to his guns and has subsequently shown he can play with the ‘big boys’. However, the rejections and painful snubs took their toll at times, and thoughts of quitting also came to his mind.
“I’d think of leaving football; the challenges I was facing pushed me to the edge. I didn’t realise the obstacles made me more robust; I had to push myself to the limit.
“At the beginning of my days in the professional set-up, it started becoming an issue that I was short. As time went by, people started to see what kind of person and player I am,” Ndlondlo says.
For a country that essentially produces players of more diminutive stature, South Africa is remarkably obsessed with height and power. This might be why some PSL clubs are still obsessed with long balls, the famous Route One type of football, even though the prototype South African player is small and adept at his feet. This, his former coach Makhanya believes, is a symptom of failure in coaching.
“Any coach who starts telling me a player is short, not strong is not a proper coach. Physical attributes are not a prerequisite to playing football; that is old mentality and old school coaching. Physical attributes are a bonus if you know when to use them,” he says.
To show that height was never an issue for Makhanya, he made him captain in his debut for Wits and then foretold what would happen next in his career.
“I told him: ‘you play for one season at Wits’. I made him captain in our first game. He’s a leader of men. He’s fearless. That’s his character,” he says.
In Makhanya, Ndlondlo had a coach who believed in him, but this is not a luxury he has always been afforded. At other clubs, Makhanya believes, some mentors admire diminutive players, past and present but are not willing to give talented players of a similar stature a chance when they come across them.
“It’s funny because the same people praise Ngolo Kante, Veratti, Lionel Messi, and when they come to SA, they say he’s small. He has unmatched technical ability and intelligence on the ball.”
Xaba, on the other hand, believes that because of the pressure to deliver instant results in the top-flight, many coaches are reluctant to bet on potentially explosive talents like Ndlondlo.
“I remember he went to trials to Sivutsa FC, and they rejected him because of height. Jabu Pule had the same issue; sometimes, many coaches are under pressure for results. Many other teams rejected him because of his height,” he says.
With his hot form in the 2021/22 season, there’s little doubt that Ndlondlo has put some of the doubts about him to bed. Were it not for his strength of character and tenacity; this might not have been the case. He is the pint-sized dynamo in the middle of the park who never stops running and has always outjumped men twice his size.
However, for all his strength and will, Ndlondlo’s success can also be attributed to the support of his parents, something a lot of young Mzansi Diski princes don’t have when they are growing up in the game. It perhaps explains why he is still very grounded as he continues to blaze a trail.
“My late mom would come and support me; she would go with me and support me and be there. Dad would come and watch me when I was still at Wits,” the Gallants star says.
It was payback to his mom, who passed on in 2012, in Bloemfontein last year when he inspired TTM to the Nedbank Cup in the city where his mother was born. “It felt like an honour to her since she passed on.”
After facing doubt and outright animosity from his coaches as a youngster, Ndlondlo believes in Dan Malesela. He has finally found a coach that genuinely believes in his ability. As Ndlondlo takes his career gear up, that trust is essential.
“I’m glad now coaches can overlook my height issues. Dan Malesela has brought the best out of me. He allows me to express myself; I guess that’s why I’m scoring goals.”