Highlands Park tore the National First Division to shreds in 2017-18 and followed their convincing title victory up with a solid first season back in the top flight. 2019-20 presents the Lions of the North with a new challenge and it remains to be seen whether or not they can compete with South Africa’s very best teams.
Mothobi Mvala and Peter Shalulile in particular impressed for Highlands Park last season, but Owen da Gama’s men nevertheless struggled to convert draws into wins. In fact, they drew more games (14) than any other team in the league.
New signing Rodney Ramagalela can help them kill off opponents. As recently as 2017-18, he shared the Absa Premiership top scorer’s prize with Percy Tau. Other notable new Highlands Park signings include Marks Munyai, Thela Ngobeni, Wayde Jooste and Limbikani Mzava.
The Lions of the North start their season with a clash against Kaizer Chiefs and da Gama has already turned up the heat with a dose of mind games.
As quoted by EWN, da Gama said: “We have played a lot of friendlies during the preseason period but the real deal starts now and what better way to do so, I’ve always wished to start with Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns or Orlando Pirates for the mere fact that these are good teams. By playing them earlier in the season, it allows you to go to another level of form.”
Laying out a statement of intent, da Gama claimed: “When the coach [Ernst Middendorp] was talking there, he said they drew with us and beat us 3-2 and worked us out and all that – I think history will always remain history,” he added.
“There’s no team that beat us twice last year but we can’t keep talking about that. In the first season of the PSL, we made a lot of mistakes, we paid our school fees – as long as we understand what we did wrong – we certainly don’t care about what other teams are doing.
“It’s all about us and how we want to improve, how we want to get better and the teams must not undermine us.”
Highlands Park are aiming high, and they certainly have a squad with the potential to improve on last season’s seventh place finish. However, in a league with two clear frontrunners in Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns, as well as teams such as Bidvest Wits and Cape Town City who are used to leading the chasing pack, it isn’t easy to get to the top from where the Lions of the North are now.
Another top eight finish can be considered a successful return, but Highlands Park can realistically aim for as high as fifth.
Highlands Park FC nicknames
Lions of the North
Highlands Park FC history
The original professional Highlands Park FC existed between 1959 and 1983, eventually being purchased by Jomo Sono and becoming what is now Jomo Cosmos.
Nevertheless, the amateur and junior departments of Highlands Park continued separately. The amateur senior team carried the Highlands Park name and managed to earn promotion to the National Soccer League for the 1991 season. After they managed to survive the drop, they were bought by relegated Port Elizabeth Blackpool.
Welkom Eagles then bought the professional side of the club and its National Soccer League license for the 1993 campaign. A relocation to Welkom followed.
In 2003, the club as we know it in the modern era was founded and they have not looked back since. A remarkable journey has led this household name back into South Africa’s top tier. Having started out as a semi-professional side, they have consistently climbed up the ladder and bounced back when they were knocked down.
Highlands Park were relegated at the first attempt in the top flight in 2016-17, but their NFD win saw them bounce straight back up and 2018-19 was a groundbreaking campaign for the Lions of the North.
“It was our first season in the PSL; we were an unknown quantity. A lot of teams did not. you know, there was not much about us playing in the PSL, teams couldn’t really research about us as much as they would like to,” said coach da Gama on Highlands Park’s seventh-place finish, as quoted by SowetanLIVE.
“But this time around [in the new season], I think it’s going to be much tougher for us.”
Explaining his concerns, da Gama said: “Just look back last season; where did Maritzburg end up the season before? Fourth on the log. then they went to the playoffs,” Da Gama said.
“Where did Free State Stars end up? Sixth on the league, then they got relegated. So, to be realistic it’s going to be much tougher for us.”
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Highlands Park FC 2019-20 squad
Forwards: Lindokuhle Mbatha, Tendai Ndoro, Rodney Ramagalela, Moeketsi Sekola, Modibedi Ivan Mokoena, Petrus Ngebo, Thabo Motlafi, Peter Shalulile, Yusuf Bunting
Midfilders: Mothobi Mvala, Makhehlene Makhaula, Mlungisi Mbunjana, Jabulani Shongwe, Wayde Jooste, Enocent Mkhabela, Mahlatse Makudubela, Siphesihle Zwane, Suhayl Allie, Sabelo Nyembe, Roberto Fragale, Sphiwe Mahlangu, Spiwe Msimango
Defenders: Bevan Fransman, Sifiso Mbhele, Limbikani Mzava, Elliot Seema, Ryan George Rae, Denzil Haoseb, Lesenya Ramoraka, Luckyboy Mokoena, Ricardo Williams, Junior Sibande, Sello Motsepe, Christopher Komane, Phoka Mofokeng
Goalkeepers: Tapuwa Kapini, Kyle Peters, Marlon Heugh, Thela Ngobeni
Highlands Park FC: PSL season 2019-20 fixtures and results