Ricky Zililo, Senior Sports Reporter
MAKING it as a professional footballer in any capacity is certainly no easy feat.
To get to the very pinnacle of the game is harder still, especially if players have to deal with setbacks or difficult circumstances on their way to the top.
Twenty-eight-year-old former Tsholotsho FC, Highlanders, Ngezi Platinum, Bidvest Wits and Sekhukhune right back, McClive “Skippy” Phiri, who dreams of another dance with the Warriors, knows that struggle all too well. He has had to overcome huge challenges and dig deep within himself in order to return to the top of his game.
Hard work, dedication and ambition helped Phiri escape the dusty streets of Bulawayo’s townships, took him around the block in local football before a move to Bidvest Wits in February last year. He would play barefoot in the street, but always believed he would make it to the top of the sport.
But for all the talent and commitment to his craft, Phiri’s journey has not been without it’s heartbreaks and sad moments.
And testimony to the grit and blind determination to succeed is that even after being offloaded by two Premier League sides, he is back on the field looking to get right back at the top of the South African game and beyond.
“I have had my fair share of difficulties, broken hearts but I will not lay down and give up. My God and the support structures I have within my family keep me going and I know eventually I will get there,” Phiri told Chronicle Sport.
Phiri made his name as an attacking right-back at the now defunct Tsholotsho where he played well enough to secure himself a move to Ngezi Platinum having charmed the then head coach Tonderai Ndiraya.
With the Ngezi move came expectations of a one trip to the top, but this is where his career difficulties began.
Having arrived as a goal-scoring right back, Phiri played a few games up the field, scored a couple of goals then lost his place in the team.
Having arrived, commanding a first team jersey, he began to struggle for game time until he walked up to his coach, Ndiraya and asked to be allowed to return to Bulawayo to find a team and possibly regular football.
“When I was signed by Ngezi, they knew I was a right back but because at Tsholotsho I played a few games as a striker and scored a few goals, they decided to play me in the same position at Ngezi.
In one game against FC Platinum I played as a striker in the first-half then reverted to right back in the second-half,” he explained.
“But somehow my situation at Ngezi became increasingly difficult and I couldn’t make the team anymore.
The longer I stayed on the sidelines the more depressed I got and I finally decided that moving back home to Bulawayo was in my best interest.
To make matters worse, my wife was pregnant and alone and eventually it didn’t make sense for me to stay that far from my family yet I wasn’t playing.”
With his confidence waning, Phiri was allowed to leave and arrived at Bosso, trained a few times with the team and began to feel like himself again.
He was signed and acquitted himself so well at Highlanders, earning himself a move to Bidvest Wits in the South African Premier Soccer League.
And there too after the excitement of finally moving to a foreign land, getting regular game time after initially being a starter became an issue.
“When I left for Wits from Highlanders, I was very excited because I had finally been given an opportunity to play outside the country which is mine and every other football player’s dream.
When I arrived at Wits it was smooth sailing: on my first day of training I found the team playing 11 v 11 and I immediately joined the senior team. My new teammates were very welcoming and gracious as was the coach.
“It wasn’t hard for me to adjust and get along with my teammates because even the language was not an issue for me and we communicated easily and got along very well,” he said.
“My first major challenge was playing under floodlights which just happened to be my first game. After that I was okay playing night games. Life changed for me after we returned to action after Covid-19 had stopped action for a while.
When football returned, we were playing in a bubble but somehow, I had lost my place in the team. Gavin Hunt did not give me a chance to express myself or even to have me look for another team since by then Wits had been sold.”
“Many people began to ask me why I wasn’t playing anymore but all I could say was I don’t know. I couldn’t even ask the coach (Hunt) why he wasn’t using me and eventually the season ended and I was offloaded,” Phiri said.
However, Phiri’s uncle, Lindani Dube found him a manager who suggested he should try out at Sekhukhune.
On his first day, he came across another former Highlanders player who had also been clubless until his arrival at the second-tier side after his club had been sold as well
“When I got to Sekhukhune on my first day, I found Tapiwa Kapini there and was thrilled that there was someone from home.
From day one Campos helped me understand that we were there to work, telling me that we needed to be strong since both our teams had been sold.
“He said things could get difficult here and there but we have to balance each other and from there it became easy. Even at training it was easy because I had the backing of a goalkeeper and so I settled in easily,” he said.
He signed a one-year contract with an option to sign for another year.
The league started and everything was smooth sailing for the Zimbabwean duo and they helped the side to a maiden Premiership promotion. He played 28 out of 30 league games, scoring five goals and had eight assists.
For Skippy, this blessing turned into a curse!
Having returned home after helping Sekhukhune gain promotion, his world unravelled at the seams.
While resting in Zimbabwe and looking forward to a season in the Premiership with the club, he received notification from his club’s team manager that the club would not be exercising the option to sign for another season.
He was so shattered by the news that he failed to tell his wife and began to sink into a deep depression, continuously asking himself how this could have happened.
“At the end of my first season at Sekhukhune and having helped them into the Premier League, the team manager told me that I would not be returning to them.
He said the club had decided against exercising their one-year extension option.
I was heartbroken, I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t even tell my wife what had happened.
But I eventually told my uncle who has always been my bedrock. My uncle told me to keep my head up and immediately began to look for a new club for me in South Africa.”
“At the time even my teammates at Sekhukhune were surprised that I had been cut from the team.
When I told Campos he was very shocked at the club’s move, but my uncle kept telling me to stay strong, stay focused on my career.
He told me that another chance would come and I would be right back at the top again,” said Phiri.
“It was a very painful experience for me given all the work I put in to see the team promoted and at the time I kept thinking to myself that now I was unemployed. I was asking myself why me? After all I was disciplined, came to training on time yet they offloaded me and I found myself in a situation where I had no team and no income.
But there were people who were worried for me and were helping me out. My uncle and his friends were running around looking for a team for me to join and that is how I was able to work again.”
Phiri signed for Venda Academy in the Glad Africa League and had a difficult first game with the club.
He was still battling to overcome the depression of being offloaded by two clubs, but has found his feet again.
He is now focused on earning himself a move back into the Premier League and perhaps beyond.
One thing that these experiences have done for Phiri is make him stronger.
Though his faith has been tested, people like his wife, his uncle and his uncle’s friend have kept him strong and he’s now more determined than ever to get right back to the top of his game.
He has settled in well at his new club and even has a goal which has helped muster his depression and regain his self-confidence.
He still hopes to have another dance with the national team and wants to play at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Phiri has played 13 out of 15 games for Venda, missing the first two matches as he was waiting for his work permit. – @ZililoR.