Inspired by his two brothers who played for Newcastle Dynamos, Bafana Bafana and Orlando Pirates Legend Helman Mkhalele started playing football barefoot in the dusty streets of Newcastle, Emadadeni in KwaZulu Natal.
“Growing up, black children didn’t have a lot of options when it came to sports. We were only allowed to participate in athletics, boxing and football. Luckily for me, football was my first love,” Mkhalele said.
He appreciates his father who showed support for his big brothers’ career which inspired Mkhalele to work even harder.
“My father used to accommodate my brothers’ friends who were from Escort, Ladysmith and Bergville. He was very supportive to us. Unfortunately he had a stroke in 1989 and passed on in 1994,” he added.
The Bafana legend admits that his father’s sickness affected him, however he has always had great mentors in his life.
“I played for Fast 11 which was a semi-professional club, we supported each other so much as teammates and also taught one another how to live with people. We had no money but the brotherhood was amazing,”
One of the managers in the team was trying to get Mkhalele to play for Sharp Black Pool, which was a very strong team with the likes of Jerry Sikhosane and the late John Shoes Mosheou. The winger then got an opportunity to go to Jomo Cosmos for trials in Soweto, Orlando Stadium.
“Jomo Cosmos was known for recruiting young players. I attended the trials where there were about 3000 players. I was nervous sis wami (my sister) because it was my first time in Johannesburg and at the Orlando Stadium that we only saw on TV. I got to see Jomo Sono for the first time as well and I was star struck,” he laughed.
“I didn’t even play for more than 5 minutes. Bra J (Jomo Sono) called me on the side and said I must join the other team that was already training. Me and Linda Buthelezi actually signed for Jomo on the same day,” he reminisced.
The season used to start in February but the trialists had to come to camp early so they can get on with the training.
“The intensity was high. Our training sessions were like an official game. When the senior players came later that month to join us, I remember meeting Phil Masinga, Innocent Mncwango and Sizwe Motaung. Me and Sizwe grew up together in Newcastle but they were so big because of the training and smelled of Baby oil because they were already making money,” he added.
Mkhalele’s relationship with Jomo Sono grew closer and Sono drove with him to Bloemfontein as he wasn’t part of the 18 men squad who was going to play against Bloemfontein Celtic on that day.
“Bra J gave me a lift to Bloem. When we got there, Laurence “Sister Monica” Siyangaphi got sick before the game. Roy Matthews and Bra J told me to dress up so I could replace him. I warmed up and I didn’t even know that I had to wait for the referee to give me permission to go inside the field. I just finished warming up and went inside. The ref gave me a yellow card, so ya I got a yellow card for my first professional game,” Mkhalele added.
The competition at the Bafana Bafana camp was very intense at the time and Mkhalele didn’t think with his move to Orlando Pirates he had attracted the likes of then Bafana coach, Clive Barker.
“I got a call from Clive Barker after a game with Pirates in Durban. I honestly didn’t expect it considering the fact that Bush Bucks was still on fire, Amazulu still had players like Simon Magagula and Sundowns had Joel ‘Fire’ Masilela,” he explained.
“When I got to the camp there was Marks Makoponyane and John ‘Shoes’ Mosheou and these were players that I looked up to,” he added.
He reminisces on how amazing Clive Barker was as a coach and the relationship the players had with each other.
“Barker was the type of coach that encouraged us to believe in our strengths. I used to play as a winger which meant I was closer to the coaches bench. He always used to encourage me during games to dribble and take on the players,” he added.
Mkhalele’s opportunity to join Orlando Pirates came at the time when Jomo Cosmos had been relegated.
“My plan for that season was to help Cosmos get back on top. However I got a call from Dr Irvin Khoza asking me if I was interested in joining Orlando Pirates. I told him that I was and asked him to speak to Bra J first. He laughed and said I must look outside the window,”
The winger remembers that outside his home in Newcastle was a Mazda and Dr Khoza asked him to pack his bag, get in the car so he could have a meeting with him in Johannesburg.
“When I got to the meeting, the teams had reached an agreement. I signed the contract on the day. The team had very powerful players the likes of David Nyathi, Marks Maponyane and John Moeti. Our team spirit was everything,” he added.
He also acknowledged that because there were no cellphones at the time, as teammates they managed to connect with each other better when they were traveling.
“I remember when we qualified for the Club African Champions which is now called CAF Champions League. We used to travel long hours, for example when going to Nigeria we would connect via London. It gave us time to get to know each other. We also used to swim together, play tennis and cards at the hotel. I think this contributed to us winning the league in 1994 and being crowned African Champions the following year,” he remembers.
Mkhalele has also been an assistant coach alongside, Coach Thabo Senong for the National U20 team which saw them going to the AFCON twice as well as the World Cup.
“I will forever be grateful to coach Senong for the opportunity. I learnt a lot from him as a coach. This opportunity also helped me share my experiences with the players as a former national team player myself,” he said.
The former Orlando Pirates player also spearheaded a campaign with Betway where they were scouting for talent in Ghana.
“I was inspired when I went to Ghana because of the professionalism of their young players. Those boys are hungry for an opportunity. I feel there’s a lot that needs to be done in South Africa regarding our development including improving the players technical and tactical skills at a very young age,” he added.
He said as a footballer you always know that you need something to fall back on to, which inspired him to study and start his own company.
“When I retired I used to work for a Health & Safety Company. I later got my qualification in Health & Safety. I have my own company where we do First Aid Training and almost every training under the Health & Safety portfolio. I always encourage young players to focus on education,” he concluded.