Thabo Senong is among a list of coaches such as Carlos Alberto Parreira, Arsene Wenger, Gerard Houllier and Jose Mourinho, who have never played professional football, but have had successful careers in coaching. The Soweto born coach arrived in Lesotho to take over the Likuena coaching job with an impressive CV having taken the South African U-20 team to back-to-back FIFA World Cup tournaments.

Senong (TS) chats to the LeFA website about his coaching journey that started as a 20-year-old and his ambitions to transform the Lesotho national team into a competitive side.

LeFA: Where did it all start for Thabo Senong?

TS: My journey has been different as compared to many coaches, who started off as professional players and then became coaches. I started at the age of 20, without any professional playing experience. I didn’t get the football knowledge from inside the game. I had to seek knowledge outside the game by attending workshops; Dutch KNBV courses, SAFA and CAF courses. I was extremely curious about football solutions. I watched lots of football, took notes and analyzed tactics. I had in depth discussions with professional coaches, players and other experts. I coached at Orlando Pirates, Diambars Academy, Mamelodi Sundowns and then the SAFA national teams before coming to Lesotho to coach Likuena.

LeFA: Football activities in the country have been put on hold since March due to the Corona Virus Pandemic. How difficult has it been for you without football?

TS: Not attending football matches on weekends has been a major challenge on my side because it’s a lifestyle. I enjoy talking to the football fraternity about the game. So, yes, our interactions have been limited these days. We try to utilize this period by reading, reflecting, monitoring and re-designing our plans.

LeFA: What kept you going during this difficult period?

TS: Reading, exercising, watching football on television, attending online webinars and communicating with the coaches and players.LeFA: How would you describe your time working for the South Africa Football Association (SAFA)?

TS: My period at SAFA was very productive. We transformed the image of our junior national teams and discovered many talented young players. I won COSAFA trophies as the head coach for the Under-20 team and as the assistant coach for Bafana Bafana. We qualified for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Youth Championship three times and qualified for back-to-back FIFA U-20 World Cups. I leant a lot and will forever remain grateful to SAFA, former colleagues, the South African football fraternity at large and my mentor-Mr Shakes Mashaba. I’m grateful to all the players I coached in the national teams because they made me the coach I am today. I have moved on to my new challenge of transforming the Lesotho Senior National team (Likuena) to be an exciting and competitive team.
SAFA is a big institution and it was an honour to serve my country in any capacity. I learnt a lot from various operational departments and the SAFA staff members.

LeFA: Talking of making Likuena an exciting and competitive team, your mentor Shakes Mashaba always emphasized the importance of doing well in the COSAFA tournaments. How important will it be for you to do well with Likuena, who last reached the final in 2000?

TS: The Likuena dream team of 2000 was a good side. I read a lot about them, they had talented players with leadership qualities and hence most of them are now coaches. They were guided by excellent leaders in the late ntate Monaheng Monyane and Ntate ‘Bomber’ Matete. We have coach Mpitsa as our assistant coach and is the product of that Likuena dream team. He told me stories about that group. Mr Marai is a winner and is important in our coaching staff. I have also had conversations with other members of that team in Mr (Tšepo) Hlojeng and (Teele) Ntšonyana and both shared their experiences with me as well. It was like a coaching course because I discovered interesting elements from their stories. It will be tough to match them; we are writing our own story without any pressure. The current side has the talent and hunger.

LeFA: Your responsibilities with the Lesotho Football Association includes overseeing the junior national teams. How important will they be in this transformation?

TS: It is very important for the junior national teams to perform well. In my view, the main objective of youth teams should be to provide a clear playing style that characterizes Lesotho’s football with integrated modern trends of the game. It should be competitive, and promote the players into the senior team without the pressure of winning cups or qualifying for tournaments at an early age (youth level). But at performance level, Likuena for example, should produce winning results with a clear playing style while using graduates from our junior teams. That’s the reason we have Mr Motolo Makepe (U-17) and Mr Bafokeng Mohapi (U-20) as part of the senior national team, to promote a synergy, a uniformed playing style and common tactical principles.LeFA: Likuena’s qualifying campaign for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations was disrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic. How did you rate your team’s chances of qualifying for the continental showpiece?

TS: We are in a good group (L). Sierra Leone, Benin and Nigeria have similar athletics attributes and playing styles. Very direct and attacking, they are beatable. We have the right players; our team spirit has been good and we have created a good environment in camp. We have evolved our playing system and we have a different system to approach dead ball situations in all the game phases. I trust the players because they want to win.

LeFA: Has it come as a surprise to you that Lesotho unlike their regional counterparts have just a few players plying their trade in South Africa?

TS: Yes, I’m surprised because Lesotho has very talented players and they follow South African football a lot. In a normal set-up, Lesotho should have exported many players to South African clubs, but maybe the challenge is lack of exposure, lack of live television coverage of matches and not having South African scouts coming to watch the Lesotho Premier League matches. Majority of players in Lesotho do not have good player agents/ managers that can market them and facilitate transfers. I will be happy to see more players from Lesotho moving to South African and Europeans leagues. We need more soccer academies for early development. We need player agents in the country. We need to invite scouts to watch our league matches and we also need South African teams to be our guest teams in some of the football events we have in Lesotho. The players must also come to the party and make the right sacrifices because a lifestyle of a professional footballer demands lots of discipline, a proper diet and extra training. LeFA: How would you describe your philosophy as a coach?

TS: My coaching philosophy is about maintaining an “organized chaos” combined with appreciating the natural characteristics of the players at our disposal. The “organized chaos” refers to the combination of players freedom to be creative (chaos) and the tactical structure of the team (organized). I want the players to express themselves responsibly. I believe in creating a good family environment in a team with shared human values. Africans are artistic naturally, they enjoy attacking, dribbling and entertaining. However, we need to have a good balance of discipline, applying the logic and displaying structured tactical actions to win games. I don’t worry too much about the formations because they are just numbers. Formations are influenced by the type of player we have, the opposition and other factors. I like to encourage players to be flexible and to adapt to different tactical situations because we don’t play football inside a vacuum, we play against different opponents that apply different tactics and you have to counter that. It’s like playing a game of chess. My coaching style is player focused, I want the players to own the process and the tactics. I try to promote independence on the players. Our training methods are mostly more about “guided discovery”. We encourage players to find solutions, coaches are just guiders in the process that is player centered and focused.

LeFA: What inspired you to follow a career as a football coach?

TS: Reading and observing matches coached by the late Rinus Michel, who pioneered the Dutch total football. Arrigo Sacchi with his zonal marking ideas. Shakes Mashaba, Arsene Wenger and the late Ted Dumitru. Their passion to discover and develop young talent. It’s hard to ignore leadership styles of Pep Guardiola, Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlos Alberto Parreira.