The real-life tales of a football writer
Aaron Mokoena will again be a proud man when he leads South Africa out against Uruguay in Pretoria today.
The South African lived in Manchester while he was at Blackburn Rovers until last summer, when he left Ewood Park for Portsmouth.
He had a choice of Wolves or Portsmouth, but said he chose the latter because it was near the sea and he wanted a little boat.
I met Aaron in January 2005 when he moved from Belgium to Blackburn after a successful trial. His manager asked me to point him in the right direction. There are a lot of sharks in Manchester’s goldfish bowl if you’re a Premiership footballer and not every player has Sir Alex Ferguson looking out for them at every corner.
Mokoena was a young lad in an alien city, but he loved life in England. At first he lived in the centre of town before buying a house near the airport, which he now rents to Dimitar Berbatov.
Socially, Mokoena’s partner in crime was Benni McCarthy and the pair would often go out in Manchester. I took them to a nice bar one night soon after Mokoena signed. Hairdressers from Walkden and smartie heads from Prestwich marched in with a nod and a wink, but the doormen wouldn’t let us in.
“Sorry lads, not tonight.”
Benni was the second highest scorer in the Premiership at the time, Mokoena the captain of South Africa. Thankfully, neither were tempted to give it the ‘Do you know who I am?
In different circumstances and at a later date, the bar’s owner made a fuss of them and invited them to the VIP section. He’d no idea that they’d been refused entry. The pair remembered and never went. Holden Caulfield was right. Life is full of phonies.
A driving ban – Mokoena’s grasp of the term ‘car insurance’ was somewhat sketchy – meant my brother Joz drove Mokoena to training each morning.
Both daft footballers, they became good mates. Aaron would have what Joz called “crap South African Umba Bumba music” blaring; my brother would introduce him to the finer aspects of Manchester music and teach him some Manc slang – a melding of cultures brought together through football.
Joz – who Aaron called ‘Big Man’ - was a plumber who played semi-pro at the likes of Ashton and Altrincham, Mokoena an £18,000 a week Premiership footballer who plied his trade at Old Trafford and Anfield.
Because he played for Blackburn and not United or City, he went about his business in Manchester virtually unrecognised.
One day, he took Joz to have a haircut in Moss Side. Joz was the only white man in there and couldn’t understand the patois. He asked for a grade three, which Aaron changed to ‘grade one all over.’
Joz walked out with blood on his head and fifteen Afro-Caribbean men laughing at him.
Mokoena would go to watch Joz play. He saw Flixton at Salford City in front of 187 fans. The friendly Salford officials had no idea who he was as he paid his £5 to enter Moor Lane, but one suggested he move his expensive car inside the ground for safety.
Mokoena bought a programme, a ticket for the draw and went in the clubhouse after the game. We introduced him to pie, peas and gravy and he enjoyed it so much that he ordered the same again.
When Mokoena was playing United’s key opponents, we’d tell him the importance of raising his game. Perhaps he took it too literally in one tackle on Chelsea’s Arjen Robben, but while television highlighted the horror of Robben’s face as his foot was broken, Mokoena was contrite.
“It was an accident,” he said in the car after. “I feel really sad.”
Mokoena’s upbringing had made him tough. Known as ‘The Axe’, he had a wicked boyhood scar on his right cheek and was used to break up play by a rough Blackburn team.
At times he seemed too coarse for the Premier League, as if he’d done a term at the Paul Scholes’ school of tackling.
He grew up in the township of Boipatong, scene of a massacre in June 1992 when 42 died. His memories of that disaster were vivid and scary. His mum had even dressed him as a girl because she heard ‘they’ coming to kill young boys.
He probably looked better than in the garish white suit he wore on one return to South Africa.
“My mother raised my four brothers, two sisters and me single-handed during difficult times,” he once said. “Papa died when I was very young. But my mum is a tough woman.
“That’s probably where I get it from. She was a nanny for a white family. It was hard for her but she did all she could for us. She was always trying, trying, trying. If she had only a bit of money then she would buy me football boots. She believed in me. She taught me to be responsible.”
Mokoena had bought his mum a house when he joined Ajax and told her that she could stop working for the white family, even though they treated her like a friend. She was having none of it.
Maria Mokoena would come to Manchester and my brother would pick her up at the airport. The culture was alien to her and trips to Selfridges of Harvey Nichols didn’t impress her. She couldn’t wait to get back to South Africa.
Mokoena moved last summer. I was driving back from Hull away when he called to invite us out for a final drink. He invited us down to Portsmouth – he never did buy the dinghy to sail in the Solent - and invited my brother to the FA Cup final recently.
And he texted yesterday. “Unbelievable,” was all he wrote. He’s having the time of his life.
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