HARARE – The saying “fortune knocks at a man’s door once” rings true to former Shabanie Mine and Mhangura Football Club midfield kingpin John Phiri (not to be confused with the former Zimbabwe international of the same name).
“Senior”, as he was affectionately known in recognition of his solidity in midfield, Phiri could not stomach leaving the mine compound life that he had become accustomed to, for what would have been a career-changing move to Zimbabwean Premiership giants, Black Aces, in 1988.
“I was spotted by (Aces coach) Steve Kwashi, who took me to the capital and I stayed with him at his Mabelreign house,” Phiri tells the Daily News.
“But I was only there for two months, it was off-season and I returned back to Shabanie before the season started because chi mine chainge chakandipinda (I was so used to mine lifestyle.”
“If it was a penalty I would have asked for a retake, it is one blunder I regret my whole life. It is such decisions footballers make that change their lives for the better or the worst. In my case, I fully regret walking out on Aces, I know I would have been a better player than the one I became during my career.”
Had he stayed at Black Aces, he would have played alongside players such as Arthur Tutani, Charles Kaseke, Albert Mabika and Paddington Zhanje.
Phiri started off as an Under-16 defender for Shabanie Mine’s developmental side while the senior team played in division one in 1983. Three years later, he moved to Shangani Mine, who played in division two, and commanded a regular jersey.
As he searched for a better place to advance his football, Phiri found himself at Rio Dairybody but because the team “wasn’t organised”, the move lasted just two weeks. He went back to Shangani for less than a month before settling fulltime at Shabanie Mine.
He was the leading goal scorer at Shabanie under Shaw Handriade.
Zimbabwe Saints came calling, but Handriade would have none of it. The midfielder finally switched base to Mhangura in 1989, the year the team was promoted into the top flight league.
“I played as a left wing in my first year at Mhangura with Philmon Phiri as our head coach,” he says.
“David Mwanza took over in 1991, this is when I started playing as a midfielder and in 1995 we qualified for the BP Cup final against Dynamos with Webster Chikabala being the new coach. We lost 4-0 to Dynamos.”
At Mhangura, he teamed up with such players as the late Benjamin Zulu, Jani Milanzi, Gift Kamuriwo, Luke Petros, Joe Sauti (late) and Clifford Makiyi.
Mhangura qualified again for the BP Cup final, this time to play against CAPS United.
They lost 1-0 at Rufaro Stadium before winning by the same margin at their adopted home ground, the National Sports Stadium, but to their surprise the trophy was awarded to CAPS.
“It was a bitter pill to swallow, losing the Cup through that day light robbery, it was a two-legged final but the organisers decided to have the reverse fixture at the National Sports because they felt Mhangura was too remote for such a high profile Cup final,” Phiri adds.
“Although we won the return leg they said we were not at home hence CAPS had won it on away goal’s rule, we tried to protest but no one was there to help our cause.”
Flash forward to 2009, Phiri, now employed as the head coach of Shabanie Mine, won the Premiership playoffs against Quelaton courtesy of away goal’s rule to qualify to gain promotion. The team had topped the Central Region division one with five points. They had dismissed Zim Saints 3-1 at Maglas before Quelaton won a court battle that gave them the right to play in the playoffs.
The first leg ended nil all at Maglas.
“The whole camp was so dejected, Sunday Marimo (now Chidzambwa) was at the stadium, called me in the evening and told me how he had managed to turn the table in Mozambique (with Dynamos) against Ferroviário,” he says.
“I was motivated by his words and as fate would have it, we went on to draw 2-2 in Bulawayo and qualify for the Premiership despite being 10-man down 15 minutes into the match. This was one of my happiest moments in my career.”
He singles out the worst experiences of his career as his failure to play for Zimbabwe and Shabanie’s relegation in 2006.
“I was unfortunate with national team call-ups because it appears every time I had a chance to be called up, the coaches would either leave because of poor results, one such example was with Armando Ferreira.”
Phiri currently works as a plant operator at Shabanie Mine.
He is still involved in coaching, having guided FC Platinum’s Under-19 side from division two to division one in his first year with the team.