Before going on to forge a successful coaching career which has taken him to the United States of America, where he currently resides, former Bidvest Wits defender Bradley Carnell enjoyed a stellar playing career lasting close to two decades.
It all started for the New York Red Bulls assistant coach at Wits University in 1993 where he became one of the youngest players to play top-flight football in South Africa.
Carnell would join Castle Premiership rivals Kaizer Chiefs in 1997 before spending the next 12 years of his career in Germany where he most notable enjoyed five successful years at VfB Stuttgart.
In total, he played over 200 games across Germany’s top two divisions (Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga) and won over 40 caps for Bafana Bafana — playing at the 2002 FIFA World Cup –before hanging up his boots following a short spell with SuperSport United in 2011.
We caught up with the now 43-year-old who was happy to reflect on his early days playing for Wits University (Bidvest Wits) and how his time at the club moulded him into the successful player he would quickly become.
Bidvest Wits: How did it happen that you made your debut for Wits University at the tender age of 16, can you remember those early years of year career?
Bradley Carnell: I was training with the first team as a 15 year old. Terry Paine was the head coach, assisted by Stan Whiting who was the CEO of Wits sometime after. Stan and I lived in the same area, so basically what happened is that he invited me to training,
Terry came and watched me play a game at my amateur club at Robertsham Callies and from there they invited me to train and it was clear for Terry that he wanted me to be part of the team.
I signed on my 16th birthday, those were he rules back then and I think like two weeks later I made my debut. He put faith in the youngster, I was eager and willing to learn. I was ambitious and hungry for success.
Bidvest Wits: Not too long after you’d make a huge impact in the 1995 BP Top 8 Cup final by scoring a brace in the club’s 2-0 win over Kaizer Chiefs. What do you recall from that match?
Bradley Carnell: It is funny, I managed to find an external hard drive of mine the other day and there are a few clips of that game. It was really enjoyable and refreshing to go through those highlights and it is amazing how time flies. I just remember being fearless, that is something that has always been part of my culture and character, not having ‘respect’ for the opposition and enjoying the underdog role.
I think as Wits University back then we really enjoyed the underdog tag, we were all fearless. We had some really good fighters, we might not have had the most talented footballers but we were the hardest to play against and I think that is what stood us apart from teams back then, and that is why we could embrace those challenges back then.
I think the first goal was a corner-kick, there was a rebound and I was the first to react and I hit a low drive past Brian Baloyi and into the side of the net.
The second one was also a corner-kick which I actually won and then took the set-piece which Brian came out and punched straight into my direction, I took a terrible first touch and then just decided to whip it back into the box and lucky for me, the ball just kept on travelling and travelling and Neil Tovey and Brian sort of clashed on the goal line and the ball dropped in under the crossbar. That is something that really sparked my career in a big way.
Bidvest Wits: Wits would cap an incredible year with another cup final and another win with a 1-0 victory over Orlando Pirates in the Coca-Cola Cup thanks to a goal from Benson Otiti. What do you remember from that match?
Bradley Carnell: I don’t have too many recollections of that game, I just remember that we had a dream run to the cup, and I think the team stood apart, our team culture, team dynamic and spirt which carried us through those times.
We had a really small salary budget so we had to find other ways and means to get out on top. Bigger teams hated to play against us, they tried to play fancy or with a swagger where the Wits of that era didn’t care about that, they just went straight at it. Individually we showed no fear to the opposition.
Bidvest Wits:You played alongside quite a few iconic names during your time with the Clever Boys. Who would you say is the best player you played with at Wits University?
Bradley Carnell: I mean I think of names like Scara Thindwa. I really enjoyed his guidance and leadership, he was at the end of his career and he was such a calm and soothing character. We had a wild bunch in that team, he was one guy who was really modest and it was fun playing with him and learning from him, a really technically gifted player.
Peter Gordon for sure, Rowan Malgue, Mike Rowbotham, Steve Crowley — we had a really good bunch. I really enjoyed Lovers Mohlala, he was very talented.
Very good youngsters mixed with some really good older professionals who were old school and I think that is what grounded me. I had to fit in or they’d never accept the younger guys.
Obviously I also played with Marc Batchelor as well, it was a fun experience, me being 16 years of age and my teammates being married with two kids I suppose — it was a good upbringing for me and to learn what it takes to become a professional and what it takes to succeed, I am really grateful for those roots back then.
Another is Stanton Fredericks. ‘Stiga’ and myself still have a great relationship: started our careers at Wits, played for the national team together, spent a lot of time on the road and he remains one of my biggest buddies until today.
Bidvest Wits: In summary, how would you say the club prepared you for life as a professional?
Bradley Carnell: Everything that Wits had to offer we really had to work for. During that time that is what was important: the amount of games I was playing, the contribution I was making to the team. Only then did I start dreaming of a career abroad. I think just being grounded, working hard and that things will take time and all good things will follow.