T&T’s senior men’s national team can celebrate the turn of the year with a positive series of performances and results, in stark contrast to those experienced in the earlier part of the year.
And, hardly a victory against any rival could satisfy T&T’s football faithful as much as a double win over Jamaica.
Taking little credit and opting to leave the public to formulate its opinion on the direction of national football, national team head coach Stephen Hart, who took up one of the most scrutinised jobs in the country roughly six months ago, will remain with his hands full en route to what the T&T Football Association (TTFA) has whole-heartedly assured as a much more promising qualification campaign for the 2018 Fifa World Cup.
In June, two weeks after initial talks with the TTFA, Hart signed a two-year contract with the new-look local governing body for football. To many, his appointment was a surprise, and with mere days before kicking off the Concacaf Gold Cup campaign, Hart, in charge of a team which failed to secure a win in the first half of 2013, was asked to carry it out of the group stage for the first time since 2000.
A positive draw, a sorry loss and a gratifying win later, he did just that. And, being eliminated at a quarterfinal stage that T&T failed to reach since 2000, the team’s confidence remained high. After all, T&T lost just 1-0 to the reigning champion, Mexico, after conceding in the 84th minute after a never-say-die performance.
Hart was clearly satisfied with his team’s turnaround, but there were test aheads in the OSN Cup in the Middle East and several important friendly fixtures.
At the close of 2013, the former Canada head coach got the team to score goals, but more importantly, he amassed four wins (Jamaica twice, Saudi Arabia and Honduras), three draws (New Zealand, UAE and El Salvador) and two losses (Mexico and Haiti). But, who is this coach that the public were calling for the head of after two matches in charge?
A midfielder in his playing days for clubs both in T&T and in Canada, who earned a handful of caps (country appearance) fulfilling a dream from as young as 10 years old, was a 53-year-old San Fernando native.
When he picked up coaching at King of Donair in the city of Halifax, Canada, the job carried him into the role of technical director in the province of Nova Scotia, before he became coach of Canada’s Under-17 team.
The window for Canada’s assistant coach position opened, followed by the technical director’s, before Canada’s senior men’s national team. Then came T&T knocking. It was an opportunity he took with open arms.
But, he was not too sure what lay ahead, apart from his challenge at the Gold Cup.
“When you take a job, you are never sure what you are getting into. My thoughts were simply to do everything possible (to help T&T football move forward) from a technical standpoint, and build the programme.”
He was required to make a transition from head coach of Canada to T&T, which he described as a “gamble in hindsight”.
“It was not that difficult,” he said. “The circumstances under which I took the job, that is, straight into a major tournament (Gold Cup), no international games for the build-up, in hindsight was a gamble. After game two, people were saying, ‘sack Stephen Hart’. No honeymoon period,” Hart said smiling. Since joining, he has faced some tricky situations, even though he described the workings of the TTFA and the Canadian Soccer Association as “very similar”.
“The CSA had limited funding and resources especially on the men’s side. I believe in my time, the men’s budget was just over $1 million, which included salaries. Staffing on the senior men was limited to only three full time positions and everyone else operated on an honorarium basis. One was not always in a position to play on every Fifa date. This gradually improved.”
Turning to the TTFA, Hart said, “The present financial situation and funding structure does not allow for long term detailed planning at the moment. Certain aspects of team management still need to be ironed out, but I believe this will be rectified. (But) the Ministry of Sport and the Sport Company have been supportive of the senior team since I have come on board. The players and myself are very grateful for their support,”
He added, “Dealing with clubs is always a give and take situation, more-so because you are dealing with players’ livelihoods. One has to be conscious about this- If you force the clubs, they pressure the player. If you pressure the player, he comes into the camp with his mind not focused. For small countries it’s a lose lose situation.”
Hart has been visible around local grounds since joining as head coach, being seen at TT Pro League, National Super League and Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL) matches. Asked specifically on the standard of TT Pro League, as it feeds a large portion of players for the senior team, he said, “When I attend games, I am looking at and for individual performances, and in that respect, I see players with potential. There is no doubt that T&T has a large talent base.
The league, like any other, has good games and not so good games. Teams know each other well and players are familiar with each other. Just judging from the outside, teams are organized and structured, so from that respect they are well coached. Sometimes the evaluation of players is difficult, because in many instances, players have a lot of space to play. This is especially true at the youth levels.”