Heart-to-Hart: T&T coach discusses Gold Cup and immediate goals
In many fields of endeavour, a move from Canada to Trinidad and Tobago would be considered a demotion. But the business of football or soccer, as the North American nation refers to the sport, is not one of them.
New Trinidad and Tobago national senior team head coach Stephen Hart admitted that he sent his CV to the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) on several occasions while he was a national youth coach in Canada before he was finally hired in June.
“As Canada coach, I had probably 30 players that I could reasonably expect to meet the level of international football,” Hart told Wired868. “Canada doesn’t even have a proper league competition.”
The Major League Soccer (MLS) has three franchises in Canada but, Hart explained, they are essentially United States teams in everything but location. Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC and Montreal Impact combined have just 14 Canadians on their roster.
After catching the eye as Nova Scotia province technical director, Hart moved around between the various youth teams before being named interim senior head coach in 2006. But there only ever seemed to be grudging respect from the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA).
At the 2007 Gold Cup, Hart led Canada to the semifinals as interim boss but he was out of a job after the final whistle as the CSA opted to make local boy Dale Mitchell its full-time appointee.
Hart was recalled for another stint as interim in April 2009 and, three months later, he had helped Canada top a Gold Cup group which included Costa Rica, Jamaica and El Salvador on the way to a quarterfinal elimination. Still, it took another six months before the CSA finally removed the word “interim” from Hart’s job title as Canada prepared for their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Under Hart, Canada embarked on an unbeaten nine-match qualifying run, which included six wins, before their first loss away to Panama. The Canadians rebounded with a 3-0 home win over Cuba and needed just one point from their 16 October 2012 away fixture to Honduras to advance to the final qualifying round. In the event, they scored once and conceded four goals in each half.
In the wake of the disappointing 8-1 defeat, Hart offered his resignation; the CSA accepted it.
“I’m not sure if a game like that will ever get out of your system,” he said. “A lot of coaches contacted me after and said they had been through situations like that. But when it is your last game, it is very hard to get it out of your system.
“Neither myself and my players ever discussed that game in the media ever… That game remains my lesson and I prefer to leave it like that.”
Eight months later, Hart got the call he had always hoped for; the TTFA was interested. But his appointment displaced the duo of interim joint head coaches, Hutson “Barber” Charles and Jamaal Shabazz.
Charles agreed to stay on as the new man’s assistant; Shabazz declined the offer.
“I didn’t create the situation,” said Hart. “If it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else.”
Charles and assistant coach Derek King eventually warmed to Hart as did the players whom he frequently met in group and private meetings.
“Emotionally, the players have been through so much since 2006,” said Hart, “with a blacklist, lawsuit, being stranded at a hotel (during the Caribbean Cup qualifiers) and so on…”
With successful 2006 World Cup Leo Beenhakker within arm’s reach as director of football, Hart set about working on the shape of the squad and the players’ mental approach. He paid particular attention to Stoke City striker Kenwyne Jones.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of criticism Kenwyne got,” said Hart. “One of the first things I did was to have a long chat with him and try to take the pressure off.”
Hart’s faith was rewarded with noticeably improved performances and exemplary leadership from Jones, who scored two of Trinidad and Tobago’s four goals at the Gold Cup.
In the opening 2-2 draw against El Salvador, Jones scored a fine solo effort but he was also booked for dissent by referee Marco Antonio Rodriguez. For the rest of the competition, there were no further shows of petulance from the striker requiring official sanction.
“We had a debate after the game,” said Hart. “Kenwyne said he was right; I told him the referee is the one with the cards so he is right.”
Despite the fair start against El Salvador, Hart’s Warriors needed a win against Honduras to stay alive after a 2-0 loss to Haiti in the second group match.
The 8-1 loss to Honduras in 2012, he insisted, never crossed his mind but perhaps the lessons learnt from that whipping served him well.
“I will never (again) assume the game in itself is enough to motivate players,” said Hart, referring to his final match as Canada coach. “That’s for sure. And I would say never go against your instincts.”
A groin injury forced Middlesbrough right-back Justin Hoyte out of the Honduras match while Joevin Jones complained about his hamstring. Others in the camp reported muscular problems.
“The players were not match fit and some had not played football in two months,” said Hart. “Some of the other coaches thought we were crazy not to have played more than two or three internationals going into the tournament… Only one injury in the tournament was a contact injury; everything else was muscle.”
Hart opted to replace half of his outfield squad for the game; the result was an encouraging 2-0 win.
“The difference between the starters and the substitutes was not great at that point,” he said, “and it is important for players to know that they can be replaced at any time.
“Good teams are competitive.”
He insisted that the demotion of team captain Densill Theobald—whom he described as an exemplary team leader—to the substitutes’ bench, along with four other players, was merely a case of introducing fresh legs.
“I thought Densill had given everything physically and mentally at that point,” said Hart. “Him and Carlos (Edwards)…”
Central defender Radanfah Abu Bakr was a surprise pick for the crucial game. But Hart had been impressed by the Kazakhastan-based defender’s professionalism and temperament. More of a gamble was athletic Connection defender Daneil Cyrus.
Hart explained that it was his assistants, Charles and King, who asked: “You know he can play right back too?’
“I said: ‘Are you sure?’ So, I used him there in a few sessions and it was the best I had seen him train.”
Striker Cornell Glen and attacker Kevin Molino also breathed fresh life into the squad’s offensive play as Hart continued to chop and change in his quest to find a deep-lying central attacker to work in tandem with Jones (K) and a winger capable of darting inside to help his striker.
Against Honduras, Glen and Molino appeared to solve the twin problem although the former often seemed more of an orthodox forward than an advanced playmaker. Glen won a penalty, converted by Jones (K), while Molino cut in off the flank to score the second.
But suspension rendered Molino unavailable for the quarterfinal match against Mexico and Hart claimed that only a couple of his substitutes were physically ready for that fixture.
“We only had two healthy outfield players on the bench,” he said, “and I didn’t think that they were the changes we needed until late in the game. (Chris) Birchall was already warmed up when the (Mexican) goal was scored.”
Hart is still surprised at the shortage of Trinidad and Tobago players capable of outfoxing opposing defenders.
“Where have the dribblers gone?” asked Hart. “I think it is very important that coaches remember that they must also run sessions to encourage individual talent and show players how to use their skill as a tactic and take away their fear of losing the ball.
“I bet no one ever told (Lionel Messi) or (Cristiano) Ronaldo not to dribble.”
He made clear that he was using the word ‘dribbling’ to mean ‘disrupting the opposing defence’ and not just doing tricks that do not yield any real advantage for the team.
“An example is Russell Latapy against Guatemala in the 2006 qualifiers,” said Hart. “He ran at the defence who backed into their penalty area and he created room with a move and then finished. That is someone who knows how to use dribbling as a tactic.”
Hart is looking forward to playing his part in improving the local game over the next two years. He already has some ideas about how to achieve that but he prefers to wait until the start of the Pro League and formal discussions with local coaches before making any public pronouncements.
“I want to know how they think I can help them,” Hart explained. “If they say by staying away, then fine. But they also have to realise that they have a huge role to play in the development of the national team. The best national organisations work well in unison and not separately.”
He also fired an early shot across the bow of the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL).
This season, for instance, T&TEC attacker Nathaniel Garcia and Central FC goalkeeper Quesi Weston have both left the Pro League to return to the SSFL. Hart thinks such moves only hinder the development of local players.
“I think school football should be 17 or under,” said Hart. “Around the world, players who are 18 and 19 are entering professional football environments where they learn to live the life of a footballer on and off the field. And they are playing very competitive games.
“Our competitors are developing their players younger than us… You are still playing school football at 20 and coming up against a boy who is 14 or 15. You couldn’t get such a match-up in boxing.”
The Warriors will play their first post-Gold Cup international fixtures next month in a four-nation tournament in Saudi Arabia. Change is expected. Already Port Vale midfielder Chris Birchall has announced his retirement from international football while Ipswich Town flanker Carlos Edwards and Defence Force striker Devorn Jorsling are reported to be also flirting with the idea.
Hart wants to keep some experienced players within his ranks with a view to helping speed up the younger players’ understanding of the international game although he also intends to widen his player pool.
“My first impression of (Lester) Peltier is that he can bring penetration to the national team,” he said, “which we haven’t had since Carlos (Edwards) was a young man. I would like to see (Robert) Primus and (Sheldon) Bateau too…”
The tactical changes will come slowly. He said that it is difficult to make radical change when you have a short time with players who are spread all over the world and are playing in very different football cultures. So, initially, he will keep things as simple as possible.
But his top priorities are already identified.
“Our fitness levels have to be better and we have to protect the ball better,” said Hart. “Even through your naked eye, when you look at the sprinting and recovery of teams like Panama and Mexico, you can tell that they have higher fitness levels than us.
“We made a lot of elementary mistakes when asked to play faster and our decision-making was hurried and not measured.”
Some 27 years ago, Hart’s hope was to return to the land of his birth to help save T&T’s treasured coral reef. Now, after almost three decades abroad, it is the country’s beloved football team he has come back to try to restore.
“It is a fantastic opportunity (for me),” he said. “It is not only a dream come true but it is a job that has been in the back of my mind for many years now.”
Home, you might say, is finally where the Hart is.