As of today, there are 123 days to go before this country’s Russia 2018 qualifying campaign resumes. If that seems like enough time for head coach Stephen Hart to have a national team on the pitch that is focused, disciplined and – most of all – united, the rumours of internal strife and evidence of shoddy defending and lethargic play suggest that he is already running against the clock.
Football in Trinidad and Tobago may not begin or end with getting to the next senior men’s World Cup finals, but at a time when the nation needs to identify with something, some entity that can pull us together instead of tearing us apart, there is nothing like the galvanising power of the most popular sport on the planet and the prospect of returning to its grandest stage to be that positive, unifying force.
Yet even if all those bigger-picture issues were cast aside, this team has already shown itself to be a much more effective unit under Hart’s supervision than what was depressingly apparent in those opening two games of the final phase of CONCACAF qualification at home to Costa Rica and then in Honduras last week. So it’s not as if we are looking for a miracle, just a return at the very least to the form that was evident over the previous two years against the very best in our region.
He will know better than anyone as to what ails this squad, but the coach may still need to step back and seek the counsel of those in the game whom he respects for a brutally frank analysis of where the shortcomings lie and whether they can be resolved tactically, with a change of personnel on the field or some other factor that may not yet be immediately apparent. Whatever he decides, it can’t possibly be business and usual.
If honest assessment reveals that Kenwyne Jones cannot command the respect of all or at least the vast majority of his teammates, then the captain’s armband has to be passed on to someone else. While Hart insists that the big striker is still making a contribution to the team effort, the evidence on the field of play is increasingly less convincing.
This is not about bowing to the will of those who feel booing and jeering an under-performing player is in any way helpful to the cause, but a matter of priorities. With two defeats and eight games left next year - starting with home fixtures against Panama and Mexico within the space of five days - there is no breathing room left in the quest for qualification, as if there was ever any in the first place.
As easy and as visible a target as he is for the critics, Jones is not alone as a source of concern. Perennial lamentations about the frailty of the defence under consistent pressure, the lapses in concentration and the lack of discipline which are revealed in opposing attackers getting around the wingbacks or scything through the heart of the back line, speak to a weakness that seems almost chronic.
More than anything else though, Hart has to deal with what is arguably the greatest challenge: reclaiming the dressing room, getting all who wear the Trinidad and Tobago shirt to play for him and for the country, putting aside whatever personal issues (as there always will be among disparate personalities) to give 100 per cent from the first to the final whistle.
That clearly hasn’t been happening for the last four or five games, and it isn’t just about lack of cohesion. National women’s team captain Maylee Attin-Johnson observed succinctly that you can’t expect to play a full 90 minutes properly when your training is only worth 60 minutes. Whether or not the fitness deficiency is a consequence of internal strife, it is up to the coach to deal with it.
We are not alone in tolerating, mollycoddling and even celebrating outstanding talents to the extent of making them apart from collective rules and regulations. That culture of exceptionalism often has damaging consequences and is extremely difficult to rein in as subsequent offenders invariably point accusing fingers at the beneficiaries of special treatment.
Well, if that is the case in this Trinidad and Tobago squad, it is up to Hart to weed out the strangulating culture, re-draw the line and hold everyone, including himself, to whatever standard is determined as the only way to keep the country in with a realistic chance of emulating the road to Germany, even if it has to be a fourth-placed finish again and the drama of a playoff.
Playing for the country is not a right but a privilege. Those who see it any other way cannot be part of the rest of the journey.