Cyd Gray made a bold statement on the eve of Trinidad and Tobago's World Cup play-off series with Bahrain.
"It's our time," he declared with no hesitation in his voice. "We going to the World Cup this time."
Gray's words turned out to be almost prophetic as history will now show that T&T beat Bahrain 2-1 on aggregate to book their first World Cup Finals place at the 11th attempt since 1966.
On November 16, 2005, the day when Dennis Lawrence's second half header gave T&T a 1-0 win in Bahrain, Gray occupied the right full-back position and was instrumental in keeping the home team out in the final crucial moments. Until then, Gray had mostly been on the fringe of the national team.
Like many in Trinidad and Tobago, Cyd Gray remembers the painful feelings felt after T&T lost 1-0 to the United States 16 years ago. As a Tobago schoolboy, he also remembers following the exploits of Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy, who are both now veterans with the current Soca Warriors. Gray admits being emptied by the crushing loss. But, by the time, T&T reached Bahrain during the most recent qualifiers, Gray felt assured that he would be among those playing on the big stage in Germany in 2006.
Like many in the "Strike Squad", Gray has suffered his personal disappointments from World Cup qualifiers. But his story is one of persistence paying off in the long run. Some still cannot forgo the image of Costa Rica's Herman Medford ghosting through the Trinidad and Tobago left flank during a one-sided World Cup qualifier in San Jose four years ago. Playing his first World Cup qualifier for Trinidad and Tobago, Gray, the right-back, was singled out for special attention.
At age 24, he had made an encouraging national debut a few weeks earlier in an international warm-up which Trinidad and Tobago easily beat Guatemala by a 3-1 margin. But, when thrown in at the deep end against Costa Rica, the Tobago defender struggled to swim. Some, in Trinidad and Tobago, almost drowned him in criticism. But, to be fair, everyone played bad that day. Gray still remembers that nightmarish day.
"I get a lot of pound, but I just take it in stride. I was very disappointed about the whole game, but at the same time I didn't think I played that badly. The whole team played bad," he says.
Admittedly, Cyd Gray has done some stupid things on the football field. He can be awe-inspiring by his raw aggression and tireless work-rate and just as frustrating through his moments of rashness and perceived lack of concentration.
Keyeno Thomas, his fellow defender at CL Financial San Juan Jabloteh, felt that frustration a few months ago during the local professional season when a rash tackle on Andre Toussaint saw Gray being sent off during a crucial match late in the season. All season long, they had been chasing eventual champions W. Connection and needed to win. Thomas said nothing as his team-mate walked off the field, but his piercing glare and repeatedly shaking of the head spoke their own words. That is the enigma that Gray presents to the public-hardworking with a never-say-die attitude, but capable of the odd moments of rashness.
Who can forget the costly mistake at the CONCACAF Gold Cup which cost Trinidad and Tobago a goal against Panama.
Obviously Gray clearly registers the incident when he unwisely stooped to head away a low pass out the T&T defence, when it would have been much easier to kick it away. He ended up passing the ball to a Panamanian striker Luis Tejada who scored.
Like his more famous Tobagonian team-mate Dwight Yorke, Cyd Gray has learnt to sport a toothy grin in the face of adversity and to get on with things. Not that he overlooks his mistakes, but instead learns from them.
"I got a lot of stick for that (Panama)," he admits. "But you know, people make mistakes. Everyone does it. I just have to learn from it."
One agrees with the things he does on the field or not, no one questions what national coach Leo Beenhakker, the former Real Madrid coach, sees in him. Beenhakker raised a few eyebrows when giving Gray a starting position against Mexico towards the end of the CONCACAF World cup qualifying campaign.
The game was perhaps Trinidad and Tobago's toughest of the qualifying campaign, one which the Soca Warriors needed to win. Often isolated against the speedy Guillermo Franco on the flank, Gray foiled every attempt by the Mexicans to free the attacker. Stopper Marvin Andrews was not always covering as well as he should, and had Gray missed just one tackle, the Mexican would have been in. But, the 29-year-old Tobagonian stood solid as a rock. Gray confessed that he was motivated for the match.
"I learnt a lot from my first experience in a World Cup qualifier (Costa Rica)," he said. Now, I am a lot older...wiser. Against Mexico I was really motivated. First, it was a game we had to win and I also wanted to go out there and show people that I should be in the team."
Cyd Gray first came to prominence as a schoolboy when Roxborough Composite made a rare trip to Trinidad as schoolboy football champions of the sister isle. It was one of the few years in which Signal Hill, the school which produced Dwight Yorke, had not won the Tobago League. Backed by goals from Cyd Gray, Roxborough caused the upset that year. Yes, Gray was a striker back then, putting in goals that led to consecutive Tobago league titles for Roxborough.
Following his schooldays, Gray lined up with Tobago's Roxborough Lakers, before moving to Trinidad in 1997 to join Joe Public. It was while at Joe Public that former national coach Muhammad Isa wanted a right back and Gray was converted to fit the position. He admits that now he is comfortable at the back of the field and cannot see himself reverting to his former role. After five seasons with the Eastern Lions, Gray moved to his current club CL Financial San Juan Jabloteh. His time there has largely been fruitful except for last season when he struggled to get into the team under then English coach Stephen Rutter. He credits the return of another Englishman Terry Fenwick for restarting his club career and the coming of Dutchman Beenhakker for a second chance at an international one.
Beenhakker spotted Gray during a Cup final in which he had a particularly good game. Gray feels that Beenhakker must have recognised the same quality, which Fenwick sees in him.
"I think it was my aggression and work rate which the coach (Beenhakker) saw. Also the pressure I put on the attacker and my pace in the game," he said.
Gray thinks Beenhakker brought a better sense of purpose to the Soca Warriors and that has helped with the cohesion within the team. Still, Gray recognises the role of former coach Bertille St Clair, whom he feels did a reasonably good job as national coach. He thinks St Clair should be recalled as a national youth coach.
Wherever you see him now, Gray spontaneously spouts his traditional big grin. The Soca Warriors are in the World Cup Finals. Gray has also established himself in the squad and there is also news of an upcoming trial in England as well. It seems that it is not just the Soca Warriors' time, but Cyd Gray's as well.