Warrior Nation Media catches up with former Trinidad & Tobago international football player and member of the famous Strike Squad team, Leonson Lewis. Leonson, who was one of this country’s most exciting and prolific forwards and known for his deadly left foot, is in Miami for a couple of days after accompanying W-Connection to Puerto Rico for the First Round of the 2006 Caribbean Football Union (CFU) Club Championship. After hammering Antiguan club Hoppers FC 5-0 and edging the home team Puerto Rico Islanders 1-0, Leonson who is part of W-Connection’s technical staff is understandably in a jovial mood. We meet at Soccer World (owned by Warrior Nation member Steve Shand) and proceed to delve into the former marksman’s football career.
LEONSON: Well, basically through my dad. At a young age I always went to see him play. He used to play for TELCO, and Searchers which is a club from Mon Repos, San Fernando where I’m from. Just seeing him play made me develop a love for the game, and since then I always wanted to be a football player.
WN: Are you the only boy in the family?
LEONSON: No. Actually, I have a younger brother who they say was much better than me, but he stopped playing at a young age. His name is Linden Lewis; he was a good ball player. I also have a younger sister.
WN: Did your father push you to play football?
LEONSON: Well actually he didn’t have to push me to play at all. I remember having to pack his bag with his football gear. When he was going to play, he would call me and say “We have ah game today, make sure yuh pack meh bag.” and he would leave it up to me to pack his bag. He didn’t have to push me to play, it was something that I always loved from since I was small and it was something that I always wanted to do. As a young player I remember there would be nights that I would be praying in my bed saying “Lord, if I could only play for the national team, I’ll be good. Just let me play for the national team.” It was just something that I always wanted to do and I just loved playing football.
WN: What position did your father play?
LEONSON: My father was a defender. He was a right wing back.
WN: So how did you end up being a forward?
LEONSON: Well originally I was a goalkeeper, I really liked goalkeeping. But my father said “Son, if yuh goalkeep ah cyar support yuh. Ah doh want yuh tuh be ah goalkeeper ah tall.” So I really have to thank him for me being a forward. I remember him telling me “I eh buying nutten fuh yuh, yuh know. Yuh hadda get yuh own stuff.” He totally discouraged me from goalkeeping. He said “Once yuh playing outside, any position, yuh getting anyting yuh want.” And he gave me everything I wanted.
WN: Were you involved in any other sports like cricket, basketball or track & field?
LEONSON: Not too much. I was involved in track a little bit because I thought it would help me with my football. I did some running with Tigers club which was based in San Fernando, but it was just the 4 x 100 metre relay. It was a small club and they needed runners, so I used it to help me with my football. I also played a little bit of basketball, but nothing to boast about. I was more focused on football.
WN: When did you first start playing organized football, and for whom?
LEONSON: I was playing organized football from a young age. When I was 10 years old, I was already playing with Searchers and then I moved to Juniors. At that time they had an under 12 division.
WN: Back then, as far as organized football goes, what did it entail? What kind of training took place?
LEONSON: Well as I was talking with Steve (owner of Soccer World) earlier, the funny thing about football is that it has evolved over the years. Back then it was a simpler game. Players seemed to know what to do when they were playing a certain position, so the coach didn’t have much work to do. And back then it seemed as though there were more talented players. Now we have to look for that talent with a torchlight. I think we made the coaches job easier back then.
WN: When you were in Secondary School …, you went to St. Benedict’s first, correct?
WN: So how did you end up at Naps?
LEONSON: A transfer of course. At that time Benedict’s was only playing senior grade football. I would leave the park (Skinners Park) and go to see people like the Williams brothers, Demmin, Kirk Diaz and Rattan play ball. After watching them, I said to myself “I want to play dat. I want to play in Intercol and have de girls screaming, and be part of dat.” So the only way to do that was to come out of St. Benedict’s and go to Naps.
WN: Were you brought in by a particular coach?
LEONSON: At that time Jan Steadman was the coach of St. Benedict’s and something happened and he ended up coaching Naps. So when he moved, he took a couple of players with him. I was one of them.
WN: Here is a name I’m sure you are familiar with: Stephen Hart (currently coaches Canada).
WN: When he heard that I was doing this interview, he told me to tell you “Hello” and I don’t know if he was on kicks, but he also said that he taught you a few things while you were on the Bionic Bunch Youth Team. I told him “If that is the case, then how come Leo ended up being good?”
LEONSON: [laughs]. That’s a good one. But seriously, Stephen Hart was one of the players that we admired at a younger age. We were lucky that in that era we had a lot of good players. We had Peter Mitchell (member of the 1973 squad), Stephen Hart, and Gerry Lee Hing and so on. We actually had a lot of good players helping us with our game. And I am vex that I haven’t gotten to see Stephen recently, because two years in a row he came down with the Canadian U-15 team but was always based in Tobago. I could never get a chance to go over to Tobago to meet him. So I would like to take this opportunity to tell him “Hello and thanks”. It’s true. We were lucky to have good players and coaches. Ken Headley was our coach at the time.
WN: You were part of the San Fernando Technical Institute team of the 1980s that was a dominant force in the Colleges League. Schools like Tech and John D were subsequently banned from participating in the league because of a perceived unfair advantage. Do you agree with that decision and do you think the league has been better or worse off since that decision was made? Do you think the schools should be reinstated?
LEONSON: To tell you the truth, back then they could have had an advantage because in the regular schools you were not allowed to repeat (exams) that much, so you could have gone on to one of those schools to further your education if you so desired. Right now it would not make a difference if they brought them back or not, because the kind of madness that is going on in College football in Trinidad & Tobago, it’s like there are no rules. For example, they are taking players from Junior Secondary Schools and transferring them to prestige schools like Pres or Naps even though the may not be able to cope with the academics. When I transferred from Benedict’s to Naps, in order to play I had to have a passing grade. You had to make a certain amount of marks or else the teachers would not let you play on the team. You have to pass a certain percentage in your work. Now it’s not like that. Players are enrolling in the schools, but are not even going to school. Bringing back Tech or John D now wouldn’t make a difference. Before, there was a standard, but now the standards seem to have dropped because the people in the organizations don’t seem to care about the players’ education, they only care about the school winning games.
WN: Should the administrators of the SSFL take some heat for that?
LEONSON: Whoever it is. I know because I have seen with my own two eyes. Parents also have to take the blame because some parents are proud to say “my son going Pres”, but he can’t do the work there, so what is he going there for? The school season starts in September and runs for a month and then the players leave the school. So I don’t think it will really matter if you bring in the Techs and them. It might even be better. Because some of those players, instead of going Pres or Naps, they might go to Tech, and a least they might learn or continue their trade. It might be better because the standard of football has dropped.
WN: When did you first represent Trinidad & Tobago?
LEONSON: It was at the Under 19 level during a CONCACAF Championship that was being held in Trinidad.
WN: How were you selected to the team?
LEONSON: At that time there were trials in San Fernando and then you had to go up to Port of Spain.
WN: Were they open trials?
WN: What made you feel that you could make the team?
LEONSON: I loved the game and I just knew it was something that I wanted to do. I have to thank my dad a millions time over because training was in Port of Spain, and he would work his regular job in the day and run taxi during the night to make sure that I would have passage to go to training. It was expensive and I had to go to St. Augustine for training two and three times a week. So he made that sacrifice for me. I had good support from my family. From since I was 9 or 10 years old they would always come and watch me play. They came and saw me play right up until I turned professional. They were always telling me that I was good, and my father was my number one fan.
WN: With that level of excitement generated by you and your family, how did it feel when you finally made your debut for the Senior Team? Were you about 21 at that time? Was it under Gally?
LEONSON: No, Gally only came later on. I made my debut long before that. Because after the Under 19 tournament, I was playing for Trintoc and from Trintoc it was Muhammad Issa who carried me over to the national senior team. So I was real young.
WN: What do you think is responsible for not having players of that age in the current senior team setup? Before, you had people like Clint Marcelle, Latapy, you, Yorke and Brian Williams who made their senior team debuts before they were 20 years old. Nowadays it’s more common for players to get their first cap when they are 23 or 24.
LEONSON: The talent is just not what it used to be. I actually went straight from a school team to a semi-pro team to the national team. Now, you’re hardly getting players doing that. We have some talent coming up, but few and far between.
WN: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career as a professional footballer?
LEONSON: Since school days; Naps to be exact. I remember talking to one of my school mates (Brent Sinanan) about Intercol and I told him that in other countries there are people whose full time job is to play football. Since Naps I knew that is what I wanted to be.
WN: Back in those days, it was virtually unheard of for Trinbagonians to pursue sports as a profession. It’s not like nowadays where it is more common.
LEONSON: I don’t know where it came from, but all I know is that I wanted to play for the national team and do it for a living. I always wanted to play in England. In Naps days we would go to see clubs like Tottenham Hotspurs play. It’s really England I wanted to go to.
WN: So you basically grew up watching Big League Soccer on Saturdays?
LEONSON: Exactly. I was more of a Garth Crooks and Tottenham Hotspurs fan. [starts humming the theme song from Big League Soccer].
WN: Did you have total support from your parents?
LEONSON: Yes, total support. Sometimes it was too much.
WN: Most of the times, if a child says “I want to play ball for a living”, their parents may say “What? Nah man, you have to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or something.”
LEONSON: I loved football so much that my family supported me in anything to do with football.
WN: Were you a ball hound?
LEONSON: Yes, I was a real ball hound. I remember one Saturday my dad wanted to beat me because I left home at 9 o’clock in the morning and didn’t come back until 10 o’clock at night. My dad was vex, but my mother told him “Is you have him so”, and my dad said “But he eh eat fuh de day and he irresponsible.” But that’s just how I was, and my mother told my dad “Leave him alone. Doh even touch him because that is what yuh encouraging him in, so leave him.”
WN: We currently have some Jamaicans in our Pro League, but back in 1989, you and Russell Latapy went to play for Port Morant United in Jamaica. How did you end up there?
LEONSON: Latapy was always a big name in Trinidad & Tobago football even at a young age. I think what happened was that he was asked to play some games in Jamaica and at the same time he was asked to bring another player who he felt was good. The man in charge of Port Morant was a businessman and wanted to run a very professional team and wanted to win everything, and he did. In order to win everything in Jamaican football, he decided to get the best players in Jamaica and one or two foreigners that could really help him. Since at that time Russell was a big name in Trinidad & Tobago, he thought that if he could get Russell over it would help him in the midfield and if he could get somebody who Russell thinks is good enough to play, he would get him as well. Russell went and played and he came back and said “Boy Leonson ah want yuh tuh come on ah little trials wit meh yuh know. I have this coach who want tuh see yuh.” Then I went over and played a game and that was it. I remember Russell telling me “Leonson, yuh see de bicycle, try and doh do it all de time, because if yuh do it, dey go want yuh tuh do it every game.” He wanted me to try and keep the game simple. That’s how I went to Portugal after. An agent, Francisco Gomez, who became our agent after, came over here looking for players. He saw Russell and he got a tape and took it back to Académica de Coimbra. The people in Portugal watched the tape and said that number 10 was good, but they would only take number 10 if they could also have number 11. They came and us play and then we signed over.
WN: How long did you all stay in Jamaica? You all must have made a great impact because to this day people still talk about your stint at Port Morant. There are some Jamaicans on socawarriors.net who speak of you in glowing terms. They may fight down Trinidad & Tobago, but they never have a bad word to say about Leonson Lewis and Russell Latapy.
LEONSON: It’s true. I think it’s because of the kind of football that we played and the spirit with which we played the game. Jamaicans are very patriotic, but when we came to the team they had nothing but love for us. You found that the Jamaicans were trying to talk like Trinis and we were trying to talk like them. In that league, we played all over Jamaica during those two years. Everywhere we went, people would come out. There weren’t stadiums but the grounds were full. The word just went around that Port Morant had these two Trinis playing. We even played for the Cayman Islands national team, if you could believe that. Russell and I played a game representing the Cayman Islands national team against a Brazilian U-21 team and Russell get on real bad. As a matter of fact, a Brazilian who ended up becoming a big player, I can’t remember his name, Russell will remember, was fighting with Latas for dominance in the midfield. This Brazilian wanted to know how this fella, so small, beating up everybody and making it look like he (Latas) is the Brazilian. We were laughing in that game because Russell took it to them in that game. Getting back to the Jamaican thing, every time we played, people would talk about us on the radio, plus it had the Shell Cup going on, so people knew us now. When Trinidad & Tobago would play Jamaica, in interviews we would say “big up to Jamaica and Port Morant our hometown.”
WN: Was it a professional setup?
LEONSON: Of course. We got paid to play. Yes, we were professional then. We got good money too. The man had some money and we were staying in camp with the Jamaicans. We had our own little house and we would camp before games. Allan “Skill” Cole was our coach. He was Bob Marley’s manager at one time. When you talk about a person who when their name is called, people bow to them, that is Allan “Skill” Cole. That man is a living legend. I remember walking in the airport with Allan and him handing an immigration officer a passport and saying “put 6 months on this passport”. The officer just stamped and signed it one time. It’s incredible that people still remember us. In Portugal it’s the same thing. If you go to Portugal now and say “you remember Lewis y Latapy?”, everybody will remember.
WN: Unlike in Trinidad, when you call a name, they say “who?”
LEONSON: The younger ones wouldn’t even know. For the World Cup, my wife and I were walking through the town where Portugal played a game, I can’t remember the name right now, and people were calling me. She was amazed that after all that time people remembered me. People were chanting “Lewwiss”. Just talking about it makes my pores raise.
WN: When you were in Jamaica, how was the standard of ball compared to what you were accustomed to in Trinidad?
LEONSON: It was more or less at the same level. What was different was that in Trinidad & Tobago had better referees. In Jamaica the referees were letting anything go because they were not as organized as our league. Sometimes anybody would referee the game. We used to still win, but it used to be pressure.
WN: How did you adapt to Portugal? The culture, weather, food and language.
LEONSON: Everything was a challenge. It was a whole different life. You leave home knowing that this is what you want to do, you get a small contract, you’re feeling good, and you’re a professional player now. But it is a whole different life. You’re young and you’re strong. You know what you want and you’re trying to achieve what you want because after you get a small contract you are trying to get a bigger one. I don’t think it was very difficult for us. I think the hardest thing we encountered was the training. That was a killer. The football training will make you hate the game. We had a rude awakening because our first three years were the hardest, not just because it was our first time, but because the coaches and the trainers that we had were very hard on us. I remember the second year when I went back to Portugal (after eleven months you got one month holiday), I was crying. My mother said “But Leonson ent dat is what yuh want tuh do?” I said “yeh Mommy, but de training, ah doh know if ah could last out there.” I mean, I have to last out there because I have a three or four-year contract. I know I will last, but I couldn’t help but cry. I couldn’t help but think about that training I was going to do. After four years, I went to other teams and the pre-season was easier and you go to a next team and the pre-season is easier and then you say “but I was real unlucky”.
WN: So how was Latas coping?
LEONSON: Even though Latas is small, Latas is a beast. Latas is a man who when I’m home sleeping, taking my eight hours rest, Latas might go and party and sleep for four hours and come to the training session and run harder than me. You would want to know what going on with Latapy. It is like he is made for that. That is probably why he is still playing now. Latas drinks and he smokes. Sometimes in training, you’re talking with him and he is reeking of booze, but he is training harder than you and he getting on in the training. He is just made for that. Georgie Best was the same thing. People in Trinidad & Tobago didn’t even see the best of Latapy. I saw the best of Latapy.
WN: I heard that one time you, Latapy and Anthony Clarke were liming with Eusebio the Portuguese legend.
LEONSON: Yeh man.
WN: How did it feel meeting one of the greats of the game?
LEONSON: We met him through our agent at the time because he and Eusebio had a big link in Canada. Eusebio used to go to Canada a lot. I don’t know if he used to play for a team there or what. Eusebio is big all over. And because this man had a team in Canada, he used to have Eusebio over as a guest. When we came to Portugal and started making a name for ourselves, we used to have dinner regularly with Eusebio. I think if Eusebio sees me now, he will remember me. But I have something even better than that. After four years in Portugal, I came home to play with the national team in the Cayman Islands and I think I scored the most goals in that Shell Cup tournament. We won that tournament. And do you know who gave me the trophy and who I spoke with?
LEONSON: That was my proudest moment speaking Portuguese. I spoke to Pelé that day. My Portuguese was just good enough and Pelé was surprised to hear a Trinidadian speaking Portuguese to him. I spoke with him and people took out many pictures, but up to this day, no one from the Cayman Islands has ever given me one of those pictures. I could only tell people this story and hope they believe me. I shook the man’s hand, he gave me the trophy and I thanked him on behalf of myself and my family. I told him that my dad is a big fan of his and I’m a big fan. He was smiling and we were talking, having a good time. And the other players were looking on as if to say “Wha is dah one boy? Leo talking tuh dat man in Portuguese.” So that was a real proud moment for me and I was taking out pictures like mad.
WN: How long did it take you to become comfortable with the language? Did the club send you for lessons or did you just pick it up on your own?
LEONSON: A lot of the players on the team spoke English, which made things easier for us. But overall it took us about four to five years because it is a difficult language to learn.
WN: Although you left Portugal four years ago, do you still speak the language?
LEONSON: Of course. W-Connection has a lot of Brazilian players so I use it all of the time. Having spent 13 years in Portugal, it’s something that I can’t forget.
WN: You, Latapy and Marcelle had very successful stints in Portugal. How come more Trinidad & Tobago players have not gone to Portugal? Other player such as Cornell Glen, Aurtis Whitley and Akudu Goodridge only had brief stints there. Do you think it should be a future destination for our players? Given your links with Portugal, what role if any can you play in assisting our players to land contracts over there?
LEONSON: Right now I actually want to go over there and carry one or two players because I know some of the coaches in the First Division. But at the same time it’s not a country that you would encourage a lot of people to go to because they don’t pay the type of money you would get in a place like England. Portugal is one of the countries where you work like a slave and they pay you like one.
WN: But as a player, you would still be seen and may get picked up by another team in another country.
LEONSON: Playing professionally is good, but the way you have to work in Portugal, the type of football you play, the money you make. I don’t think it compensates. There is also the language barrier. I mean it’s better than playing in Trinidad & Tobago because you could end up on a big team and you could make a lot of money over there. It’s a hard country to make a living playing football, which is why Latapy moved to Scotland. That’s why not too many players come and stay. It’s not so much that the football is bad, but it’s the pay. You have to creep before you walk and then your agent plays an important part. Our agent had screwed us over. After our first year a lot of teams wanted us and he was collecting money behind our backs for us to stay at that team (Académica de Coimbra). So the team raised our pay (small money), but they were also paying the agent, because they knew that by doing that, the agent would make sure that we stayed for four years. When the fifth year rolled around, he also wanted us to stay. He got Russell to Porto, but he wanted me to stay and I told him no and I got rid of him. I went and did my own negotiations and contract and continued doing so for the rest of my career in Portugal. If you are a good professional, you don’t need an agent. Agents are both good and bad.
WN: What are the top 3 moments of your professional career?
LEONSON: Number one would be scoring four goals for Trinidad & Tobago against Crystal Palace. If I had the sense that I have now, I would have walked into the Crystal Palace dressing room after the game and tell them to take me with them. Pay me whatever they want, just sign me and carry me. Because what happened was that my agent was there at the time and he went to the Crystal Palace manager and asked for $1,000,000 up front. Jeeesus [shakes his head]. He just killed me off right then and there. Any smart person would have sold me for nothing; just make sure I got a good salary and take something for themselves. Maybe he could have put some kind of sell-on clause in the contract. Starting out at Crystal Palace, who knows where I would have reached. Dwight started at Aston Villa, and look at the career he has had. That agent killed me from day one. And after that, he still went on and killed me more in Portugal. That’s why I generally dislike agents. When I was in Portugal I got a break to go to Stoke City and the coach there loved me. I was the third highest scorer in the Portuguese First Division and the team wanted £500,000 for me, but Stoke said no, they would pay £250,000. And the friggin agent killed me there too. This wasn’t my original agent, this was another one, and I always forget the man’s name. He was also Fabrizio Ravanelli’s agent. He had big players and they were signing £10mm contracts, so he wasn’t studying any little Trinidadian. That wasn’t any money for him. After a month at Stoke, I got fed up and went back to Portugal. The agent was not moving from £500,000 and Stoke was not moving from £250,000, and all I was doing was training and not getting paid, so I went back to Portugal. I had some tough breaks. I could have accomplished a lot more in my career than I did. I still played professionally, not in the country that I wanted to, but I still played, had a good time, bought a car, built a house and have some money in the bank. There were other people who came to Portugal and were unlucky, and just went back where they came from. I didn’t have the best of luck, but I was still fortunate.
WN: So what are the other top 2 moments of your professional career?
LEONSON: Sorry, I went off on that last one [laughs]. What else can I say? I’m telling you something and it’s the truth. That moment was really, really special to me. It was the kind of goals I scored. I got a ball on top of the 18-yard box with a defender on my back. I flicked it up, turned around and blasted it into the vee. I remembered one day I was walking down by Pres and a man said “Leonson, Leonson, come. A man telling me dat you flick up de ball wit yuh left foot and score it wit yuh left foot. Dat is impossible.” I told him “well, I did the impossible.” That was my proudest moment. But believe it or not, every time I put on that Trinidad & Tobago shirt, and that national anthem is playing, I can’t tell you which game was bigger than which. Every single game was big for me. Every time that national anthem played I used to cry. Every time I used to be wiping away tears.
WN: I’m glad you brought that up, because many players don’t respect that, and they don’t draw strength from the fact that they are representing their nation.
LEONSON: That is what I like. When people see me in the Stadium and they talk to me. The respect that I get from people when I walk in that Stadium. I know, and people know, [banging his fist] every game I have played for Trinidad & Tobago, I gave my all. Nobody can say that I wasn’t working hard, or I wasn’t running. I have never played a game for Trinidad & Tobago while I was less than 100% fit. I always tried to do my best. And that’s why I think that people have so much respect for me now, it’s because when they see me, they know what I represent. When I go into the Stadium, I feel so proud, because I know for every single game, for the 14 or 15 years that I played for Trinidad & Tobago, every game I gave my best and my all and that for me is pride in itself.
WN: Well then name something from your school days.
LEONSON: Nothing compares to those four goals. I like how Russell and I represented the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Islands is very small, but about half the population came to that game. After just one game, I felt like a king for the remaining three days that we spent there. Everywhere I went, people knew who I was, because we were in the papers. So that for me, representing another country with Russell in a game was a big, big moment for me in football. After only 90 minutes I was a king in the Cayman Islands.
WN: What are the worst 3 moments of your professional career?
LEONSON: You don’t even have to ask that question, because everybody knows the answer. I would give up all the goals I have ever scored, just to be able to score one goal on November 19th, 1989. I think that was the worst moment, the most embarrassing moment. That was everything in one. We could not get over that moment until we qualified for the 2006 World Cup. To us [the Strike Squad], it was a weight off our shoulders. At last people could relax and say “yes, we finally made it.” Trinidad & Tobago making the World Cup made all of the Strike Squad happy.
WN: You returned to Trinidad & Tobago in 2002 at the age of 36 and played one season for W-Connection. You then went on to coach their U-20 team. Do you see yourself pursuing coaching for the foreseeable future?
LEONSON: I just finished a Level 3 coaching course which I topped. And they take the top two coaches to England. It’s about 20 coaches from all over the world who are invited to England. Once you get that, you can coach anywhere in the world. It’s a FIFA licensed course. But before all of that, when I started coaching I was kind of lost. I used to play football and I knew something about the game, but I never really coached anybody.
WN: Was it a different perspective?
LEONSON: Yes. Then I had Stuart Charles, who I played under for one year. To me, he is the best coach in the Caribbean.
WN: I have heard that from a lot of people.
LEONSON: I’ll tell you why. I played professionally for 13 years and I had a lot of coaches, and there was one coach who stood out, Jorge Jesus (currently coaches Belenenses). Up to this day we remain friends. He basically taught me everything I know about football, in terms of tactics, how to watch the other team, how to know what they are playing, how to get your team to play. And when I came back home people were telling me that Stuart Charles is a good coach and I said “yeh, but none of allyuh eh play professionally.” In my first four years in Portugal, I learned nothing. Russell and I learned nothing, we just played. We just knew that I played left wing and he played midfield. And this man taught me all about football. So to come home and meet somebody who is better than the man who was my best coach in Portugal? That says it all. The sessions he conducts is so game-like and professional, the way how he handles a team, the video sessions are even better than what I did in Portugal. He’s complete. The man is passionate about the game. He’s a total coach. If Trinidad & Tobago didn’t make it with Beenhakker, they would have made it with him.
WN: That is one of the things I never understood. When Fevrier was in charge of the national team in 2003 , they toured Africa and did reasonably well. They came back and next thing you know, Bertille St. Clair is the new coach. For me, the time for bringing back St. Clair had already passed. He was undeservingly fired in 2000 and now it seemed as though the TTFF were trying to make amends. To my knowledge, no reason was ever given publicly for the firing of Fevrier.
LEONSON: Let me tell you why the brought back Bertille and got rid of Stuart Charles. Fevrier is not a “yes” man and what he says goes. When he is controlling the team, he’s controlling the team. Nobody can tell him who to bring in the team, who to give a trial or who to play or who not to play. They brought in Bertille because they wanted someone who they could control. I don’t think I would ever coach a Trinidad & Tobago team because I don’t want my friends, peers and teammates fighting me down for a Trinidad & Tobago job. I spoke with Jack Warner and he told me that everybody on the committee thought that Fevrier was the man for the job. I told Jack “I don’t want anything from you, I am just trying to advise you because I’m passionate about the game and I love my country and I want to see my country do their best.” Jack and I sat down in his office and I told him “All I want is a proper coach to coach my national team. I have worked with this man for 4 years and he is the man for the job.” They gave him the job and I congratulated Jack and I said “Finally we could go somewhere.” They then fired him and I called Jack and he said “Leonson, I alone cannot keep him there. If everybody else on the committee is telling me that the man is doing this and doing that, and everyone is fighting down the man, then I have no choice but to remove him.”
WN: You coached Marabella in the SSFL this year and compiled a record of 4-3-3 which resulted in you coming 3rd in the Central Zone. Were you satisfied with the performance?
LEONSON: Not really. Marabella does not have many resources, but for the games we played, we should have had better results. I would have been satisfied with a second place and not third. It was the first time that the players were actually learning how to play the game at a tactical level.
WN: Will you be back at Marabella next year?
LEONSON: I might be, but I’m in two minds.
WN: What is your view on the level of football that is being played in the SSFL?
LEONSON: School football has dropped. Everyone will tell you that.
WN: Do you think there should be some minimal qualifications required for an SSFL coach?
LEONSON: Definitely. That is the thing self. I played professional football and I came back and I was coaching, but I never learned to coach. Playing professionally means that I am better than the average player but it does not mean that I am a good coach. I need someone to coach me on how to coach and I need to take courses. So even if you are coaching a school, even if you used to play for the school before, that doesn’t mean you should be coaching the school. We should have some coaches coaching coaches. Or coaches should be going on courses. On courses they don’t really teach you how to coach. You might learn systems, drills, management, first-aid and many other things. But to coach, you can’t learn that on any course. You have to learn that from someone else or through experience.
WN: Regarding players, do you agree with Anton Corneal’s suggestion of excluding national players from playing the SSFL?
LEONSON: I agree with it. I think it is a smart thing, but it would never happen. It’s a good idea. As the game has evolved, we have to evolve with it. It’s more scientific now. In the College’s League, who are they playing against? What kind of training are they doing? Playing against another College? That is not good enough. For us to reach the level of the other teams, we have to think on their level. We have to know what they are doing and try to do it too.
WN: For the last two years our SSFL representative team has lost to their Jamaican counterparts.
LEONSON: I think it is a good idea to get all of the talented players together and train them and teach them because they are not really getting anything from the Colleges League. They’re not advancing, they’re not learning. The League is not helping them.
WN: It’s just to get girls?
LEONSON: It’s just to get girls and flams, but if you really want to take the football to another level, you have to do what the foreigners are doing. Because at that age, some of them are already playing for Barcelona’s junior team, and this and that junior team. How will we able to compete against the players on those teams when all we are doing is playing against Benedict’s, Naps and so on. They would never reach the required level.
WN: Earlier on you mentioned that November 19th, 1989 was your most embarrassing moment. Did Trinidad & Tobago’s qualification for the World Cup in 2006 completely exorcise those demons?
LEONSON: No. Nothing could ever completely exorcise that.
WN: Do you still think about that game?
LEONSON: Of course, of course, of course. I think that is a game that I remember in more detail than most of my other games. It has haunted me for years. It still haunts me.
WN: Was it déjà vu when you all played against the USA recently and once again Caligiuri opened the scoring?
LEONSON: That was really, really funny. And it was so early in the game. Imagine 18 friggin years after, look who gone and score on us. A goal out of nothing. [laughs].
WN: One of the most controversial topics of Trinidad & Tobago's debut appearance at the 2006 World Cup is the issue of Latapy’s limited playing time. There have been suggestions that Leo Beenhakker was afraid that he would upset his team plan. Many have even said that it was highly disrespectful of Beenhakker for not playing him. What are your thoughts?
LEONSON: Number one, I think that Beenhakker used players in positions where he could have used them better. Have you ever seen Barcelona play? They use a 4-3-3. Now with our team, that is how I was going to play. Because if you put that boy, that left footer who is so talented, Samuel on the left, Carlos Edwards on the right and any forward who is in form in the middle, Dwight Yorke, Otis Seaton (aka Aurtis Whitley), and any other midfielder, even Russell, put two of them defensively and put Russell in the middle. Even if you don’t want to give Russell the whole game, give him part of the game. To me Trinidad & Tobago could play much more attacking football.
WN: When was the last time you have seen us play out and out attacking football? I am playing devil’s advocate now. We have a habit of not being able to get ourselves together for the first 20 minutes…and to be pouring forward and exposing ourselves at the back is just asking for trouble.
LEONSON: Well that is the coach. It’s according to how he picks the team. It’s how he instructs people to play, that’s how they will play. The team only reflects how the coach wants them to play. Now if you want your team to play attacking football, they will play that way. If you find that for the first 20 minutes the team can’t catch themselves, they aren’t keeping the ball enough, they’re hardly attacking, it’s because of how the coach tells them to play. I don’t like the players that Beenhakker used. I don’t like the system of play and I don’t like how the team played. To me the team could have done much better.
WN: So you think they played differently compared to the way the played during the qualifying rounds?
LEONSON: To me the team played the same way all of the time. To me the team didn’t really play any brilliant qualification games. The team actually played much better at the World Cup.
WN: People fail to realize that in the game against Paraguay we played attacking football, but we threw away chances. At half-time we should have been up 3-0.
LEONSON: Dread, yuh mind if ah call yuh dread? Here is what I’m saying. I didn’t enjoy how the team played in that game, but I enjoyed when Latapy came on. Trinidad & Tobago looked their best when Latapy came on. He started to do magic. Dwight Yorke looked his best when Latapy came on. But you saw how Paraguay played? Lord, that is the coach we should get. You didn’t see how that Paraguay team kept that ball?
WN: But the fact is, we created chances.
LEONSON: When? In the first half of the game?
WN: Yes. You had Kenwyne, Stern...
LEONSON: I feel you need to go and watch that game again.
WN: OK, I’ll watch it again.
LEONSON: You see. When we’re watching Trinidad & Tobago play, we’re watching it in a way where our emotions are with Trinidad & Tobago. We’re not watching it from a coaching aspect. Watch that game again and pretend Trinidad & Tobago is wearing the Paraguay uniform. Boy, you have to admire how Paraguay played, the way they kept the ball. I saw Trinidad & Tobago play Mexico in the Stadium and we lost 3-1. I felt to play for Mexico because of the level of football that Mexico played…people didn’t enjoy the game, but I enjoyed that game so much. That Mexican team was showing you how football is supposed to be played, they were keeping that ball and attacking when and where they wanted, and the whole team was on one head. That is how I want to see my national team play. Not that kind of football where they are playing in spurts and continually losing the ball. You see those two coaches, the coach of Mexico and the coach of Paraguay? Those are the kind of coaches who should coach Trinidad & Tobago.
WN: So in about 5 years time, instead of Leo Beenhakker, will it be Leo Lewis coaching the team?
LEONSON: Nah, nah, nah, because it’s too much fight down. Beenhakker knew that Russell was talented, he knew Russell could play and all that. But if it was anybody else from the Caribbean, Russell would have played in all three games. Russell is Trinidad & Tobago’ s Maradona. Argentina had Maradona, Trinidad & Tobago have Latapy. He had to play those games, he had to play in all of those games. He is the best player Trinidad & Tobago has ever produced in our era, in my era. I think not playing him…it’s better he didn’t play him at all, than playing him in the last game and he shows you up, makes you look bad. To me Russell made Beenhakker look bad. I don’t know how other people see it. But to me, the way that man played and get on. People were asking why didn’t that man play before. If I was Beenhakker I would not have played him at all. I would have kept him on the bench right through. In the first game against Sweden and we’re down to 10 men and Stern John is running up and down the field doing nothing. Put Latapy on for 20 minutes and I’m sure if he didn’t score a goal he would have created chances. To me it was disrespectful for not playing him. That is my take on the matter.
WN: If the Strike Squad (in their prime) were to play the Soca Warriors World Cup 2006 team, who would win and why?
LEONSON: [laughs]. Who do you feel will win?
WN: Who is doing this interview, me or you?
WN: Last year we did an interview with Clayton Morris, and he was so confident that he said that the present-day version of the Strike Squad would win.
LEONSON: [laughing loudly]. Nah, nah, we wouldn’t beat them. Youth will triumph. Let me give you a little take on that. Our team was more complete, more together. I mean it is two completely different eras of football. It’s like playing us against de 1973 team. You can’t really say who would win. It would not be fair to put that as a game, because football has changed so much, from 1973 to 1989 to now. But as a team, you’ve watched them play in their prime, you’ve watched us in our prime, who do you enjoy more? Who was more attacking? Who was more entertaining? I think that we were more attacking and entertaining.
WN: What is your viewpoint on the current impasse between our national team players and the TTFF?
LEONSON: I think that it is disrespectful to the players. The TTFF have never given footballers what they deserved, and now for the first time that the footballers have reached the pinnacle, they are supposed to receive everything that was promised to them. For it to have all that confusion, it shows you the kind of corruption that goes on in the TTFF. It’s a big disrespect to the players. As far as the TTFF is concerned, the Government gave the players $1,000,000 each and that is enough. But if you have promised them stuff, give it to them. They deserve it. They never gave anybody else anything. Why all this confusion about it?
WN: Having been an international player and now being privy to the behind the scenes action at the Pro League, do you think Wim Rijsbergen is correct in his assessment of our local talent?
LEONSON: No way, no way, no way. Because every person who is playing outside once played in the League, so the talent came from there.
WN: I’m talking about right at this moment. Yes, typically they would have to pass through the League. Beenhakker used to sing the same song as well, commenting about the pace of the game and how it’s hard for the players to go from playing in the Pro League to playing international football. Of course, there are a couple diamonds, but they are the exception.
LEONSON: Well, that could be true, but it doesn’t mean that you cannot host an all local national team.
WN: Do you think that there are too many foreign players in the Pro League?
LEONSON: No, we don’t have enough. Because the foreign players, just like in other leagues around the world, help to enhance and make the league better. We should not have any limit on foreigners.
WN: Some people say it’s Jamaican Public not Joe Public.
LEONSON: But it doesn’t even matter. Connection has a lot of Brazilians too. But that is the only way that we will get the standard higher.
WN: But how will the standard get higher, if opportunities for locals are reduced?
LEONSON: Because they will have to do better to play. They would have to perform just as good as the foreign players in order to play. In reality you must have a limit, because after all it is a Trinidad & Tobago league, you must have your local talent. But I think it only helps the league. What the league could improve on is the refereeing. I don’t know how they can get more crowds to the games because they only come out for the knockout tournaments.
WN: That is marketing and it is something that the Warrior Nation would like to get involved with to help encourage people to attend the games. We used to have big crowds long ago.
LEONSON: Yes, because we used to have the North South thing.
WN: Do you think they should bring back the North/South and other zonal matches?
LEONSON: Yes, they should have a couple of games. I feel one way we could improve our football is to have a local-based national team and let them play against good teams, not Jamaica, but Mexico, Paraguay…
WN: That’s a dream because the real senior team can’t even get those type of matches organized on a regular basis.
LEONSON: Exactly, but that is what we need to get.
WN: What does the future hold for Leonson?
LEONSON: Just coaching and trying to harness young talent. Like I was telling Steve, I have four young players looking towards 2014. I mean good, talented players. And I put myself in charge of them. I’m trying to groom them and get them on the national team.
WN: Are they all South-based?
LEONSON: They are from Point and Carapichaima.
WN: What are their names?
LEONSON: Akil Matthews from Point Fortin, he attends Vessigny. Shaquille Stuart from Chatham, Ryan Fredericks from Carapichaima and O’Shea O’Neal who is a goalkeeper. Keep an ear out for those names.
WN: OK, we’ll finish up with two questions from Warrior Nation members. The first one is from Joann Charles and she asks “Do you consider your bicycle goal against the USA in the Gold Cup your greatest?”
LEONSON: That was a great goal because it is so difficult to score on Tony Meola, much less from a bicycle. It’s definitely one of my best ever and it also happens to be my father’s favourite goal. But my personal favourite has to be the one against Crystal Palace.
WN: Rohan Pirali asks “Leo I played against you in the days of Santos vs Bionic Bunch. As a player you could only play with your left foot, you virtually never used your right. As a coach for kids today, how important is it for kids to use both feet?”
LEONSON: It’s important, but not totally important. The best coaches would tell you that one good foot is better than two mediocre feet. One foot that is extraordinary is better than two normal feet. But as a coach, you still want to encourage kids to use both feet, at least to be able to make a pass, or trap, but if you have a player with a left foot like Leroy Spann, something out of the ordinary, someone with a foot like a hand, why worry about another player with two mediocre feet? I hope I have answered his question and at the same time hit him a little bit. Leave me with my friggin one foot [laughs].