Central FC, the club less than five years old, have won an unprecedented third successive Digicel Pro League after edging San Juan Jabloteh 1-0 on Sunday, pipping Couva rivals W Connection to the crown for a second time in three seasons.
Central had gone into their final league game with a one-point advantage over second-positioned Connection, and got the decisive item through a diving header from Tobagonian winger Rundell Winchester five minutes from the half at the Ato Boldon Stadium.
With the win, Central (47 points), league champions of 2014/15 and 2015/16, secured the 2016/17 title to etch themselves into the history books of the 18-year-old Pro League by becoming the first team to win the three-peat.
Six-time former league winners Connection (46 points), who had been incredible in their efforts all season, defeated Ma Pau Stars 2-0 for their seventh straight league win, but had to settle for second place.
Jamal Charles opened the scoring for Connection with a header on 53 minutes before Hughtun Hector completed the win for coach Stuart Charles Fevrier's men ten minutes from time at the Mannie Ramjohn Stadium.
Ma Pau finished fourth (28 points), one spot behind Jabloteh (29 points), last season's runners-up, who had given Central a few scares.
“We are accustomed to being in these types of positions,” said Central FC captain Darren Mitchell. “We knew we had to work extra hard today. We knew Jabloteh were coming for a victory (to secure third spot) but we got the result in the end.
“[Now] it’s a great feeling—first time history in the Pro League—to be champions for a third straight time.”
Mitchell had provided the left side cross that fellow Tobagonian Winchester dived in at the back post to bury the ball past former Central second-choice goalie Javon Sample for what turned out the winner.
Sample wasn’t the only former Couva Shark in the Jabloteh starting line-up that included defender Akeem Benjamin.
But it was another defender, Josiah Trimmingham, who had Jabloteh’s best chances—first heading just wide off a Nathan Lewis corner on six minutes then hitting straight at goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams three minutes after the break when a free kick was cleared into his path at the goalmouth.
"We wanted to cement the third position and we wanted to spoil the (Central) party," said Jabloteh forward Jamal Gay. "But congratulations to Central FC for [accomplishing] the three-peat. I think they deserve it because they hold of a very strong Jabloteh squad and got the result."
Gay had not lack motivation but hadn’t received the needed support from new strike partner Jairo Lombardo before the under-21 Panamanian was replaced by Tyrone Charles after the break, before another newcomer Vernon Mills replaced the legs of Keyon Edwards just before the hour mark.
Charles, 20 minutes on, missed out on the equaliser when he struck wide from 16 yards out after meeting a through-pass by Jamaican Keithy Simpson, who was later replaced by Aaquil Campbell.
“It was always about believing right down to the end,” said a teary-eyed Central FC head coach, Dale Saunders afterwards. “We got the job done. A great… great feeling. Glory to God the almighty.
“And, I owe it to the players and staff. Everybody deserve this [title]. We always had what it takes to be champions [again] and we showed just that.”
It was the celebrating moment for Saunders at the end of his first full season in charge of the Couva Sharks. Last season Saunders took over from former coach Ross Russell midway through the season, a move that saw a turnaround in Central and the successful defence of their league and Caribbean crowns.
Saunders, who previously served as assistant coach to former Central coaches Zoran Vranes, Terry Fenwick and Russell, has been assisted this season by former Trinidad and Tobago internationals and World Cup 2006 Soca Warriors, Stern John and Brent Sancho, the club’s managing director.
“Opportunities in life, you have to take with both hands. And you can see we got the job done at the end of the day,” ended Saunders.
Central’s Mitchell bagged the most league goals for his side this term with 8, four goals shy of Golden Boot leader Akeem Roach (12 goals) of Club Sando (25 points), who finished fifth and above, in descending order, Police FC, Defence Force, St. Ann’s Rangers, Morvant Caledonia United and Point Fortin Civic. (See full table below)
Defence Force forwards Hashim Arcia and Jamille Boatswain both have 10 goals after each, along with Jerwyn Balthazar, scoring twice in a 6-0 lead over Civic on Saturday. And, with 20 minutes of play outstanding against Point Fortin side, after lights failure abandoned play at the Mahaica Oval, the duo still stands within range of the Golden Boot.
Central, meanwhile, won’t have much celebrating with this week’s quarter-final round of the season-ending Digicel Pro Bowl – a title the Couva Sharks captured in 2015 – up next.
Central must take on Rangers on Wednesday from 6pm at the Ato Boldon Stadium before W Connection tackle Police from 8pm at the same venue.
Quarter-final action continues on Thursday with Ma Pau Stars against Club Sando from 6pm again at the Ato Boldon Stadium before Jabloteh and Defence Force lock horns from 8pm.
Central FC 1 (Rundell Winchester 40') vs San Juan Jabloteh 0, at Ato Boldon Stadium;
W Connection 2 (Jamal Charles 53', Hughtun Hector 80') vs Ma Pau Stars 0, at Mannie Ramjohn Stadium.
Central FC: 21.Jan-Michael Williams (GK), 3.Keion Goodridge (Yellow Card), 5.Keston George, 6.Leston Paul, 7.Jason Marcano (45.Tyrik John 87th minute), 11.Darren Mitchell (Capt.), 17.Johan Peltier (17.Sean De Silva 67th minute), 24.Kevon Villaroel, 26.Mickaeel Jem Gordon, 33.Julius James, 77.Rundell Winchester.
Unused substitutes: 30.Akel Clarke (GK), 10.Keron Cummings, 12.Kishun Seecharan, 15.Kaydion Gabriel, 29.Jabari Casaquero.
Coach: Dale Saunders
San Juan Jabloteh: 1.Javon Sample (GK), 6.Akeem Benjamin, 7.Jamal Gay, 8.Keyon Edwards (Yellow Card) (14.Vernon Mills 59th minute), 9.Keithy Simpson (19.Aaquil Campbell 80th minute), 11.Damian Williams (Capt.) (Yellow Card), 12.Kion Joseph, 16.Jairo Lombardo (10.Tyrone Charles 46th minute), and 17.Josiah Trimmingham, 18.Jevon Morris, 27.Nathan Lewis.
Unused substitutes: 30.Shemel Louison (GK), 21.Aquil Selby. 23.Kennedy Hinkson, 24.Adrian Reid.
Coach: Keith Jeffrey
Referee: Keilon Bacchus
Champagne Central: Couva Sharks enter Pro League history books with three-peat.
By Lasana Liburd (Wired868).
Back to back to back. Central FC set down a new marker in the 17 year history of the Trinidad and Tobago Pro League today, as they became the first time to win three successive league titles.
The “Couva Sharks” dropped just seven points whole season and lost only once. And, against a typically stubborn San Juan Jabloteh team at the Ato Boldon Stadium this afternoon, coach Dale Saunders’ troops again found a way to win.
Rundell Winchester’s 41st minute item was the game’s only goal, as Central ground out a 1-0 win. It meant an unprecedented third straight league title—all worth TT$1 million each.
“This season was more special [than my first Pro League title last year] because it was back to back,” Central coach Dale Saunders told Wired868. “I want to give credit to my backroom staff, the management and the players because they worked really hard for this title.”
There were only around 400 spectators in Couva to witness the occasion. This has been another tough year for the local top flight competition which suffered from financial instability off the field and a shortage of entertainment on it.
But there was still something to appreciate in Central’s dogged consistency over the 18-match season.
Jabloteh gave it a good go today with giant forward Jamal Gay and midfield captain Damian Williams particularly keen to influence the result. But Central were resolute as always while veteran central defender Julius James—who was a mid-season transfer acquisition—was flawless at the back.
It was enough to hold off a remarkable surge by DIRECTV W Connection who won their last seven successive matches—excluding today’s affair—but still finished one point behind behind Central, despite scoring the most goals (50) and conceding the fewest (13) of any top flight team.
Connection downed Ma Pau Stars 2-0 at the Mannie Ramjohn Stadium in Marabella this afternoon—with second half strikes by Grenadian Jamal Charles and skipper Hughtun Hector—but were powerless to stop Central’s coronation.
The fourth placed Ma Pau, who were without coach Ross Russell due to commitments with the National Under-20 team, offered little danger to Julani Archibald in the Connection goal and seemed to focus more on containing their opponents as opposed to scoring themselves.
Veteran striker Jason Scotland, who has a UEFA B coaching license, headed the technical staff today while the evergreen Kerry Baptiste led the forward line instead. But, despite countless saves from custodian Glenroy Samuel, the Stars could not deny the “Savonetta Boys” the three points at stake.
It was not enough for the million dollar first prize, though.
“First of all I would like to congratulate Central FC on their success in winning the league for a third season straight,” said Connection coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier. “I think that’s very, very good by any standard in any league anywhere. And I want to congratulate them for that.
“In terms of us, I want to congratulate my players for the effort they put in, especially in the last round. Because when the round started we were seven points behind Central and many persons felt that the league was over. But we came back and won all eight games in the last round [after losing to Central]…
“It was unfortunate that we were not able to be crowned champions after having the best offensive and defensive record. But that’s football. We have to put the league behind us now and concentrate on the Pro Bowl because that’s the last competition for the season.”
Central only had eyes for the giant Pro League trophy, which was brought to the venue by Pro League administrative manager, Julia Baptiste.
But Jabloteh, who kicked off with ex-Central title winners Javon Sample and Akeem Benjamin in their squads, did not make it easy. Even though the Sharks always seemed just a tad more decisive.
Central should have opened the scoring in the 24th minute, as forward Yohan Peltier stripped opposing defender Josiah Trimmingham but, just inside the Jabloteh box, he opted to pass rather than shoot and his strike partner, Jason Marcano, was closed down by Jabloteh defender Jevon Morris.
There was no stopping Winchester though, four minutes before the interval, as he crept away from his marker, Benjamin, for a free header at the back post off a Darren Mitchell cross.
It was Winchester’s first goal this season, after the Tobago-born attacker rejoined the squad last month. On his last outing, he was ejected by referee Crystal Sobers after losing his head against Defence Force and speaking out of turn. But this was much better use of his cabeza.
There was a Jabloteh shout for a penalty within seconds, as Leston Paul’s attempted clearance came off his own hand. But referee Keilon Bacchus was unconvinced.
Three minutes into the second half, there was the first genuine scare for Central as their defence failed to deal with a Tyrone Charles cross and the ball ricocheted to Trimmingham with a one on one from eight yards.
The former National Under-20 defender hit straight to Williams.
Try as they might, Jabloteh could get no closer to a result. And it is worth noting that Williams was rarely threatened in goal for Central.
Credit James for a tough, perceptive display in central defence against an inspired Gay. Three years ago, Yohance Marshall played himself into international contention with a sterling showing for the Sharks. James, who spent four seasons in the US Major League Soccer (MLS), might easily have done the same.
But today was about the team started from scratch by managing director Brent Sancho and operations director Kevin Harrison, in mid-2012, that became serial winners.
Saunders was assistant to former coaches Zoran Vranes and Terry Fenwick when Central won their first league title in 2014/15. And, as boss, he managed to maintain their tempo and tactical flexibility.
“There is not a team in the Pro League that trains as hard as us,” said Saunders. “We work hard on the training ground, day in [and] day out and the players bought into it. We just made hard work a part of [what we do].
“Winning is a habit at Central FC.”
Central’s consistency and drive under Saunders is particularly remarkable considering the regular turnover of playing staff, as they had to do without talented employees like Marcus Joseph, Andre Ettienne, Nathaniel Garcia and Kaydion Gabriel for various reasons over the course of the six month season.
But, with assistant coach Stern John conspicuously close by his side, Saunders always found the right answer—as Central continued to rack up points whether it was with left back Kevon Villaroel in central defence or midfielder Nathaniel “Spanish” Garcia or forward Jem Gordon at full back.
“No matter what players we put on the park, we always get a result because we have a philosophy within the club,” said Saunders, who credited Sancho’s eye for talent. “Whoever comes in, comes with a certain attitude to get the job done.”
No matter the combination of the starting team, Marcano, Paul, Williams and, above all, the tireless captain, Mitchell, were always at the heart of everything constructive for the Couva-based team.
The result was the most dominant force in Pro League history.
Central FC (4-3-3): 21.Jan-Michael Williams (GK); 26.Jem Gordon, 33.Julius James, 3.Keion Goodridge, 24.Kevon Villaroel; 5.Keston George, 6.Leston Paul, 11.Darren Mitchell (captain); 17.Johan Peltier (8.Sean De Silva 67), 7.Jason Marcano (45.Tyrik John 86), 77.Rundell Winchester,
Unused substitutes: 30.Akel Clarke (GK), 10.Keron Cummings, 12.Kishun Seecharan, 15.Kaydion Gabriel, 29.Jabari Carasquero.
Coach: Dale Saunders
San Juan Jabloteh (4-2-3-1): 1.Javon Sample (GK), 12.Kion Joseph, 18.Jevon Morris, 17.Josiah Trimmingham, 6.Akeem Benjamin; 9.Keithy Simpson (19.Aaqil Campbell 80), 11.Damian Williams (captain); 8.Keyon Edwards (14.Vernon Mills 58), 16.Jairo Lombardo (10.Tyrone Charles 46), 27.Nathan Lewis; 7.Jamal Gay.
Unused substitutes: 30.Shemel Louison (GK), 23.Kennedy Hinkson, 5.Elijah Manners, 20.Jabari Mayers, 15.Jerome McIntyre.
Coach: Keith Jeffrey
Referee: Keilon Bacchus
Wired868 Man of the Match: Julius James (Central FC)