Stern John was always a man for the big moments. He scored plenty of goals in his career, more than 200 in total, but seemed to specialise in finding the net when it mattered most. During his two and a half years at Birmingham City he contributed to some of the most significant results in the Club’s recent history.
John earned a reputation for scoring decisive goals with just seconds remaining. Each time he wheeled away in celebration, tore off his shirt and was mobbed by delirious teammates. From the Den to Villa Park, deep in enemy territory, he delivered. It’s easy to forget that there was another injury-time goal against Newcastle United too.
Amongst some stiff competition, the equaliser against Aston Villa stands out. “I’m like a cult hero in Birmingham for scoring that goal, you know? It feels good,” says John. “Even though I’m in Trinidad now, when I come back to Birmingham people still remember it. They sing ‘Stern John in the last minute.’ It’s a great feeling. Whenever I’m at the Bullring I hear people singing it. I’m like ‘Oh my god. Everyone’s looking at me.’ Birmingham is a special, special club. I love Birmingham.”
For someone who dreamed of playing in England from a young age, John certainly left his mark. Growing up on the island of Trinidad that prospect seemed a long way off but he was inspired by the example of Dwight Yorke and managed to follow in his footsteps.
At 16 he was scouted while playing for his local club, Malta Carib Alcons, and offered a scholarship to move to America and study at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey. John went there determined to make the most of the opportunity.
“It was good. It was a different experience. When I was younger, I went to the US to play in the Dallas Cup with my club team, but I’d never had the experience of living there by myself. It was a big culture change. It was a lot better than playing in Trinidad, but my main aim was always to move to the UK to play football.”
After finishing his education, John played in the A-League for Carolina Dynamos and New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers. His big break came in 1998 when he signed for Columbus Crew and went on to win the MLS Golden Boot in his first season.
“They’re fond memories. I scored 26 goals in one season, which was a record in MLS for a of years. I had a hunger for scoring goals. I used to love scoring goals and I wanted to leave Trinidad to make a better life for myself and my mom. I was hungry for success,” he says.
John’s prolific form continued with another 18 goals the following year and European clubs were taking notice.
“No one ever knew but I signed a pre-contract agreement with Bayer Leverkusen. But I never went. Graham Taylor saw me playing for Columbus and wanted to sign me but David Platt came and hijacked the deal. He flew over to New York and I met him there.”
The interest from Nottingham Forest was too tempting and forced John to break his promise to Leverkusen. His new club helped to foot the bill and ensure his dream move to England could be completed.
“As a young kid growing up in Trinidad we always used to get English football games on TV on a Saturday and a Sunday. I wanted to play in England because Dwight Yorke was there and Shaka Hislop too. It was somewhere I’d wanted to go for a number of years.
“It was a culture shock. I came in November and I was freezing my socks off,” he laughs. “But I knew it was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, so I had to adapt and I did. I enjoyed it. I loved every minute of it. The football was really different. It was a lot quicker and a lot more physical. It was way more exciting.”
After signing for £1.5million John scored on his debut for Forest and was doing well until he suffered a cruciate ligament injury. While the club continued to fallshort of promotion, financial difficulties descended and a clause in John’s contract led to him being left out of the team. Already on 14 goals they couldn’t risk him scoring another one.
“If I scored 15 goals, they’d have to pay the MLS $250,000 and they couldn’t afford it,” says the former Trinidad and Tobago international. “That’s when Steve Bruce came in and I moved to Birmingham. I loved every moment at the club. Nottingham Forest was a special club, but Birmingham was too. I loved my Blues days.”
Mired in mid-table when Bruce arrived, an impressive upturn in form took the club into the play-offs. John’s seven goals in 15 games, including winners against Barnsley and Norwich City, was a big factor. “There was a huge change. Bruce did really well in trying to rebuild and reaching the Premiership changed the face of the Club.”
Promotion had long eluded Birmingham, but their cruel run of play-off semi-final defeats was decisively ended by John’s strike against Millwall. After a 1-1 draw at St. Andrew’s, a tight and tense second leg was heading for extra time when Martin Grainger hooked the ball hopefully into the box, it broke to Steve Vickers and his low cross was turned in from close range.
“I had an opportunity to score before and I messed up. I got a second chance and I buried it. The fans went mad. It was an electric atmosphere. It was an amazing feeling. It’s something that you can’t express but we worked hard for it and we had a great team,” says John.
“Millwall didn’t take it well with what happened after the game. We had to get security to leave the stadium. It was a bit crazy, but we were euphoric.”
That momentum was taken into the showdown at the Millennium Stadium, where Blues recovered from falling behind to take the final to penalties after John set up Geoff Horsfield’s equaliser. In the shootout he stepped up first to score past Rob Green in the Norwich goal.
“It was nail-biting,” recalls the striker. “Oh my god. I was a bit nervous to be fair, but I just did enough to beat the keeper with the pace of the ball. I remember a young Darren Carter scoring the final penalty for us to get to the Premiership.
“It was a huge moment for me and my family. The Premiership is massive in the Caribbean. Back home in Trinidad there were only a few guys who’d played there and I had the opportunity to join them.
“It was a huge step. The Premiership was a different kettle of fish altogether. The Championship is one of the hardest divisions I’ve played in but there was so much quality in the Premiership. You have to be technically better, and fitter than before. I remember going away and training with the military to get myself in good shape.”
The extra work paid off as Blues were able to survive in the top flight after a tough start. John scored the club’s first ever Premier League goal, from the penalty spot against Everton, and also grabbed a well-taken brace in a win away to West Ham United just days after he knocked Leyton Orient out of the League Cup with a hat-trick.
The arrival of strikers like Christophe Dugarry and Mikael Forssell gradually restricted John’s involvement but he still made his presence felt when coming on as asubstitute, most notably with Blues trailing 2-1 to Aston Villa deep into injury time.
With the final whistle imminent Darren Purse thumped the ball forward in hope, Clinton Morrison’s shot was palmed away, and John was on hand to fire into the roof of the net to rescue a point and prolong the club’s unbeaten run in derby games. Only once did Birmingham City lose when he was on the scoresheet.
Although John left the club a few months later to join Coventry City it was a perfect parting gift that will never be forgotten. There was another promotion to the Premier League with Sunderland, followed by spells at Southampton and Crystal Palace. He announced his retirement in 2012 and returned home. After a brief comeback John started to focus on coaching instead.
“I came back to Trinidad and I wanted to help the national team out. With my experience I still had a lot to offer the game. I played a bit, but it was just to give something back to the country that I was born in. I’m just coaching with the Trinidad team now. I’m the assistant to Dennis Lawrence for the men’s senior team and I’m head coach of the Under-17s,” he explains.
“It can be a bit difficult. I was born in Trinidad, but I learned my trade in the UK. We could be a bit more professional but obviously we have a lot of financial problems. We haven’t been paid in months but for me it’s about giving back to my country and helping them as much as I can. I would like to coach a club in the UK or the US one day but I’m not ready yet.”
As a player John was part of his country’s finest moment on the international stage, qualifying for the 2006 World Cup where they faced England. He was unable to score on that occasion but still boasts an incredible strike rate of 70 goals in 115 appearances for Trinidad and Tobago. Although Cristiano Ronaldo has overtaken his total, Lionel Messi lags behind.
John’s understandably proud of being in such elite company. “When I retired from football I was the fourth-highest goalscorer of all-time in internationals. Coming from a small country like Trinidad that’s a fantastic achievement. It’s something I hold close to my heart because I love scoring goals. I was up there with some of the biggest names in the world.”
An iconic figure in his own country, John retains important ties to England, both family and friends. “My son was at Nottingham Forest and he’s at Notts County now. He’s 17. I still have my flat in Birmingham and I’m back there every Christmas. I meet up with Dele Adebola and some of the other guys too.”