Trinidad and Tobago Senior Men's National Team coach Stephen Hart took some time off during the busy Christmas season to touch base with SWO to give us a preview of what to expect from him and his team this upcoming season.
Only six months on the job, Hart is already raising eyebrows and winning over critics with a run of decent performances with his new team. Before his appointment the team had been on a winless streak of six games and had not scored a single goal in nine games. Once the scoreless streak was over however, they responded with a scorching 13 goals in 9 games, including 7 penalties. Hart’s record currently stands at 4 wins, 3 losses and 2 draws.
The former coach of Canada’s Men National Team was literally thrown into the fire upon his appointment in June 2013 as coach of the Soca Warriors, a scant two weeks before the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, and without the benefit of even a single preparatory game.
Despite the timing of Hart's appointment, the team still held its own and was seemingly transformed on the fly. Credit to Hart for infusing the team with new belief, with a huge assist from Dutch mastermind Leo Beenhakker, who himself had been appointed interim Director of Football simultaneous to Hart’s hiring.
With the new staff on board the team adapted well and played with greater purpose, something that was drastically missing in T&T football over the years, particularly since 2006 when T&T made its maiden entrance into the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. The players looked rejuvenated and seemed willing to give 110% for the Red, Black and White.
First on the agenda for T&T was a clash with El Salvador in the Gold Cup Group-B opener. The Warriors faced a talented Salvadorian team, notable among whom were strikers Rodolfo Zelaya and Rafael Burgos. Both were constant threats to T&T and proved very hard to contain, Zelaya in particular.
T&T however, were first out the blocks with a breakaway goal by midfielder, Keon Daniel, but as was to be expected, El Salvador didn't lie down, twice replying and seemed poised to finish off the Warriors but for a spectacular display of goalkeeping by TnT custodian, Jan-Michael Williams and best friend, the goalpost the scored stayed 2-1. Then a 73rd-minute goal by Kenwyne Jones would deny the Central Americans victory as the game ended 2-2.
Up next were Caribbean neighbors Haiti, a team that were expected to be the whipping boys of the Group, but who instead gave Hart’s troops a wake-up call when they steamrolled to a surprising 2-0 victory over T&T. This left the losing supporters fuming as the Warriors went from playing determined football to giving a lackluster display befitting the result.
T&T would rebound and answer their critics in style with an impressive 2-0 triumph over Honduras, and despite the absence of a few regulars, were by far the better team. The win set up a quarter-final meeting with Group A runners-up, Mexico. T&T would bow out to ‘El Tri’ in a narrow, hard-fought 1-0 defeat, which on any other day could have gone in T&T's favor as the Warriors' fought bravely. But T&T had played some of their best football in quite some time and left the Cup with their heads held high.
All this against the backdrop of not having won a single game in 11 prior tries at the Gold Cup and only having made it out of the Group stage just once before in 2000 under coach Bertille St Clair. Many other coaches tried including René Simões and Wim Rijsbergen even the great Don (Leo Beenhakker), but none could reciprocate St Clair's success leaving Hart as his closes successor.
Under the new Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA), all FIFA calendar dates were booked and T&T were on their way to Saudi Arabia to compete in the OSN Cup in September which included; United Arab Emirates, New Zealand and host Saudi Arabia.
T&T arrived only a day before kick-off and had to adapt quickly in the scorching 107°F weather. They opened against United Arab Emirates and were trailing 2-0 at the half and 3-0 in the 55th minute, but something seemed to click in the locker room at half-time, and a different T&T side came out on the field and responded with integrity and fight to tie the game 3-3 and send Hart's men into a sudden-death penalty shootout that saw UAE prevailed 7-6.
Trinidad and Tobago didn't look back and responded well and were 3-1 victors over the host which assured them the bronze medal and a lot of respect internationally, so much that New Zealand were already thinking about visiting T&T for a World Cup tune up match later in the year.
The “All Whites” got their wish and the following month they visited T&T shores and were held to a goal less draw in Port of Spain. T&T would then finish off their 2013 campaign on a high note when they got the better of the Reggae Boyz in a home and away Caribbean Classico series 1-0 and 2-0 respectively, a team T&T had not beaten in 12 years.
In such short time the players were playing with pride and the team was looking more like a unit instead of individuals. Stoke City striker, Kenwyne Jones was a new man, playing some of the best football anyone had ever seen him play for his country. Cornell Glen was also a handful and uncontainable at the Gold Cup.
Then the supporting cast of Andre Boucaud, Kevin Molino, Khaleem Hyland, Ataullah Guerra and the reinstated Lester Peliter were nothing but mesmerizing to watch, particularly Boucaud who was one of The team's more consistent performer.
Defensively, Daneil Cyrus, Carlyle Mitchell, Joevin Jones, Aubrey David, Robert Primus and Radanfah Abu Bakr were rock solid while Jan-Michael Williams held his own between the sticks.
Today Hart, is being called by many SWO members as "Braveheart" is back home, a place to which he always desired to return and make some sort of contributions is finally living his dream in his native country and is quietly hoping to put T&T back on the map.
Read Stehen Hart's interview.
1. Obviously since you took over as head coach T&T has improved drastically. How did you manage to transfrom the team, what is your secret?
SH: First let me state that this is a TEAM thing, not about Stephen Hart. I am one person in the team. The process will take time, complete focus, buy-in by the players, dedication and patience. I explained to the players & staff, that the standards set for international Football are not set by Stephen Hart, but by the best Countries & Clubs in the business. We have to always strived to maintain these standards, even if we playing 5-a- side.
Football is about ability, belief, trust & compassion. I am not the sole responsibility, it’s the team. I got the feeling that the players and to some extent the staff were mentally "beaten down" with all the criticism. My job was to attempt to ease the burden and rejuvenate a love for T&T Football. Our aim: Focus on the task ahead, enjoy yourself (your football) and results will take care of itself.
Building a team especially a National Team takes time, coaches in this environment are not working on a day to day basis. If we want good understanding and working relationships it can only be achieved by working on the field.
Presently, the players are only available on FIFA dates, which means 3-4 training sessions before you actually play. This is one of the main reasons for inconsistency of National Team football. With the exhibition games we need to be in a position to experiment and take risk you will not ordinarily take come competition time. There is a time for building and a time for winning.
The staff, the players and myself are quite aware of the fact that fans & the Association want results. The responsibility falls upon me, however, I have a plan to move forward and if I lose sight of what the objective are, I will take short cuts simply to insure survival. This for me completely defeats the purpose of building for competition.
I had a great discussion with some former players on the individual quality of players presently available & what the future looks like.
Here is how it went down, Beenhakker said at the Gold Cup that he had 5 players that we presently do not have today: Shaka Hislop, Dennis Lawrence, Dwight Yorke, Stern John, Russell Latapy.
A former player then commented that between 2000 - 2006 Bertille St Clair and Ian Porterfield had arguably one of the greatest generations T&T had ever seen since 1973. Jerren Nixon, Stern John, Dwight Yorke, Russell Latapy, David Nakhid, Clayton Ince, Shaka Hislop, Evans Wise, Dennis Lawrence, Marvin Andrews, Arnold Dwarika, Kerwin Jermott the list goes on. He then commented that 5 or more of that generation saw us through to World Cup 2006 and with today's squad not even Kenwyne Jones would make the former team as a starter.
2. Tell us your philosophy as a coach. What brand of football do Stephen Hart like to see his team plan.
SH: All my coaching career I have never discussed philosophy, the word is too big and frightens me. I was always told that I am a romantic and all that matters is the result. For me, if that is the case I cannot enjoy football, because I love an attractive game, with individual flair that is effective.
Football more than any other sport is a lie. A team can totally dominate play and lose and vice versa, you can play poorly and win. When I evaluate myself it is based upon team performance. It’s the same with my evaluation of players as well. Not every game you can be at your best, but you have to do everything possible to contribute in some way when things are not going your way. One of my responsibilities is to show players how to get themselves back into the game when things do not seem to be going their way. This is important because at the end of the day, football is about players. On match day, when all things are equal, it is usually an individual play that makes the difference
Team development is about creating a balance. I like my teams to play a game based on progressive ball possession, with short quick passing & penetration, yet players are free to express themselves within their role. Try to always score goals, but never lose sight of the fact that you need to have the ball in order to do this. If players are not willing to do certain aspects of team play, then it weakens the team and makes you vulnerable.
Having said all that, one has to be pragmatic. No basketball coach will design a game plan with outside shooting from the three point line, if they do not possess that capability. If the present generation of talent that is available has its strengths in certain areas, then you play to those strengths and try to cover up the weaknesses. As a National team I cannot go out and buy players to fill positions where we may be lacking balance.
3. You have been to many league games thus far. Tell us some of your observations good and bad.
SH: I am not in the shoes of those that run teams in the League, or the League for that matter. I can only speak from the outside looking in.
I don't think the coaches in the Leagues are given credit for what they are doing. Compared to the CONCACAF countries that are ahead of us, our Clubs do not have their own facilities (hinders preparation), lack consistent funding and we are in the infancy of professionalism. A simple thing like the relationship between the quality of the pitches & the quality of the game is undervalued. Poor surfaces take away from the speed of play and as a consequence we are technically slow.
Having said that, I do believe we need ONE league where the best players are concentrated, than runs for 10 months. Such a league will create a competitive environment, competition for selection, every game will be competitive, you have to concentrate for 90 minutes and use all your technical / tactical ability to fight for results. This in itself will demand proper scouting, preparation (all aspects), self-discipline etc. for every game.
The spinoffs will also be demanding for coaches and referees and help elevate their game to another level.
Lack of crowd support is an issue for me, the games have no atmosphere and as a consequence make little demands on players to raise their individual standard. Community based teams where people have an identity attachment may be a potential route. However, there are several factors that will need to be in place for this to become a reality. Off the top of my head, playing & training facilities, security issues etc. all come to mind.
In the youth Leagues, there seems to be inconsistency in the youth development pathway. There are pockets of good thing happening, so I will be generalizing and more discussing how to increase the base. Again, it’s about standards. On a World stage, player development is about producing individual players for the next level, not about teams or results. Their model consists of 5 days a week, 10 months of the year training/games, under specialized youth coaches. At most academies, the players involved have to also complete 40 hours of school a week. It’s about commitment & sacrifice. Some may say this is wrong. Fine! But the reality is this is what we are competing against.
Right now we have 20-year olds playing against 15 – 17-year olds, this does not in anyway aid the development of the 20-year old (this also flaws his evaluation). Where in the world has this model? The best players from 18 should be playing at the highest level possible. Generations of our best players use to follow this pathway, from Leroy DeLeon, Gally Cummings, Warren Archibal to Dwight Yorke, Russell Latapy etc.
A youth development model needs to be established, one that is consistent throughout the country, for ages 8-15. We must identify weaknesses, technical, tactical, mental, physical & put in place a means of implication (best practices) to rectify the situation. The program must be one that can be measured. Our aim should be the production of players with consistency & continuity.
4. What can we expect for the new year. Tell us what you would like to accomplish or your desire.
SH: The fact remains that presently we are governed by FIFA International dates. With this in mind we will need to play consistently on these dates & against opposition that will test us in every way. It would be healthy for us if we can get games against team preparing for the WC. Such games will act as an indicator as to our true potential and where we need work.
I will also wish to have an extended camp with all local based players & potentially those players that will be in their off season. The camp must also have International games.
Once this is done I will have a core group identified & we can then prepare towards the CFU Competition.
5. Who are some of the players that really impress you thus far. Players you feel has the ability to play good football and take it to the next level.
SH: I rather not call names, I will say that so far I have focused on the introduction of young players. The team that played in Jamaica average age was 24 years old. However, as we progress age will have no bearing on selection, players on top of their game will be selected. After all, qualification could potentially begin in two years.
Quite frankly all the players that I have selected. They all have their unique qualities that they can bring to the team.
It is up to them to do everything possible to be selected for the National team and once selected do everything possible to make the starting 11 and hold a position. If players are not willing to compete for selection and a position, how can I expect them to compete on the International stage?
6. Alvin Corneal has been a constant critic of T&T football and its players, nothing is ever good enough for him. Then there are a few who are never happy with T&T football and condemn at will if given the opportunity. What is your take on this and have you encountered any negativity off the field?
SH: hahahah, Criticism is part of football and in T&T we are ranked number one in our critic development model :-). We are not patient, unless we are in a line for doubles.
I really hope they come to realize how this impacts the players and hurts progress rather than contribute. Me I look for solutions? Personally, I try not to let it bother me, and if it’s constructive I can accept it. Especially since I realize that most critics have no clue as to what is happening within the team bubble, or what exhibition games are trying to achieve, short & long term.
After all it is a building process. Off the field, especially from the former National players (whom I respect) the support has been very positive and I should add, appreciative. I listen carefully to their advice, but most warn that should we lose a game or two, the sky will begin to fall and the usual knee jerk reactions will surface.
7. Are you happy with the new TTFA and what do you feel they can do to make things better for T&T football.
SH: The present Administration of the TTFA has by and large inherited a very difficult situation. They are doing their very best to slowly rectify the situation. From my standpoint, my responsibility is on the Technical side. Obviously, I will do everything to put in place standards that are necessary for the National Team to function effectively on the International stage. This will take time, with the priority being placed on the most crucial detailed aspects at the moment. In today’s football running a National program is a very expensive endeavor, especially if you want to be consistently in the top 4 of CONCACAF. Make no bones about it, many CONCACAF Nations that were on par or behind T&T have caught up, with quite a few moving ahead. Look no further than Panama & Honduras in last 8 years.
As to what is needed to make things better for T&T football? Believe me I do not have the answers. I presume you are talking about T&T footballers! I would look no further than MLS (even Australia) and you will see what those Leagues have done both countries respectively. Many CONCACAF players (and countries) have also benefited. Though people are critical & even thumb their nose at MLS. The fact remains, that League has been one of the main factors for USA now being the dominant force in the Region.
The U.S. now has a vibrant and eve- expanding league, with quality players involved. All achieved within 20 years. The league has contributed to several US & CONCACAF players being scouted and making the jump to Europe. The league has also allowed many players from the US to stay involved in football longer, increasing the player pool of that Nation. To date the US can comfortably operate with two functioning National teams, as we saw in WCQ & Gold Cup. Much the same can be said for Australia.
Back to T&T Football/Footballers. As I mentioned earlier people involved in the Pro League are doing their best. However, establishing a viable professional football league environment, should remain our primary objective. Once we can achieve this, players and the National program will be the benefactor. The Academy structure will grow, out of necessity, so National youth teams will also benefit. With this in place, I have no doubt we will see far more scouts in the region, and even an interest from foreign clubs wanting to establish working relationships with local clubs. Create the environment and slowly, but surely, the spinoffs will be our reward.
And finally on another note, I would like to send my sincere condolences to the Family of Akeem Adams, this has been a very difficult time for the family and my heart reaches out to them. Life can be cruel and it is very difficult to accept these circumstances of suffering and loss. May he RIP with all gods blessings.
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