“I remember the decision in the (2013) Gold Cup when we were going to play Honduras (for a place in the knockout round) and I made six changes,” Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team coach Stephen Hart told Wired868. “And Leo Beenhakker was completely against it. He said: ‘I would not do that’. Those were his words: ‘I would not do that’.
“And I felt the players were emotionally and physically finished and I made the six changes and we got the result against Honduras. And I remember him coming to the dressing room and saying: ‘You have balls like grapefruits’!”
In Part Two of our exclusive interview, “Soca Warriors” head coach Stephen Hart talks about harsh lessons against Haiti and Honduras, why Trinidad and Tobago football cannot afford the Pro League’s collapse and the Cornell Glen dilemma:
Wired868: You are in your third year as Trinidad and Tobago coach. How far along is the project in terms of the qualities you want to combine into a squad? 50 percent? 60 percent?
Stephen Hart: I would say that figure sounds about right. It is very hard for me to assess in terms of success and failure because the bottom line to me is the result. But in terms of me building a team, the players have been tremendous.
But, having said that, we have not played enough football… Some people would say we went to two Gold Cups and did reasonably well. The first one we lost in the 80-something minute to Mexico and the second one, we went out to a penalty shoot out situation (against Panama)…
But first you have to look at the best teams in CONCACAF and what they are doing. And the best teams are playing significantly more games than we are. So it is hard to evaluate (our progress).
Wired868: What lessons, if any, have been learnt from our 2016 Copa America Centenario play off defeat to Haiti?
Hart: I think everybody has to feel good about the environment they are in and the situation they are going into. And going into the Haiti game, there was a lot of tension.
The players had come off a euphoric situation with the United States (draw) and then, unfortunately, there was a strike situation and that kind of put a damper on things. And people can easily point the finger and say well you shouldn’t have picked those players. But at the end of the day, you have to support the players that have gone to fight for the country and play for you. Because as a coach you want players who buy into what you do. No coach wants players who don’t buy into what he is trying to do.
I watched the game a couple times and it was not as bad as I thought it was (when I was) looking from the bench. We had a lot of early chances in the game and even half chances. And even to the end of the game we had chances to take the game into overtime.
The goal was an unfortunate one. In every game of football there is always the possibility that you will lose. And the longer the game went on, the more confidence Haiti got. And their substitutes had a good impact on the game.
Wired868: You have never spoken much about that 8-1 loss to Canada in the Brazil 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. What lessons are there in that defeat?
Hart: What happened with Canada is we started to lose a lot of quality. We lost Ali Gerber, who was a prolific scorer at international level, going into the qualification. And then we lost Josh Simpson who was a very dynamic wide player and gave us a lot of penetration and was just on his way to do very well in Europe. And Rob Friend was in Germany and he got injured.
Canada was not a team that scores a lot of goals but we had some good runs with those players in the side… But we were getting caught with a generation of players that were getting older. I had in the back of my mind that the players could not play the two internationals (within four days) in the qualification. But, as it turned out when we reached to play (Cuba), Dwayne De Rosario got injured and we lost not just one of your biggest players but one of your inspirations in the dressing room. And things started to fall apart.
So now I made a decision to lean on the players that I should have told I don’t think you can play the two games back to back. But because of the situation, I leaned. And it did not work out.
A lot of people said a lot of things but we played seven games and only gave away about three goals in that period. And then in one game, we collapsed mentally and physically. We completely collapsed.
It is funny because, when we played Honduras in Canada, we had 13 or 15 shots at Honduras and they had one and we ended up tying the game (0-0). And I remember Atiba Hutchinson walking off and saying to me ‘I hope this game doesn’t come back to haunt us’. We should have buried them… And then we go down there and they have 13 shots for the entire game and score eight. It was unexplainable.
And as a coach, just like (against) Haiti, you have to accept the responsibility. It is your team, so you accept the responsibility.
Wired868: What do results like that mean to coaches? Is there a feeling of impotence or doubt?
Hart: We have seen Manchester United get six, Arsenal get seven and (Manchester) City get five and six. Roma get seven, Jose Mourinho got five. There are games like that.
Now you go in the dressing room and you are faced with two decisions. And this was the big decision in Honduras (when Canada needed a point but trailed 4-0 at halftime). I could have said ‘save face, batten down the hatches and keep it at four’. But I thought that was a betrayal to football and the Canadian public.
There were players in the dressing room (at halftime) who were saying we need to have damage control. And I said: ‘No, what we need now is to go out there and show the public that we will at least fight to bring some respectability back into the game’.
And, rightly or wrongly, that was my decision. So, we scored one goal and we gave up four more…
I think 90 percent of the coaches would go for damage control. Make it 4-1 maybe and it doesn’t look so bad. People like to say: ‘Whether you lose by six or two, you still lose, so go for it’. But at the end of the day, they don’t believe that. They talk it; but they don’t believe that…
Wired868: What has been your biggest decision so far as Trinidad and Tobago coach?
Hart: There are some players that I left out that I probably could have gone with a little bit longer. But you have to think about the group dynamics: how the team moulds itself; how they operate off the field; are they good with each other. I think that is extremely important. So maybe there were a couple decisions along those lines.
I remember the decision in the (2013) Gold Cup when we were going to play Honduras (for a place in the knockout round) and I made six changes. And Leo Beenhakker was completely against it. He said: ‘I would not do that’. Those were his words: ‘I would not do that’. And I felt the players were emotionally and physically finished and I made the six changes and we got the result against Honduras.
And I remember him coming to the dressing room and saying: ‘You have balls like grapefruits’! (Laughs)
It was a big decision and one that fortunately paid off.
Wired868: Can you say more about the decision to leave out Cornell Glen?
Hart: You make a decision and you live with your decision, whether rightly or wrongly. I had Cornell for just the gold cup and he didn’t give me any trouble. I liked him; he is a talent. He came off the bench and he did his best. He started the Honduras game and he did well.
Maybe sometimes you get caught up when you look at a player’s age and you think of the contribution (you need). And you also have to think if you are going to bring a player of such status and tell them they are going to play off the bench. You don’t know how they are going to react to that…
Cornell is a player of high status in Trinidad football. So rather than take that kind of chance, you make a decision one way or the other, rightly or wrongly, and you live with it.
Wired868: Is it a final decision? Or might he be a super sub at some point in the World Cup qualifying campaign?
Hart: I had a chat with Cornell down at the Hasely Crawford Stadium one day and I tried to explain it to him. If you look at my situation, I have had very little opportunity to bring people in on an exhibition basis. Most of the times, you are going into a tournament with just one practice game… I explained that to him…
But I wouldn’t say the door is closed. He is far away (in India) eh. But if he says to me: ‘I will be a bit player or a part player or whatever you wish for me’. Then, yes, definitely.
The Caribbean Cup is coming up (and) we have a lot of football this year. So who knows. I will keep an eye on him. I try to see some of his games and he had a good season last year…
I think the (India) league is a technical kind of league. There is a lot of space to play. But he can still do what he does, (which is) score goals.
Wired868: And what of our Pro League? How do you rate this season, as compared to the last one?
Hart: It started off well (with) a lot of parity between the teams and it is still somewhat that way. But I must admit that I am a little disappointed in the quality in the second half of the season.
The big part of football for me is the intensity and the ability to attack and close down space. Most of the games I see are played in 60 and 65 yards of space and international football and the modern game is played in about 40. So you get a false sense of the ability of the players because for me it is when you are asked to play faster, which means think faster, can you do it.
I don’t think those demands are being made in the Pro League and the CONCACAF level of the Champions League sort of shows that.
Wired868: Do you think the problems are due to team preparation? Has the financial issues of the Pro League had an impact there?
Hart: I can’t talk about the preparation because I don’t know what coaches go through. And that would be unfair to judge from sitting in the stands where I am just like any other person in the public.
But certainly the financial situation is worrying because there are a lot of players who depend on the Pro League to feed their families and I’m sure it plays on their minds. Also the teams can’t get the players that they would like or bring in the players to raise the standard a little bit. I am sure that has an effect.
Wired868: A former national player, Makan Hislop, said many Pro League players head to the minor leagues because there they get money in their hand before kick off while sometimes their clubs are weeks late in paying. What do you think of that dilemma for the players?
Hart: It is a problem because why would I come to the Pro League and support the Pro League when I can see the same players in a minor league? So it diminishes the quality of your own product, which you are trying to create. I think if you have a made a commitment to a club, then you have to live up to that commitment.
Now having said that, it also goes for the owners. If you have made a commitment and the players have earned the right to be paid. They must be paid.
Wired868: What impact could there be on our World Cup campaign if, due to financial issues, the Pro League folds?
Hart: I think it would be devastating for our football. The quality of the local leagues in the top tier of Concacaf: Costa Rica, Mexico, the United States, Honduras and even Guatemala. They all have good club structure and a good league; a league good enough to keep standards relatively high and to create competitive players for the national team.
If we go down in Trinidad and Tobago, then more than likely all football (here) would go down. I think it would be devastating for the country and the players. I would not want that to happen to them at all.