stern11.jpgThe Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation's (T&TFF) press release on August 14 served notice of the 18 players who would travel to Cuba in an effort to take the "Soca Warriors" closer to their dream of a second successive World Cup finals appearance.
World Cup 2006 captain and veteran Sunderland midfielder Dwight Yorke, T&TFF press officer Shaun Fuentes explained, was unavailable through injury.

Not a word on Trinidad and Tobago's all-time leading scorer, though. The man who, despite playing abroad for most of his career, amassed a remarkable 104 caps-a tally that is second only to former national captain and present CLICO San Juan Jabloteh assistant coach Angus Eve's 117 appearances.

His name is Stern John, he has only ever worn the number 14 shirt and just five players in the history of the game scored more for their country. John's 69 goals are eight short of Brazil legend Pele's 77 items and 40 shy of the top mark set by Iran's Ali Daei.

In an Express interview last May, the 31-year-old John expressed a desire to surpass Pele's tally before he retired from the international game and goals in both qualifying legs against Bermuda pulled him closer to that tally. But it is unlikely that he would get the chance to improve his record under present national coach Francisco Maturana-if ever. If so, it should be remembered as the end of an era.

The T&TFF did not appear to see it that way. And there are numerous local football fans who might agree with their muted appreciation for 13 years; work from the surly number 14.

Goals win matches but, apparently, not hearts. The fact that John scored in each of his last two outings for his country-he is, arguably, the reason the stuttering Warriors got this far-tends to suggest the striker was not evaluated on his formidable scoring record.

John was particularly disappointed that he did not receive official word of his demotion from the national coaching staff who requested his services, via fax, to face Cuba in the first place.

Such discourtesy would not surprise long-suffering observers of the T&TFF. It reflects badly too on Maturana's technical team, although team manager David Muhammad, by virtue of his job title, should be the principal culprit. But John's exclusion always seemed a question of when rather than if.

Clearly, Maturana was not suitably impressed after his first meeting with John in February when his tenure started with a goalless draw against Guadeloupe at the Queen's Park Oval.

A disagreement over the ownership of the captain's armband got the pair off to a bad start as the Colombian fumed when his choice, Densill Theobald, handed the responsibility to John before kick off. Maturana apparently was persuaded to select John for his next appearance, which came against England. And, despite the lone item in a 2-1 home loss to Bermuda in June, John was a substitute for the return leg. He came off the bench to score the goal that took the Warriors through, but it hardly mattered.

Goals were no longer enough. But Maturana is not alone in his suspicions of the traditional centre forward role.

Michael Owen cannot bank on a game for England, while Ruud van Nistelrooy recently felt undervalued by the Netherlands. Manchester United conquered England and Europe with a team that contained no pure striker but relied on the all-round attributes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.

And, while former T&T coach Leo Beenhakker's 2006 squad was built around John's clinical but immobile talents, Maturana preferred pace over end product as his team habitually advance by long punts rather than measured midfield play. We may never know if the Warriors' present approach evolved or was specifically chosen to exclude John.

Maturana blamed a "disruptive element" within his squad for an embarrassing first leg loss to Bermuda and, although veteran goalkeeper Clayton Ince was first to go, John always seemed the intended target.

For much of his international career, John was famous for stomping around the dressing room shattering egos like a bull in a china shop. Brilliant French attacker Thierry Henry, according to Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, behaved in much the same way at the London club where he was gently chided for inhibiting their young talent.

Former national coach Hannibal Najjar listed his only regret as failing to axe John for his demeanor. The soft-spoken Maturana, who is also a qualified dentist, was a tad braver when it came to extraction.

But John's athletic deficiencies and sometimes aggressive personality should not erase respect for the way he did his job. There has never been a better striker in a Trinidad and Tobago shirt.

At his best, before a first knee operation in 1999, John's quick swivel to left or right and thumping finish was hailed as the "Stern turn" and, in Birmingham colours, he memorably treated West Ham and Czech defender Tomas Repka to an exhibition with a Premiership double in 2002. He set the Caribbean Cup record with ten goals in 1998-three more than compatriot, Leonson Lewis-while he swept United States' Major League Soccer (MLS) and Caribbean awards during a spell in which he scored 24 times in 21 outings for then national coach Bertille St Clair. But the T&TFF named Arnold Dwarika their 1998 Player of the Year instead.

In 2005, John's nine goals, including five in the last four CONCACAF qualifiers and a sensational double against Mexico, were invaluable to a historic 2006 World Cup drive, while he went two goals better than Steve David's local record of 16 qualifying goals. But it was Dwight Yorke, the returning prodigal son, who received T&TFF's annual award while John was booed several times for his troubles by Port of Spain patrons.

Most countries idolise their match winners. For John, it seems his birthplace was a blessing and a curse, although he never regretted turning out in red, black and white.

If John's end has come, he did it his way.