Wed, Jun

Ronaldo, Gabriel Batistuta and, eh, Stern John. Who's joking?

Trinidad and Tobago football fans always believed they had unearthed something special when John started snatching international goals like a hyperactive shoplifter. But, thanks to the Rec Sport Soccer Statistics Foundation, they can finally appreciate the importance of his haul.

The RSSSF website, which brims with football statistics, confirmed that John's haul of 56 national goals is the most by a Trinidad and Tobago player and sets him in illustrious international company.

John, who scored on his debut in a 2-1 win over Finland in 1995 when just 18 years old, is tied with Brazilian multiple World Player of the Year, Ronaldo, as well as Argentina's and Japan's most prolific marksmen, respectively, Gabriel Batistuta and Kazuyoshi Miura.

Only ten players have scored more for their country. Iranian striker Ali Daei tops the list with 104 items, followed by Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas (84) and Brazil's and possibly the world's greatest player, Pele (77), while Germany's Gerd Muller (68) is fifth.

Trailing John is the Brazilian pair of Romario (54) and Zico (52), as well as England legend Sir Bobby Charlton (49). Not bad for the former Arouca resident and El Dorado schoolboy who once thought his only route into the national squad was as a defensive midfielder.

"I remember at under-17 level when we were training for a qualifying tournament in Honduras and I had to play in midfield just to get in the team," said John.

"I was playing defensive midfield and even then I could only get on the bench and I didn't play for the entire tournament. And now here I am as the top scorer for Trinidad and Tobago.

"It is definitely a good feeling and a honour for me."

As a boy, John was raised on a diet of Saturday morning English football and dreamt of playing professionally one day after making his competitive debut at under-12 level for the Eddie Hart Upstars in the popular Eddie Hart League in Tacarigua.

His international debut at under-17 level did not set pulses racing but he gave a hint of his potential, two years later, with a debut goal in a low-profile friendly against Finland.

He was the spearhead of a talented under-23 team in the 1995 qualifying series, which included Arnold Dwarika, Evans Wise and the late Mickey Trotman, and his returns of three goals prompted then coach Zoran Vranes to fast track him into his squad for the 1998 World Cup qualifying series.

John marked his first start with a hat-trick as T&T whipped the Dominican Republic 8-0 in the opening qualifying round. He has not looked back since.

At present, John, as well as teammate Angus Eve, has 12 World Cup qualifying goals, which is four shy of the national record tally by former standout Steve David.

However, John insisted he is more interested with appearing in a World Cup than individual accolades.

"I hope my goals can get us to the World Cup because I don't want to just settle for (being the top scorer)," he said. "I could do with some more goals for the team because we (are) at a key moment in our World Cup qualifying campaign and I don't want to be selfish (and think only of personal records)."

He might have left his mark on the international scoring charts but it has not spared him the embarrassment of being verbally abused by club supporters at lowly English League Championship outfit, Coventry City. The fall from grace was sudden for the 28-year-old former Premiership striker, who was adored at Nottingham Forest and respected at Birmingham City.

"I can't be mad at the fans because they have been in the Premier League for a long time and expect certain things and are really frustrated," said John.

"I guess it is all part of the game but you would never think your own fans would get at you like that. I want to stay and do well but I don't see why they are pointing fingers at one player."

John admitted he expected too much too quickly when he joined Coventry last September for £200,000. He explained that, although the League Championship was not as technically good as the Premier League, it did present its own challenges.

"In the Premiership, players respect each other and tend to step off and (channel) you to give the ball away," he said, "while it is a dogfight here and players are running over you to get the ball."

He also suggested that there was more pressure on foreign players to do well and doubly so when you came from a less-heralded continental zone like CONCACAF.

"I don't think we get the respect we should in Europe," said John. "They don't think our (qualifying group) is any good, but we have players from Barcelona and Manchester United and all the top leagues here.

And yet when I have to return home they act as if it is a jolly up. But I always treat playing for my country very seriously

"As a foreigner, we have to work twice as hard and, at the end of the day, you just have to bite your lip and get on with it. They will always be quick to say 'why are we using him when we can push one of our own players' and I hope it is something that the young Trinidad and Tobago players coming through can see."

Whatever the opinion of some noisy Coventry fans, John has made his presence felt in England as well.

And he has given Trinidad and Tobago football fans 56 reasons to love him.