Sun, Aug

Schools’ league grapples with issues of registration, player development and TTFA relations.

SSFL Forum:

Academic requirements for school footballers, wider powers for the credential committee, an electronic database for players, small-sided games for Under-14s and a re-evaluation of the registration period and deadline for players to participate in external competitions.

There were no shortage of talking points as the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL) held its first Stakeholders Forum on Saturday morning at the National Cycling Centre in Couva.

And that was before you got to the really ticklish stuff.

Should the SSFL be designed with a view to participation or development? Should schools attempt to fill the vacuum left by local clubs or keep off the toes of the latter party?

Where does the SSFL fit into the TTFA’s blueprint for international football success? What impact does refereeing have on the League and vice versa and what is the ideal relationship between the pair? Can the SSFL force-feed morality to dishonest principals?

And perhaps the deepest philosophical question of all, courtesy of Trinity College East principal Derek West: is this a league of schools or just a league that schools play in?

“Criticism helps us grow,” said SSFL president William Wallace, as he kicked off the forum at roughly 10am and with just over 40 persons in attendance.

The SSFL Executive, he stressed, was all ears and willing to take suggestions on board to improve its product. It is worth pointing out the parties who opted not to take part in the process.

Remarkably—especially after the Fyzabad Secondary scandal last season—there was no representative from the Ministry of Education at the Cycling Centre. Just as telling was the absence of direct involvement from the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFA).

True, the football body’s technical director, Anton Corneal, was present—he said he dragged himself out of his sick bed to be there. But, when it came down to the matter of policy, Corneal conceded that his contributions were generally not vetted by his employer and could not be considered the TTFA’s viewpoint.

Arguably, the most eyebrow-raising no-show was—for more reasons than one—the local referees. First, because the issue of “refereeing” was literally high on the agenda as the Trinidad and Tobago Football Referees Association (TTFRA) had promised to send a representative. And because this contentious profession has been highlighted for all the wrong reasons of late and a non-acrimonious sit-down could only help.

But, mostly, because the president of the TTFRA and chairman of the TTFA’s Referee Committee, Joseph Taylor, was at the forum but claimed to be there only as a Mucurapo West Secondary staff member.

Last September, my then 6-year-old daughter was contemplating the definition of a mixture, which was “two or more substances that can be mixed and can be separated.” A cup of tea or bowl of cereal, she suggested, cannot be mixtures then.

Well, if ever there was a man capable of perfectly separating a cup of tea—I would assume that his last name is Taylor.

Perhaps fittingly, Laurence Seepersad, the SSFL’s assistant secretary operations and Credentials Committee chairman, got the show on the road.

The Credentials Committee comprises Seepersad, SSFL general secretary Azaad Khan (who was absent) and the secretaries for all five zones.

The biggest issue, according to Seepersad, was that most schools submitted their teams just before the deadline and created an impossible workload for the volunteers. Notably, schools are able to register players up until three days before the final game of the season. It means that—particularly when you consider the number of zones and divisions under their portfolio—the scale of Seepersad’s task might be second only to curbing violent crime.

There were several suggestions. Keith Look Loy, who was there as Trinidad and Tobago Super League (TTSL) president, recommended that the SSFL implement a registration deadline—just like almost every other league.

Since the forum was recorded, it is possible that the SSFL Executive might consider this at a later date. On Saturday, it got short shrift, though. Apparently, school teams habitually chance across a player they missed during their pre-season and would like to retain the option of belatedly including that boy or girl in their squad.

FIFA match commissioner Norris Ferguson and San Juan North Secondary vice-principal Phillip Fraser suggested that maybe the controversial article 16. 4 (a) should be amended so as to avoid a repeat of the Matthew Beal situation at Shiva Boys Hindu College.

The clause reads: “A player, who having been registered and/or is playing with the TTFA or with another league or association affiliated to the TTFA after 31st August of the current year, shall not be eligible to be registered as a player for their school unless they meet the criteria of the Credentials Committee.”

But, as Wired868 pointed out, if you eliminated the “unless they meet the criteria…” bit, then would this not infringe on the school’s ability to include that last-minute player they had chanced across? Suppose the boy had just transferred in and, through no fault of his own, had represented a zonal team after the deadline since he was not with a school team at the time?

And would most issues not be solved by more interaction between the Credentials Committee and SSFL match commissioners anyway?

For instance, if every school had to submit a 25-member shortlist on the eve of each game, then there would be much less chance of an ineligible student getting on to the field, as happened with Shiva Boys midfielder Kierron Mason.

It was a combination of registration issues between Beal and Mason that led to Shiva Boys being relegated last season and nearly reduced the competition to farce.

Former St Augustine Secondary principal Andre Moses—or maybe it was former SSFL executive Trevor Bridglalsingh—noted that schools were conflating the submission of documents with registration. If they accepted that registration was incomplete until the schools body said so, then maybe there would be fewer issues.

Point well made, sir.

Corneal, who said he was recovering from the virus and looked to be standing by the grace of God, gave pointers for improving the quality of schoolboy players and, ultimately, national youth teams. At Form One and Under-14 level, the technical director suggested unlimited substitutions or, further, a rule to ensure that all squad members received playing time in each game. It was, he said, an idea imported from the United States.

Or, like Belgium and Holland, the SSFL could turn its competitions for the younger players into eight-a-side games so as to encourage more touches of the ball and, as a result, more technically skilled players.

Trinity East coach Michael Grayson, who is also well versed in the US soccer system, agreed wholeheartedly. For others, this radical shift might require some more discussion but at least the seed was planted.

Wallace said he was happy to take Corneal’s proposal to the SSFL Executive and general membership on one condition—that the idea was formally passed over with the TTFA’s stamp of approval.

As straightforward as Wallace’s request might seem, it sparked some to-ing and fro-ing.

Corneal felt that the extra paperwork and/or chain of approval was unnecessary as Wallace could simply jot the point down there and then and move it along the assembly line. Wallace retorted that he felt it necessary to operate within the framework of a memorandum of understanding between the TTFA and the SSFL, which, he stressed, had been repeatedly sought by the schools football body without success.

“What happens if we go ahead with this [without TTFA sanction],”Wallace asked,  “and then there is a new technical director telling us something different next month?”

“Somebody told you something I don’t know?” Corneal shot back, lightheartedly.

Wired868 asked Corneal how could the SSFL better assist the national youth programme starting with coach Russell Latapy’s Under-20 Team that enters Caribbean competition in November.

It sparked a debate on essentially what role the school game plays within the local football ecosystem.

In essence, the SSFL is expected not to get in the way of Latapy’s plans, which means to release players to train on demand and also to have them potentially participate in the 2018 TTSL or Pro League competition. School football fans could expect to miss the likes of Che Benny (St Anthony’s College), Jordan Riley (Presentation College, San Fernando), Judah Garcia and Tyrel Emmanuel (both Shiva Boys) next season then.

Almost inevitably, though, there will be conflict this September when schoolboys are faced with the choice of playing in front of hundreds of schoolmates and live on SportsMax, or in front of a few dozen onlookers in the Pro League.

It is a decision that might cause nights of head-scratching for the teenaged players who feel they might not make Latapy’s final squad anyway. Or those who think they are undroppable.

Corneal pointed out that the last group of schoolboys to sacrifice SSFL glory for the more testing Super League competition went on to qualify for the Egypt FIFA 2009 Under-20 World Cup.

“After that the whole idea [of nurturing national youth teams in adult competitions] just fell away,” said Corneal.

“It fell away because there was no TTFA policy in place,” Wallace retorted. “The SSFL and the TTFA are always operating in silos…”

Corneal had “good news” for the SSFL too; FIFA, he said, had recognised the role of school competitions in its new initiative, which urged all countries to have eight-to-ten months per year of youth football.

The 2018 calendar, Corneal explained, should have been split as follows: January to March (Flow Youth Pro League), March to early July (Republic Bank National Youth League) and September to early December (SSFL).

The Pro League being the Pro League, the calendar is already out of sync as they began their competition two months late. Since the RBNYL—and its organiser and All Sport chairman Tony Harford was the SSFL’s moderator on Saturday—is unwilling to butcher its own schedule to compensate for the Pro League’s sluggish organisation, it means Trinidad and Tobago youth players are already down to eight months at best in 2018.

There were two primary concerns about the TTFA’s eight-to-ten-month football initiative, which came under the heading of youth development.

Several SSFL schools—Fatima College and Trinity College East among them—had taken to opening football academies so as to nurture their players all year round.

Look Loy was sceptical.

“Schools can never replace clubs,” said the TTSL president.

Corneal’s suggestion was that the players would split time between competing with their clubs and training with schools. It means that, apart from having two masters/coaches simultaneously—three if a player were also on the national team—schoolboys would be doing pre-season training with one outfit while doing mid-season work with another.

Pre-season training includes a lot of strength and conditioning work meant to stretch muscles to their limits. Mid-season training means lighter work designed to keep the body ticking over and, specifically, designed not to overburden the players physically.

“But that is madness,” said West.

By then, Corneal had already left—presumably for his sick bed.

It is uncertain whether he heard West’s first point. But he definitely did not hear the second criticism.

“Since when is more competition the same as development?” someone asked. “Where in the TTFA’s youth development plan do the players actually train and improve?”

It was six hours of cut and thrust and there were many fine ideas that will not be touched on in this summary.

Former SSFL president Anthony Creed, ex-Arima North Secondary teacher Gregory Wales, South Zone secretary Essiel Seecharan were not short of ideas as were Look Loy, Bridglalsingh, Moses and, of course, West.

As the sole media house present, Wired868 made a plea too for visible numbers on team shirts and pants—the St Mary’s College kit looked like it was found behind a dumpster—as well as a database of registered players with names correctly spelled.

Photographer and CA Images head Allan V Crane spoke  on marketing and copyright issues, abetted by sport attorney Ricardo Williams who sat at the head table.

Wired868 suggested too that, since schools complained of players who did not show up after the football season or sit exams, perhaps the SSFL should implement a transfer ban. If the majority of a school’s repeaters do not sit exams, the said school would not be allowed to field repeaters in the following year.

It was not a suggestion which seemed to find enthusiastic approval although Wallace was pleased to announce that the SSFL had begun discussions with the Education Ministry to create education centres designed to help players to catch up with their schoolwork.

On the thorny issue of a minimum education requirement for players, Wales suggested the introduction of a GPA formula which rates their performances in the context of their classmates—that way, it would be fair to students from “non-prestige” schools while still challenging for those at the other end of the spectrum.

Although, come to think of it, a GPA system probably would not appeal to colleges who poach students from secondary comprehensives and would have a tall task getting them to fit in academically.

So, there is a lot for the SSFL executive members to consider before they next face their general membership.

And is the SSFL a league of schools or just a league that schools play in? Maybe they will get closer to an answer by the next forum.