The following story—written by Wired868 managing director Lasana Liburd—was first published by the Trinidad Express on 2 December 2008 and chronicles the ambitions and racial barriers faced by Trinidad and Tobago players, Jan-Michael Williams, Matthew Bartholomew and Aaron Downing, as they tried to break into the European professional leagues:
“Williams, go back to Africa!”
The speaker was a seven-year-old boy in Ferencvaros’ colours—the Hungarian Second Division employers of Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams. It has been a regular taunt this season for Ferencvaros’ dark skinned players from their own supporters, let alone the opposition fans.
The 24-year-old Williams is, of course, not from Africa but racists apparently like to keep things very simple.
“From the first time I arrived here in the summer to now,” Williams told the Trinidad Express, “fans, both ours and the opposing teams, have been abusing us racially. Whether it be verbally with monkeys noises or the ever so famous ‘go back to Africa’ chants and even with posters and signs but they can’t deter me from playing at my best.”
Williams must be grateful to be back on Trinidad soil at the moment although his challenge here, though less repulsive, is also demanding.
In 2006, Williams became the first goalkeeper to be adjudged the Pro League’s Most Valuable Player and was the country’s undisputed number one in the subsequent two year period, which included a Caribbean Cup and CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament.
But Williams has featured in just three of 25 matches under Trinidad and Tobago’s Colombia-born coach Francisco Maturana and managed only one outing, thus far, in the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign—he kept a clean sheet in Trinidad and Tobago’s crucial 2-0 away win over Bermuda in June. He is desperate to win his place back.
On November 19, 2008, Williams looked on from the stands as the “Soca Warriors” whipped Cuba 3-0 at the Hasely Crawford Stadium to advance to the final CONCACAF qualifying round. He hopes to be much closer to the action when World Cup qualifying action restarts and aims to make a significant step in the right direction at next month’s Caribbean Cup finals in Jamaica.
“I want to play in the (Caribbean) Cup and help get our regional supremacy going again,” said Williams, who picked up a silver medal at the 2007 Caribbean Cup edition. “I think I could have done better in the (2007) final and I want a chance to redeem myself.”
In the way of his international aspirations, at least in the short term, is a long standing rival, Marvin Phillip. Familiarity does not always breed contempt.
“When Marvin and (Clico San Juan Jabloteh’s) Daurance Williams are on or around the national team, I know I have to be at my best at all times,” he said. “It is a fierce competitive rivally but we have always remained good friends.”
The pair competed for the number one shirt in 2001 when Trinidad and Tobago staged the Under-17 World Cup and Phillips won the nod for the three group matches.
At senior level, though, Williams benefitted from the stability of life southern giants, W. Connection, where he was understudy to Colombian Alejandro Figueroa while Phillip started for Starworld Strikers and then North East Stars but was punished for indiscipline at both clubs.
Ironically, as Williams packed his bags for Europe in 2007, Connection owner David J Williams—no relation—acquired Phillip, who had been released by North East Stars, as his replacement.
This year, Phillip made his own press to be numero uno with successive clean sheets in his first six matches under Maturana while he is one away from tying Clayton Ince’s record of eight shut outs in a calendar year. It is a fillip of sorts for the Pro League that, while players previously became irreplaceable once they joined European clubs, the opposite has been true for Williams.
But then little has gone to play for Williams in Europe so far.
After impressing on trials at Sheffield United, he failed to land a work permit at the England Championship League club because of a lack of international appearances and was loaned to Belgian Third Division’s White Star Woluwe—a club partly owned by the English outfit. There he rejoined former Connection teammates and national youth players Aaron Downing and Matthew Bartholomew.
White Star were on a hot run and preferred not to tinker with their first team so Williams spent much of his time at the sidelines. He got more than he bargained for off the field, though.
He remembered one night out in Belgium with Downing, Bartholomew and some white teammates when a sign in French a quick about-turn from a night club. When he asked his French-speaking colleagues about their abrupt exit, they explained that “blacks” were not allowed there.
The situation was repeated several times in Belgium.
“(Our teammates) were not apologetic about it because they didn’t think they had to be,” said Williams. “It is apparently a normal thing there. It is just understood that some club owners do not want blacks on their premises.”
Things got worse when, after again missing out on a British work permit, Williams was flown out to Hungary’s Ferencvaros where Sheffield again own a considerable stake. The club chairman, Terry Robinson, and coach, Bobby Davison—both English—brought in an influx of dark skinned players to challenge for promotion.
Trinidad and Tobago and Ivory Coast contributed three players each to Ferencvaros’ 32-man roster at the start of the season while there were also two Jamaicans and one Somalian. The foreigners hoped to benefit from the shorter, less complicated route to a European Union passport there as opposed to at countries like Britain.
But many players quickly had second thoughts and, within months, had asked the club to be released from their contracts in disgust at the racist abuse.
Downing and Bartholomew, both 20-years-old and former national youth players, have no intention of returning to Hungary and made their positions clear to the club chairman. They are awaiting word on a possible move elsewhere in Europe.
Bartholomew spoke about his anxiety in escaping skinheads at one subway station as well as his shock at the racist banners and abuse dished out on match day. The former National Under-20 Team captain, who led a team that included Khaleem Hyland, Radanfah Abu Bakr, Lester Peltier and Carlyle Mitchell, always dreamed of playing professionally in Europe but he described his last game, a 1-1 draw away, as the worse experience of his life.
“Coming off the field, we had to pass between two sets of fans,” said Bartholomew, “and people started pelting glass bottles and spitting at us and jumping up and down like monkeys. And those were our fans!
“After that, I called Sheffield (United) and told them I couldn’t stay there. I had to go home.”
Ferencvaros go into the winter break atop their standings and in an excellent position for promotion to the top flight. Williams’ last outing was a 4-0 win away to Vecses and he was partnered in the first team by Jamaican midfielder Jason Morrison and Ivory Coast attacker Kourouma Lamine.
There were a few positive signs of late. Ferencvaros put up posters at their ground condemning racism while there have even been handshakes and autograph requests from some supporters.
“Some fans have spat at me and the other Caribbean players,” said Williams. “I have been doing well personally but I am afraid of what might happen if I have a bad game. But not all of the people here are racist and my black players and I are making some progress in changing minds.
“So it will be alright, I hope. But there are still those fans who are upset. One guy even shouted at me in English ‘white supremacy’ after a game.
“I honestly think more can and should be done by our team’s management department.”
Williams is safe from the ‘back to Africa’ chants at the moment as he attempts to get back into Maturana’s good books. A trip to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup is at the forefront of his mind these days.
Editor’s Note: This story was first published by the Trinidad Express newspaper on 2 December 2008.
Jan-Michael Williams remained with Ferencvaros until the end of the season and won the Hungarian league with the club. Now 31-years-old, he is the current Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team first choice goalkeeper and has represented his country 73 times with 23 clean sheets.
CONCACAF selected him among its top ten goalkeepers in 2013 and 2014. He trialled once since his Ferencvaros stint but never played for an overseas club again.
Bartholomew quit Ferencvaros, just a month after this story. He rejoined W Connection and made two appearances for the Soca Warriors away to Chile and Belize in 2010—alongside the likes of Joevin Jones, Devorn Jorsling and Daneil Cyrus—under then head coach Russell Latapy.
However, his career floundered soon after as he took a lengthy break from the game, returned to represent Point Fortin Civic in the 2013/14 Pro League and then quit for good after an unsuccessful trial in Vietnam.
He is a former Mr Point Fortin and does some modelling. He turned 28 last Thursday.
Aaron Downing, now 28, also quit Ferencvaros a month after this story was published, along with Bartholomew. He did not stay long with Connection, though, and quickly disappeared from the local top flight.
He is now believed to work as a handyman.