Corneal: They’re operating by guess; you can’t play trial and error with the future of our football!

“[Trinidad and Tobago Boys National Under-15 head coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier] has spoken now about things that need to change but those things should have been changed two years ago. That means they didn’t have the required experience or weren’t sure about what is supposed to happen at that age group. They were operating by guess…

“You can’t play trial and error with our nation’s children and the future of our football, especially when you have such a talented bunch like our Boys National Under-15 Team.”

Outgoing Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) technical director Anton Corneal, who was a member of the Soca Warriors coaching staff for the Germany 2006 World Cup and the 2007 and 2009 World Youth Cups, sits down with Wired868 for a wide-ranging interview on the local game:

Photo: TTFA technical director Anton Corneal.
(Copyright Nicholas Bhajan/CA-Images/Wired868)

Wired868: Can you give us an update on the current football landscape as technical director?

Anton Corneal: Well, first off, I am no longer employed with the TTFA. My contract was up for renewal at the end of July and I met with the general secretary, Camara David, last Tuesday. (I was a little surprised that the president [David John-Williams] was not there.)

Camara said that they could not financially afford to continue with me. I’m assuming that decision came out of a board meeting but I don’t know that.

Wired868: Have you heard from the TTFA president since, even if just to thank you for your service?

Corneal: I have not heard from the President but I’m not surprised; it is consistent with how I was treated for the last two years. I think the position of technical director has been treated with disrespect. So [there was] no contact but it is par for the course.

Wired868: Can you give me examples of what you considered disrespect?

Corneal: Well my financial arrangement has not been honoured. So I’m talking about unpaid salaries and promises of being paid that were not kept. At present, we are in court about it so I don’t want to go into too many specifics. But take a simple thing as just being able to sit down and communicate the renewal of my contract. It ends up being done by the General Secretary and only happened after it was expired.

Photo: TTFA president and W Connection owner David John-Williams (centre) greets players (from right) Hughtun Hector, Alvin Jones and Maurice Forde before kick off against Police FC in the TTFA FA Trophy final at the Ato Boldon Stadium on 8 December 2017.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/CA-Images/Wired868)

Wired868: What were you told by the TTFA for the months when you did not get paid? 

Corneal: Nothing at all. I just would not get a salary at the end of the month. It was not even communicated to me that I was not going to be paid. I get paid by cheque and at first, I would call the office to find out if there was a payment ready for me or when I could expect it; but I stopped doing that a long time ago. It was a waste of time.

I don’t think anyone should have to go through what I did… I even had to write to them in January because it got ridiculous. I am also aware of so many people not being paid [by the current administration]. It is a very unhealthy environment.

A couple of months ago, I found out that money was disbursed to some people who were owed money at the end of May; and I didn’t get any money… I think it was disrespectful and vindictive. They are aware of how much money is owed to me and to say they would get a lump sum of money and pay other people and not pay me—it has to be something personal… Even when I said I was withholding my services, I still did everything asked of me. Even if I did not go down to the office every day, every request made of me was honoured.

[…] I would love to know who makes that decision on who gets paid and who doesn’t. Is that a decision that comes from one person? Or the board? Or the so-called emergency committee?

It is a pity to know that the ‘hierarchy’ is surrounded by people who you would think know better but wouldn’t say or do anything. There are some former players, coaches and administrators at the highest level who are still there in the TTFA and they are just afraid to do anything. I am seeing our game being affected by that. It is difficult to sit around and not be able to do anything and just watch our football go deeper in a hole.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago forward Mariah Shade reacts to a missed opportunity during 2019 World Cup qualifying action against St Kitts and Nevis at the Ato Boldon Stadium on 25 May 2018.
(Copyright Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

Wired868: How are you seeing our administrative problems directly affecting our football?

Corneal: Well, with the national youth teams not being able to train for one—such as the [Men’s] Under-20 and Under-17 Teams. Look at the late decisions to put coaches in place for the U-17s. It is admirable that they got Stern [John] to do it but did he have time to do any real development? Or not paying the U-20

where Russell [Latapy] was strong enough to stand up for his team. What sort of development and exposure were those players given at such a critical stage before they transition into senior football? I know it is tough financially but how they deal with it is an issue.

And then our grassroots programme has collapsed. We started a programme with [the late] Muhammad Isa and myself that went through the country and then it stopped because we are unable to fulfil our financial obligations to 65 coaches. Some of these coaches are daily paid workers who went out there every Wednesday to work for the TTFA but were being paid as much as six months late. Stuff like that is hurting the smooth running of our football. Remember these are people you are going to have to turn to again at some point.

I think the biggest issue with the current hierarchy is their inability to communicate and the inability to deal with people and to converse with them. These are things you must have in a leader.

Photo: TTFA president David John-Williams (right) has a word with Trinidad and Tobago national youth coach Russell Latapy on the training ground before the 2016 U-17 CFU competition.
(Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

Wired868: Can you give us more details on the grassroots programme and its aims? When did it start and stop?

Corneal: The programme started in September or October 2017. We trained once a week with 10 and 11 year olds at eight venues across the country including Tobago. We were trying to get 80 to 100 kids per venue with half the amount in girls—because we were trying to grow the girls programme. It was about getting the children to come out, love the game and do basic technical work to get a foundation.

We probably had 1,600 to 2,000 kids when the programme was at its peak. But then it stopped in one zone, I think it was Central, by the middle of April 2018 and all the others stopped in June of that same year. We were supposed to continue it from September through to December but we couldn’t. It just came to a halt.

There was a lack of communication, a lack of financial planning and we were not in a position to even know what the budget looked like. If we knew, we could reassess what’s possible and what is not possible. But we cannot ask coaches and administrators to get involved in a programme knowing we cannot support it. I never knew what finances were available for the programme or was involved in the decision-making.

Photo: Pro Series’ Hashim Portillo (right) holds off a Football Factory opponent during RBYL action at the Queen’s Park Savannah on 30 March 2019.
Pro Series are representing Central FC in the 2019 YPL U-13 competition.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-Images/Wired868)

Wired868: How did this compare to the grassroots programme under former president Raymond Tim Kee?

Corneal: The other programme [under Tim Kee] was one where you moved around from area to area to meet the kids. So we went to areas like Manzanilla, Toco, Blanchisseuse, Cedros and so on. This one was set in zones, so it is improvement on the last programme because now the kids are together more regularly and there is more continuity. This programme [under John-Williams] has more potential, although I liked the idea of going to shorelines and areas that don’t have mainstream football. I think that should be done too. Those players need to be exposed to the game because every player is important to us.

Wired868: In January, you wrote a letter to the TTFA board that complained of inhumane treatment by the president and urged members to step forward and save football. What feedback did you get?

Corneal: That call was made because of what was done to me […] and also from seeing our football being hurt. Our timeline to develop players is between 12 and 16 years old and every week missed hurts the development of our players. When I see that is not happening, I wonder if we are helping or hurting the game.

A lot of people [within the TTFA] agreed with me but nobody wants to come out and say anything; they are afraid to do the right thing… Teams are not training, staff are not paid, programmes are being affected; and they sit around and do nothing.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago midfielder Andrew De Gannes (centre) is mobbed by teammates after his goal against Bermuda in Concacaf Championship action on 1 May 2019.
(Copyright Concacaf)

My letter brought awareness to a lot more people, especially in and around the Association, who claimed they didn’t understand what was happening or my situation. But you know what? It did not change anything. When you speak to them, they say all the right things one on one. They know what is right you know—but they will not go against the grain. They won’t put the country first.

For example, we can’t afford to blacklist coaches. Okay, we can’t get some coaches because of finances; but what about having detailed discussions with them to try to find a solution. Have we tried that? But those discussions aren’t done… Our programmes are falling apart. I don’t need to say anything, just look around at our football environment now.

Wired868: In the past, coaches who picked up trophies at any level eventually got the chance to take a national team. What do you make of how coaches get hired now?

Corneal: You are right. And I feel hurt that we are not able to see this at the administrative level. We are not having discussions to think about who are the coaches doing well at youth football and showing that level of success consistently; and what ways can we find to improve them. I can imagine how frustrated some coaches are because this is their profession and livelihood and they would dream about achieving at the highest level like everyone else.

Photo: Naparima College coach Angus Eve (right) makes a point while Presentation College (San Fernando) coach Shawn Cooper looks on during the Big Four final at the Ato Boldon Stadium, Couva on 12 December 2016.
(Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

Wired868: Do you have any youth coaches in mind?

Corneal: In the last 10 years, you have to talk about Angus Eve, Shawn Cooper, Michael Grayson at the colleges level. And it is not just about results but leadership qualities; and people who know how to prepare programmes and follow through. You want results but you also want people who have the ability to plan, implement and analyse… The ability to carry a staff and plan long term. I can’t say we have a lot but we have some we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to. I think [new Boys National Under-13] Teba McKnight has a lot of potential too but he is going to need guidance.

Wired868: You didn’t mention Trendsetter Hawks coach Anthony ‘Dada’ Wickham…

Corneal: There is probably a role for Dada. I think he has done well when it comes to developing players. He has a gift and I think he has done a tremendous job. As far as [putting him in] an elite setting? Only time can tell you if he will succeed there. But he is a hero to me. He has done it for years through thick or thin, whether his programme is sponsored or isn’t. And I am sure there are others around who have done similar.

But as far as the way the national teams are being run, I am shocked at what is going on now. I have had full control over coach education and that was done successfully. I was involved in the Concacaf Next Play project where we targeted 51 schools; and that was taken care of. It is the things that I did not have control over that we have to look at and see where are they now? We need to have serious discussions about preparation of our national teams. Who are the people making the technical decisions?

Photo: Venezuela attacker Devi Hernandez (left) celebrates his team’s opening goal against Trinidad and Tobago in the TTFA Youth Invitational Boys U-15 Tournament at the Hasely Crawford Stadium on 19 July 2019.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-Images/Wired868)

Wired868: What input did you have the Boys National Under-15 Team?

Corneal: I had very little to do with them. When I first took up my position as technical director, I was involved in the screening; and I watched 13 sessions [in two and a half years]. I remember asking in an initial meeting why [the Under-15 boys] are playing on Monday night and saying we need to have them play on a Sunday instead. At that time they were 13 years old, so Monday evening would have gotten them home too late with school the next day.

That advice wasn’t taken and my involvement seemed to end right there. I remember approaching the head coach [Stuart Charles-Fevrier] very early to say that the intensity of the sessions needs to be right from the beginning because we are forming habits. And I am still hearing about intensity [being a problem for the Elite team] two years later. How you train is how you play.

Do we expect to win every game? No. But we have to get the players up to their truest potential and let them develop over a period of time. When you lose years—especially your formative years—it is years you can’t get back.

You can’t play trial and error with our nation’s children and the future of our football, especially when you have such a talented bunch like our Boys National Under-15 Team. You can take those chances with a club team but not a national team with youth players. You need people with the right leadership qualities; people who will be the right mentors and role models and who can help them socially as well as on the field.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Boys National U-15 head coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier talks to the media after their 5-4 loss against Panama at the Ato Boldon Stadium, Couva on 17 July 2019.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-images/Wired868)

That programme needs correct persons guiding it with the necessary knowledge of youth development, experience of dealing with elite youth players and the expertise in growth and physical development of young players. I do not know why we are so surprised by these results.

It would be interesting to see what happens going forward with this program as time is of the essence. Habits have now been formed as time is elapsing during the informative years of a young players life. But I am sure they will revisit and analyse and come up with solutions. I hope they do.

Wired868: You helped take two Trinidad and Tobago teams to World Youth Cup tournaments as coach. So how was your advice received?

Corneal: The feedback I got was well we have a way in which we plan to do it. It was like saying it is our turn and we will do it our way, without saying those words.

[…] I hope the right adjustments are made so the players can get to their truest potential. We are hurting them individually and we are hurting our country by not getting our young players ready for the international level.

Photo: Mexico goalkeeper José Eulogio (left) slices an attempted clearance under pressure from Trinidad and Tobago forward Ja-Shawn Thomas during the TTFA Youth Invitational tournament at the Ato Boldon Stadium on 21 July 2019.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-Images/Wired868)

Wired868: You were still technical director when the U-15s played the four nation tournament at home in July, did Fevrier’s technical review after come to you?

Corneal: No. Like I said, that programme was the best kept secret—maybe because it was the flagship programme. But it should have been under my portfolio as technical director. My only involvement was the sessions I attended and it is difficult to watch when the intensity isn’t right [and] when the players aren’t allowed to make decisions and take responsibility in defence and attack but are told what to do over and over. So players have no personal responsibility, even in training and small-sided games. But I felt I was kept away. Do I try to go in anyway and bully people? Look what happened in the end. Doesn’t it speak for itself?

The coach has spoken now about things that need to change but those things should have been changed two years ago. That means they didn’t have the required experience or weren’t sure about what is supposed to happen at that age group. They were operating by guess. But it is still a year before the qualifiers, so hopefully they can make the adjustments.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago flanker Josiah Wilson (centre) runs at the Panama defence during TTFA U-15 Invitational action at the Ato Boldon Stadium, Couva on 17 July 2019.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-images/Wired868)

Wired868: Did you speak to Elite Programme co-ordinator Gary St Rose?

Corneal: Yes. We have discussed it, especially when it comes to intensity of the game and physical preparation… He played it very safe. (Smiles) That’s all I can say.

But again, Gary was the coordinator of the programme [and] I had very little input, so I can’t tell you much about the programme. What I can tell you is the outcome.

Wired868: And what are your thoughts on the TTFA’s recently launched Under-13 and Under-11 programmes?

Corneal: I know they started an advertisement of an under-11 programme but I find that is so far fetched. Under-11?! That means we don’t understand what we’re doing. Players are still developing at that age and there is so much to be done before you get an elite programme. What you want is academy programmes which have certified coaches to work on their players at that stage. And you have some people who have academies that do well like Anthony Sherwood and Stern [John].

It is only around the age of 13 that you can begin identifying elite players. Under-11 is just too early and for them to not be able to see it that tells you something. It shows that they are guessing. This is not rocket science. What they are doing will break or demotivate academies. Under-13s? Yes. And by Under-15 level, you have more concentrated times with the players. But you don’t take them away from their clubs at 10 and 11 years old.

Photo: Trendsetter Hawks ‘A’ goal scorer Jaseem Celestine (centre) celebrates with teammates during RBYL U-11 action against QPCC at the Queen’s Park Savannah on 25 May 2019.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-Images/Wired868)

Wired868: What have you seen at ground zero over the last two years?

Corneal: I think we need to prioritise and more people need to be involved with the budgeting of the football body. It should be the decision of the whole board to see what money is available and how we can direct that money; and it must be an open discussion. I have spoken to so many board members individually and they say all the right things; and when it is time to do it, it is not done. I cannot say why they are afraid to make decisions. The type of people who are supporting the hierarchy [seem] unable to persuade the executive board to make the right decisions and say enough is enough.

[…] I can’t say how many coaches and technical staff members are owed money; I just know for myself. But this is their profession; this is how they exist and feed their families, just like a banker or plumber or fisherman. So we must decide what programmes are important and properly support those programmes […] and make the necessary changes, so at least we can get development back on the road.

The [Men’s National] Senior Team is a reflection of what is happening in our football now. We don’t know all the issues in the Senior Team but I am in town long enough to know there are issues. One of them we know is players are not playing enough… But I don’t comment on the Senior Team because it’s not under my portfolio. My job is to develop players who can feed the Senior Team in eight years or so.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago attacker Levi Garcia (left) reacts after a missed opportunity while USA defender Nick Lima looks on during Gold Cup action in Cleveland on Saturday 22 June 2019.
(Courtesy TTFA Media)

Wired868: Given the complaints from yourself and other coaches and technical persons about the stewardship of TTFA president David John-Williams, are you surprised that he is set to see out his term in office?

Corneal: I am surprised. I am more than surprised, I am shocked. I have to say the problem for me is the people who surround the President; those are the ones who are supposed to assist the President when it comes to making major decisions.

Personally, I feel football can only get better because it is at its worst right now. But we must put country first. We cannot do any more tribal appointments; we have to find the people with the necessary knowledge and experience for all the positions and come up with solutions to make things work. We need professional discussions to fix our football but from what I’ve seen, we are not willing to have those discussions.

I think the last two years have shown me about the type of people we have in this world and that’s the honest truth. You have to appreciate the people who care about the development of football and their country. I thought [former general secretary] Justin Latapy was an amazing human being and in the end he had to stand up for what was right and I have to admire that. But I have learnt about people and their personal agendas. Sometimes you think people don’t have personal agendas but I have seen it as clear as can be.

Right now, I am physically and mentally tired. I can only get involved in Trinidad and Tobago football again if the right people are there. I have been exposed to all sorts of people and yet this was an eye opener for me.

Photo: TTFA president David John-Williams (centre) is flanked by Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat (left) and then SPORTT chairman Dinanath Ramnarine during a press conference on 29 September 2017.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-Images/Wired868)

Wired868: If I ask you what stood out for you about the eras that you worked in, what would you say? Let’s start with the Jack Warner era…

Corneal: There was a purpose under Warner. There was a purpose and a direction; and strangely enough there was a support system that supported youth football in that era. Youth football was supported well. Coming out of that era, we had the [senior] World Cup and three World Youth Cups…

Wired868: And the Raymond Tim Kee era?

Corneal: I guess because of all that happened with the Association after the [2006] World Cup, it dampened our football with all the monies that were owed. And that’s when I resigned because of the same financial issues in 2014.

That era was a lot about the [Men’s National] Senior Team. That’s the truth. They were trying to rebuild the image of the Association and a lot of time was spent dealing with the Senior Team. But still remember the Under-20 girls came within one result of a World Youth Cup and were 3-1 up against Costa Rica. And the Senior girls were also one game away from the Women’s World Cup and filled out the [Hasely Crawford] Stadium…

Wired868: And the David John-Williams era?

Corneal: We have a nice hotel.

Wired868: Come again?

Corneal: We have a nice hotel; the Home of Football. That was the priority as far as I could see. Just look at the programmes…

Photo: (From right) TTFA president David John-Williams, Sport Minister Shamfa Cudjoe and FIFA official Veron Mosengo-Omba inspect the TTFA’s Home of Football in Couva on 20 August 2018.
(Courtesy MSYA)

Editor’s Note: After three years and over TT$20 million spent, the TTFA’s Home of Football has still not been officially opened.

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