“[…] I’m excited to be here and I hope that this will open the eyes to a lot of people with questions that normally would be asked when people are hanging out: How do you get a team to a World Cup? What does it take?
“[…] The [nucleus of Trinidad and Tobago’s Fifa 2007 Under-17 World Cup team] were 11, 12 and 13 when they first got together—it was really a U-13 group. I think that’s where players start to develop a hunger for the game, where young players are experimenting. [It is] their very formative years of learning.
“[…] You are looking for that player that you see makes a bit of decisions on their own, even against the run of what we wanted. Players that were able to take risks, that had a little bit of tact, had a little bit of feistiness when it came to fighting and going the extra mile…”
Fifa and Concacaf technical expert and TTFA technical director Anton Corneal, a two-time World Youth Cup coach, discusses his presentation for the Making of a Champion Webinar Coaching Series on 6 August 2022:
Wired868: Can you tell us your position and say something about your topic for the maiden Making of a Champion Webinar Coaching Series?
Anton Corneal: I’m the technical director of Trinidad and Tobago. I’m fortunate to work with Fifa as a technical expert and a leadership expert. I’ve worked with them for a while as a coach educator, running coaching courses for over the last 10 years.
I’m working with Concacaf also as a technical expert, helping them design their coach education programme and right now [I’m] on a coach education panel to help standardise coach education in our region.
I’m excited to be here and I hope that this will open the eyes to a lot of people with questions that normally would be asked when people are hanging out: How do you get a team to a World Cup? What does it take?
It’s going to be an interesting conversation because it’s 50 percent on the field and 50 percent off the field, and stakeholders that support what happens on the field. So I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
Wired868: You steered a Trinidad and Tobago team to the Korea 2017 Under-17 World Cup—what age were those boys when you first brought them together? And why did you choose that age to start?
Corneal: They were 11, 12 and 13 when they first got together—it was really a U-13 group. I think that’s where players start to develop a hunger for the game, where young players are experimenting. [It is] their very formative years of learning. That’s when players form habits.
So we thought if they have to form habits, why don’t we help them with their habits? Habits that they would probably keep for life.
It was important for us to screen players all over the country. We know we would have late bloomers. Coming out of 40 players, if we could have gotten 18 of them to go through four years of development then we would have had the lion’s share of the group go through proper development.
Wired868: Were there any players who were there from almost day one? And what caught your eye about those players?
Corneal: There were a lot. We had Sheldon Bateau from very early. Leston Paul, Kevin Molino, Stephen Knox, Sean De Silva, Akeem Adams…
I will tell you what stood out. You are looking for that player that you see makes a bit of decisions on their own, even against the run of what we wanted. Players that were able to take risks, that had a little bit of tact, had a little bit of feistiness when it came to fighting and going the extra mile.
And all we did was create an environment that they can grow [in]. But the environment must also be their environment, not just our environment.
It took some planning. This was a plan that was put in place even before I returned home to Trinidad and Tobago. And that’s the only thing I asked them. Let me just do something with one group and let’s see what happens in four years. We can say that we were very fortunate because we were well supported.
[…] When they are that young, it is difficult to say which players will blossom. It is nearly impossible. You can identify talent but so many other factors come into play when it comes to the growth of a player.
So we have to hope that we help guide them—and I think that was done—and we had the nucleus of the players for at least four years. And then, in the end, six to eight years when they went on to the U-20 team.
Wired868: Was there any player you can remember who was a late bloomer?
Corneal: Yes, Daneil Cyrus. And it was not about adding to the team you know. We had so many conversations and we were saying: “my gosh, I don’t know if he is ready.”
He had the right physique. We saw spurts of him growing. And then one day I just decided, you know what, we may be able to change his position you know.
It came from him coming to us one day, in Tobago I think. He said: “coach you know those forwards can’t run past me—I’m faster than them and nobody could dribble me!”
I thought, what confidence, I wonder if we could change his position. And we decided to play him as a central defender.
It took a while for him to adjust and when he adjusted, when I saw him 14 years later marking Chicharito from Mexico in the [Hasely Crawford] Stadium, I just laughed to myself.
The development of players is really amazing and the part and the role that a coaching staff will play to help develop a player. He is one that stands out but there are so many of them.
Look at Aubrey David. [He had] just the right attitude from when he was very young. He was a second player to Akeem Adams. They were very good friends who played the same position and it just pleases my heart when I look at Saprissa and Aubrey is playing.
I said that’s the reward right there. The reward is not about money. The reward is giving opportunities to young people and again if we can do that then we are doing our job.
But Aubrey is another one who stood out over the years. There are so many of them that I don’t even want to call [anyone] because I don’t want to miss anyone: Marcus Joseph, Chike Sullivan, Jean-Luc Rochford, Ryan O’ Neil, Robert Primus.
[…] Primus had a workman’s attitude from the first day we saw him and I remember him saying, “coach I work in a grocery.” And I told my manager, “find a way for him to come to practice, even if you have to take the money out of your pocket and give him some pocket change.”
We needed him… He had exactly what we needed and we knew that if we put him through a longer period of concentrated work, there is a possibility [that he would succeed]. Again, he is one of the first ones who after the World Cup campaign went to Kazakhstan [to play professionally].
So it was just starting with the right group. We knew there would be late bloomers and persons on the outside knocking on the door. That is part of development. The ones that are with you will go through a process. The ones that are not with you will push themselves from the outside to also get there. So it’s a win-win.
It does call for some patience. It does call for a staff being on the same page, understanding there is a bigger picture and also understanding that it takes some time.
We knew there was nothing [that could be accomplished] overnight and nothing that could happen in a day or two… This team went to the Dallas Cup with Ken Elie. Then they went to Honduras, they went to Peru. We had many camps—weekend camps, mid-week camps. So it was a team that had some exposure. Lasana, it does cost some money to do this.
When you look and see it is not being done [today], why do we expect the results?
Wired868: Well coach, I look forward to this discussion even more now—and I can’t wait for the Q&A segment to see what the participants ask you.
Corneal: I did things outside of the box. I don’t hide that. We went up in the mountain more than one time. We had to change the strength level of those players. I bought medicine balls—so we used their body weight with some resistance. Other than gaining strength they would gain mental strength, knowing what they went through.
So there are so many nice areas that we can discuss and will discuss.
Wired868: Thanks a lot, coach.
Editor’s Note: The Making of a Champion Webinar Coaching Series is a project by Wired868 in collaboration with The UWI/FIFA/CIES Post Graduation Diploma in Sports Management Programme.
Anton Corneal and England FA Under-18 coach Michael Johnson will kick off the series, which entails a four-hour discussion on player development—loosely entitled ‘How To Make A Million Dollar Footballer’. It costs US$100 for a virtual seat while there is an early bird special before 29 July. Spots are limited.
Click HERE to register.