What would you gamble for love? What would you risk for your dream?
As Chris Birchall put on red, white and black gear and faced the Trinidad and Tobago football public for the last time as an international footballer, his mind have might run on what it took to get him there.
His farewell match, an international friendly against Jamaica at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, was shared with fellow 2006 World Cup hero, Carlos Edwards. Edwards has 86 caps against FIFA-recognised nations with four goals while Birchall has 44 caps and four goals.
But, a decade or two ago, some only saw two silly, irresponsible boys who were throwing their futures away as they chased a pipe dream.
At 15-years-old, Edwards’ father, Carlton, reunited with his wife and made a dramatic return into the life of the young St Anthony’s College student. But Carlton was immediately on a collision course with his son.
As a Seven Day’s Adventist, Carlton was adamant that Saturday be respected as the Sabbath. And it meant Edwards would miss about half the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL) season. The school coach, Nigel Grosvenor, pleaded with his dad to be lenient but it made no difference.
“I wanted to play football so bad,” Edwards told Wired868. “I was just so passionate about it. I couldn’t give it up.”
Edwards made up his mind to sneak out on one Saturday; punishment be damned.
He waited until his father left home. He had a half hour to get from Patna Village to Westmoorings in time for kick off. But the thrill of his planned escape soon turned into frustration and then despair.
Edwards’ dad had taken his boots. He was never going to be a footballer, he thought, if his father had any say in the matter.
Birchall was older when he reached his crossroad.
He was 22-years-old and was enjoying his break-out season as a professional footballer with Port Vale when lanky Wrexham defender Dennis Lawrence strode and asked him if he had any Trinidad blood in him. Birchall’s answer: “Me mom” became a running joke within the local squad and one of the many nicknames he received in Trinidad.
In the blink of an eye, Birchall was on a plane to Trinidad, travelling to exotic destinations like Mexico City and training alongside former Manchester United superstar Dwight Yorke.
“My first week with the national team was also (coach Leo) Beenhakker’s first week,” said Birchall. “So everyone was just focused on pleasing him and didn’t pay that much attention (to me). It made it a level playing field for me.”
Back at Port Vale, not everyone was as supportive. The League One division does not take international breaks and Birchall’s commitments with Trinidad and Tobago meant he was missing some club fixtures.
Some of the older Vale players did not hide their displeasure at Birchall supposedly jetting off on Caribbean holidays while they were stuck at work.
“Why are you going over there f$^*ing about and missing games when Port Vale are paying your wages?” asked one teammate, as he confronted the young man. “You’re never gonna play in any World Cup!”
So, what would you do if your head and heart were not on speaking terms?
Edwards found an aunt who would take him and he left home to play football. He was 17-years-old and there was no professional league in Trinidad and Tobago at the time.
St Anthony’s allowed him to repeat Form Five and, within months, he was a Trinidad and Tobago National Intercol schoolboy champion.
A year later, Edwards enlisted in the army so as to earn a steady income while continuing to play the game. And, after two seasons, he was on a plane to Britain where he joined lower league Welsh team, Wrexham.
He made over 150 appearances for Wrexham and was a League One all-star before he moved on to Luton Town and then, after the 2006 World Cup, Sunderland and the England Premier League.
Edwards’ remarkable poise and balance earned him the nickname “Rolls Royce” at Sunderland while he was a club favourite everywhere he went. Steve Bruce did not fancy him when he took over the “Black Cats” and, in 2009, Edwards headed for Ipswich where he remains today in the Championship.
“My dream is to be a success with Ipswich before I leave,” said Edwards. “And success for me is getting back in the Premiership.”
Through the highs and lows of his professional career, Edwards’ emotional anchor has always been the Trinidad and Tobago national football team, which he represented for all of his 14 years as a pro.
Even though he accepted the offer of a tribute match by national coach Stephen Hart, Edwards is adamant that he is not quitting the “Soca Warriors” team. And, as Carlton Edwards can testify, Edwards does not give up easily.
“I want to play for as long as I could,” said the 35-year-old Edwards. “I still think I have something to offer.”
Birchall will not wear national colours again, though. He is six years younger than Edwards but, as he discussed his multiple clubs, the TTFF blacklist and the stream of coaches he played for, the England-born player sounded even older.
He now wants to preserve the professional career that he was once in danger of losing. And he wants to spend as much of his free time as possible with his young family.
His Warrior adventure is over; but what a ride it was.
Birchall was the second of two boys born to Phillip and Jennifer Birchall.
The whole family would play football together at the park on weekends. Jenny would act as goalkeeper and Birchall and his older brother, Simon, would try to score off wall passes from their dad.
Birchall was always aware of his Trinbagonian heritage.
“Mom was always on about Trinidad and telling us stories about when she was growing up,” said Birchall, with a laugh.
At about 14, as Manchester United splashed out a club record fee to sign Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa, Birchall told his teammates in the Vale youth set-up that he would play for Trinidad and Tobago one day.
“They all had a laugh and took the mick,” said Birchall.
Perhaps he was half-joking too.
But after Lawrence introduced himself and the TTFF liaison officer and football agent Mike Berry followed up with a phone call, it took only a brief chat with his parents before Birchall agreed to represent the Warriors.
“My main fear was that the players and the fans wouldn’t accept me,” said Birchall. “But they did. Everyone has always been so supportive of me.”
His life changed quickly after his international debut. Within six months, Birchall scored a stunning volley against Bahrain to salvage a 1-1 draw in the FIFA Play Off and, days later, a Lawrence header meant the Warriors had earned a historic place at the 2006 Germany World Cup.
“It was nice to show that back at all the people (at Vale) who were critical of me playing for Trinidad and Tobago,” he admitted. “People always assume that my best moment was stepping out in the World Cup to play England; but it wasn’t.
“For me it was those games in the qualifiers when we looked like we were down and out but then Latas did a couple of step-overs and bent it in the goal (against Guatemala) or Stern (John) scored those two brilliant goals against Mexico…”
After the World Cup, Birchall moved up a division to join Championship club Coventry City on vastly improved wages. And he and his friend Andy Wilkinson, who plays for Premiership club Stoke City, opened a night club named Zenn after his favourite spot in Port of Spain.
But Zenn never made a cent and cost Birchall most of his savings while, within months, Coventry coach Micky Adams was sacked and he found himself playing in the club’s reserves. The infamous bonus dispute with the TTFF also put him on opposite sides with Lawrence and Edwards and he was banned from representing his country for over a year.
In the six years following the World Cup, Birchall represented Coventry, St Mirren, Carlisle United and Brighton and Hove Albion as well as LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew in the United States before he finally returned to Vale in 2012.
Birchall might have regrets; but he would not give up a second of his bizarre journey.
“I know that playing for Trinidad and Tobago helped me to get some moves that I might not have gotten otherwise,” he said. “Even when I moved to the States, the Galaxy coach was Bruce Arena who had seen me play while he was in charge of the US and I was playing for Trinidad.
“I am really grateful for everything Trinidad and Tobago has done for me and it is really nice to get the chance to say goodbye.”
For Edwards, it will be ‘hello again’ to the Hasely Crawford Stadium. Both men think it will be an emotional outing.
“It always meant everything for me to wear the national shirt,” said Edwards.
Birchall’s adventure with the two-island republic is not easily translated on the other side of the North Atlantic Ocean.
“My friends asked me why they call me ‘me mum’ in Trinidad,” he said, with a laugh. “I tried to explain but they didn’t get it. Conversations about things like that last about ten seconds…
“My mom used to tell me that they called her ‘little white girl’ and I only understood when I came here. People don’t mean anything by it. It is just the easiest, quickest way of identifying you; but not everyone understands (in England).”
On 19 November 2013, Soca Warrior fans showed how much they love, understand and appreciate two of Trinidad and Tobago’s most humble football servants and wonderful team men of their generation; Carlos Edwards and Chris Birchall.