Strike Squad coach Everald “Gally” Cummings talks to Earl Best in the first of a two-part interview about the Road to Italy and an explosive fall-out with TTFA general secretary Jack Warner
“The sun,” Michael Maurice said about his failure to stop Paul Caligiuri’s long-range left-footed shot on the afternoon of November 19, 1989, “was in my eyes.”
Thanks to the defensive midfielder’s 31st minute strike, the Americans claimed the second of two CONCACAF places, leaving Trinidad and Tobago in third place, all dressed up with nowhere to go.
The popular national response to the custodian’s explanation in the days and weeks after the USA’s 1-0 win at the National Stadium in Mucurapo is summed up by those two words.
But to that particular chorus of scepticism, one important voice has never been added. Strike Squad coach Everald “Gally” Cummings has never questioned Maurice’s version.
“The sun,” he says, “is always there. So I had no reason to believe then—and still don’t 25 years later—that he was not telling the truth. In normal circumstances, he would simply step across to his left and haul in that shot without any trouble.”
In “normal” circumstances? What was abnormal about the first half-hour—or the first half—of the game which the T&T Strike Squad needed merely not to lose to make it to the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy?
Just before the play that set up the winning shot began, Cummings explains, Maurice had been focusing on something on the T&T right side; he had not quite as he would normally do readjusted his position to follow the ball when the then 25-year-old Californian pulled his left-foot trigger.
For the national coach who should have been one of the persons who stood to gain most from World Cup Finals qualification, that is the end of that story. He refuses to bring grist to the mill of the conspiracy theorists who see something more than human error in Maurice’s crucial, costly miss.
But there are other stories that need to be told, Gally assures us, convinced that there were things taking place behind the scenes to make only one result possible on that mid-November day.
For instance, Cummings explains, he and team manager Oliver Camps went to the Stadium on the eve of the game and discovered that the floodlights had been left on during the night. The Strike Squad was training “in the slushy conditions in Forest Reserve” and the technical staff would have preferred a wet field.
Usually, team manager Camps handled all liaising with officialdom. But back in camp, Gally was present as Camps called Frank Stephen, who was in charge of operations at the Stadium, to tell him to turn on the sprinklers and soften the field.
“Tell Mr Cummings,” came the alleged, unexpected reply, “I am not doctoring any field.”
It turns out that the instruction not to “doctor” the field had come from one Don somebody, “a nobody” who was one of the myriad hangers-on in the TTFA Secretary’s slipstream with no clear portfolio, title or role.
“I can’t get out of my mind,” Gally says, that the minion had merely been the mouthpiece for transmitting his master’s message.
And then there was the curious case of the missing protest. And the troublesome television time slot.
When Gally, as coach and technical director, tried to advise the TTFA that the May 28 home game against Costa Rica should be played at 3.30pm, Warner cut him off unceremoniously.
“No way,” he said tersely, “The television schedule requires the game to be played at 5.30 pm.”
“It was our home game,” Gally lamented. “If we really wanted to get three points, why was the television tail wagging the dog?”
Two weeks later, in the away game against the same opposition, Hutson Charles put T&T back on terms after the home side had taken a second-minute lead. To the consternation of the entire celebrating T&T contingent, players, technical staff and mediamen, the referee ruled that Charles had handled the ball in the act of chesting it down and waved off the goal.
Replays showed clearly that there had been no hand contact.
Cummings was furious. At the end of the match, he and Camps approached the TTFA Secretary, present at the game, and demanded that an official protest be lodged.
“You see me,” Gally remembers Warner as saying dismissively, “I not interested in no protest foolishness, nah.” Or very similar words.
And that, as they say, was that; one vital point dropped, one tiny window opened. Just in case…
Warner would be far less brash, far less dismissive the first time Cummings met with him after the 0-1 loss.
It is mere days after November 19. Camps has invited the coach to meet him in his Maritime Life office in Port-of-Spain. When Gally arrives, the TTFA Secretary is also present.
The pleasantries out of the way, Camps lays his cards, well, the cards on the table.
“Jack needs a favour,” he begins, “from you.”
Cummings grunts non-committally, playing for time, reluctant to put into words the thought that Warner probably suspects is taking up residence in his brain.
But it isn’t Warner who breaks the uneasy silence that ensues.
“The Stadium was oversold,” Camps begins stiffly, looking at Warner rather than at Cummings. “Somebody has to go on television and tell the country why.”
Camps falls silent. Gally waits, poker-faced. Warner shifts uneasily in his chair, staring not at the latter but at the former.
“Jack would like it,” Camps continues, taking his time to form and deliver each of the four words, “if that somebody … is … you.”
Gally chuckles soundlessly.
“Sonofabitch!” he hears himself thinking.
“I can arrange for you to get a car,” Warner allegedly said, as finally broke his silence. “Mr Rock will give you any car you want.”
“Mr Rock” is not his real name. Gally has asked us not to reveal who was the well-placed TTFA official Warner identified.
Or to disclose the actual words he used to tell Warner and Camps where to get off.
And what to do with their car.