After a two and a half year drought, North East Stars returned to winners’ row last night with a 5-4 penalty shootout triumph over defending champions, DIRECTV W Connection, in the 2015 TTFA FA Trophy final at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva.
There were roughly 1,000 fans at the Ato Boldon Stadium for the cup final and, for the most part, their noisy exuberance put to shame the much larger audience that turned out to watch Trinidad and Tobago’s 1-0 friendly defeat to Panama, two days earlier.
At the death, the Sangre Grande contingent was in ecstasy as the shorthanded Stars overcame a man deficit to defy Connection.
Connection chairman David John Williams vowed to take the fight beyond the final whistle, though. In the post-game press conference, Williams reiterated his view—which he expressed before the match—that Stars forward Gorean Highley should have been ineligible since he joined the club after the January transfer window and received special dispensation to play only in the Reserve League.
“The rule clearly says that Gorean Highley was registered outside of the transfer window as a senior player only to play reserve team football,” said Williams. “When I saw the name on the team list, I went to the Director of Competitions who is Neville Ferguson. I spoke to Sharon (O’Brien) about it and the Match Commissioner and they still allowed the game to play.
“I think that is bringing the game into disrepute. I will take it all the way…”
It costs just $500 to lodge a protest to the TTFA. Yet, that is $500 more than the combined cash prize for the competition.
The FA Trophy was once Trinidad and Tobago’s most prestigious cup competition. But those days are long gone. Now, the competition is testament to the hapless and ineffective leadership style of president Raymond Tim Kee and general secretary Sheldon Phillips.
In Tim Kee’s first year in charge, he handed out trophies, medals and promises after the FA final. In his second year, he promised prize money and then never paid.
Last night, neither he nor Phillips even bothered to show up.
Yet, with only pride at stake, Connection and Stars fought as though they were in the middle of the desert and contesting the last bottle of water.
Stars coach Angus Eve came into the converted conference room for his media address while journalists were speaking to the Connection chairman. He listened attentively as Williams explained why he felt Stars did not deserve the trophy before storming out on the grounds that the media disrespected him by ignoring his presence.
In fact, Williams had spoken for all of one minute and 40 seconds and the Stars coach did not have a long wait. But then Eve is big on latching on to perceived slights and nurturing them.
Despite being Trinidad and Tobago’s most capped outfield international player, Eve has always carried the air of an outsider; and, with Stars, he has found a club that mirrors his feelings. Both Stars and Eve, arguably, see themselves as great figures that are denied the limelight by the system’s inherent snobbery.
If anything, Williams’ post-game fury probably fit their perceived script perfectly.
“We played well and we enjoyed enough territorial advantage to win the game,” said Connection coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier. “We just needed one goal.”
Fevrier was partially correct. But Stars, despite playing with ten men for 88 of the 130 minutes, had at least as much claim to the trophy as they did.
It was not a great technical affair. Connection was generally one-paced while Stars struggled to force their opponents back once they lost numerical parity. But the game was not short of drama.
Before kick off, journalists were surprised to see National Under-20 midfielder Duane Muckette, a University of South Florida student, and Highley, a Super League player with Malabar FC, in the Stars’ starting team.
“I’m playing this match under protest!” said Williams, as he thundered about Stars’ recruits before kick off. “Win, lose or draw, I will protest…”
Both Muckette and Highley joined Stars after the transfer window although Muckette, as a teenager and free agent, was clearly permitted a move by Pro League’s rules.
Highley’s transfer is not so clear cut, which did not necessarily mean that it was illegal.
Article 6 in FIFA’s bylaws on the Status and Transfer of Players states: “Players may only be registered during one of the two annual registration periods fixed by the relevant association. As an exception to this rule, a professional whose contract has expired prior to the end of a registration period may be registered outside that registration period.
“Associations are authorised to register such professionals provided due consideration is given to the sporting integrity of the relevant competition.”
The Pro League decided against allowing Highley to play in its senior competition. The TTFA decided otherwise. Williams suggested he will legally challenge the latter body.
From the opening whistle, Connection’s mood would not have lightened as Stars, who were in an uncharacteristically proactive mindset, pressed high and forced their more illustrious opponent back. Muckette and playmaker Keron Cummings were bubbling and Highley, nippy and tricky, was feeding off their passes in the channels.
Connection, who, as is their custom in the FA competition, fielded a largely second string team, could barely get out of their half of the field.
Then, in a ten minute spell, disaster struck for Stars.
Hard man Keryn Navarro, who spent the early part of the game keeping close watch on Connection star striker Shahdon Winchester, was forced out with an injury in the 24th minute. Navarro’s replacement, Jayson Joseph, barely lasted eight minutes on the field before referee Cecile Hinds showed him a straight red card for leaving his feet to lunge into a tackle at Connection’s Christian Rodriguez near the centre circle.
Stars initially held their high line, as they swapped 4-3-3 for 4-2-3, and had the best effort of the first half as a long ranged Cummings missile rapped the knuckles of Connection custodian Aquelius Sylvester and spun away for a corner. But, as Fevrier sent on Jomal Williams and Jerrel Britto at the interval, Stars dropped deeper and the momentum swung.
Eve left Highley up on his own but the slim striker lacked the strength to hold up the ball for his teammates and Connection began to dictate proceedings. The reshuffle after Navarro’s injury saw midfielder Kion Joseph moved to right back and Connection left back Kurt Frederick found him as easy to negotiate as a training cone.
Yet Connection lacked an incisive final pass in and around the Stars penalty area while the “Savonetta Boys” could not move the ball around quickly enough to beat the hardworking trio of Dwane James, Neveal Hackshaw and substitute Jeromie Williams.
James, Hackshaw and Connection’s Jomal Williams all represented the “Soca Warriors” on Friday night.
It said much that Connection’s first notable shot on target came in the 84th minute and it was a tame one from Britto. By then, John had taken to time wasting and Eve had long since replaced Muckette and James with more defensive players.
In the 90th minute, Connection should have put the game to bed as Jomal slipped a pass through for Winchester but the latter player was denied from close range by a brilliant reflex stop from John.
Eve pushed Cummings higher up the field and Stars began to create chances of their own once more. Sylvester tipped over a Highley strike in the second minute of extra time while substitute Aquil Selby failed to keep his header down after a dangerous whipped free kick into the area from another National Under-20 player, Jesus Perez.
But, once more, Connection created the most glaring opportunity. In the 115th minute, Britto’s header squirmed away from John and rapped the post. Britto reacted quickly to beat the Stars captain to the loose ball and poked it into the back of the net.
A Connection employee set off fireworks in the uncovered stands. But Hinds had already signalled a foul on John.
“Video evidence will prove it was a good goal,” said Fevrier.
He was probably right. But it would not be the first time that a goalkeeper received the benefit of the doubt in the penalty area.
John was back to his commanding best for the subsequent shoot out. He has had a lot of practice. Yesterday was Stars’ fourth cup final since Eve took over in mid-2012 and all four have gone to kicks from the penalty spot.
Stars defeated Defence Force 4-2 on penalties in 8 December 2012 to clinch the Toyota Classic Cup, which was Eve’s first title as a head coach. But the Sangre Grande team then lost two shoot-outs to Connection in May 2013 in the Lucozade Sport and Digicel Pro Bowl finals.
Sunday night was Eve’s first appearance in a cup final since then and it was third time lucky for Stars.
Winchester took Connection’s opening penalty and John got a hand to it but could not stop the shot from squeezing home to his left.
Jomal Williams was not so lucky as John flew to his right to make the save. And, with no other misses, Joseph recovered from his nightmarish night at right back to cooly stroke home Stars’ winner.
Fevrier congratulated Stars on their success. But Williams bristled at the perceived injustice of it all.
“I think it is pathetic,” said Williams. “The TTFF is the highest body in football who answers to CFU and then CONCACAF. It tells me I can register a player now in my reserve team and play him in the Caribbean Championship.
“I cannot accept something like that.”
Eve did not stick around to share his feelings on the issue. Perhaps he didn’t have to.
For the first and only time since 2003, the FA Trophy headed to Sangre Grande last night. Incidentally, Stars won on penalties 12 years ago too.
North East Stars (4-3-2-1): 22.Cleon John (GK) (captain); 25.Keryn Navarro, 4.Keithy Simpson, 15.Glenton Wolfe, 38.Jesus Perez; 14.Dwane James (5.Aquil Selby 82), 41.Neveal Hackshaw, 44.Kion Joseph (12.Jayson Joseph 24); 8.Duane Muckette (6.Jeromie Williams 62), 10.Keron Cummings; 9.Gorean Highley.
Unused substitutes: 1.Stefan Berkeley (GK), 7.Stephen Prescott, 18.Kaashif Thomas, 26.Zavion Navarro.
Coach: Angus Eve
W Connection (4-2-1-3): 22.Aquelius Sylvester (GK) (captain); 39.Alvin Jones (34.Jabari Mitchell 102), 4.Bradley Beaumont, 25.Christian Viveros, 2.Kurt Frederick; 11.Tremain Paul, 20.Christian Rodriguez; 10.Yefer Steven Lozano (40.Jomal Williams 46); 28.Aikim Andrews, 30.Aaquil Campbell (12.Jerrel Britto 46), 9.Shahdon Winchester.
Unused substitutes: 1.Terrance Lewis (GK), 16.Anselm Jackson, 36.Triston Hodge, 45.Kori Cupid.
Coach: Stuart Charles-Fevrier
Referee: Cecile Hinds
TTFA FA Trophy final
(Sun Mar 29)
North East Stars 0, W Connection 0 at Couva;
*—Stars won 5-4 on penalties
MVP: Cleon John (North East Stars)
Top scorer: Richard Roy (Defence Force) eight goals