A Jamaican Gayle hit the Tobago countryside yesterday but his first name was not Chris and so he didn’t exactly take the island by storm. The towering former Jamaica international, whose first name is Marcus, was one of three ex-Premiership players in the sister isle for this weekend’s Tobago Legends Challenge.
The other two in Speyside in mid-week, to share their expertise with the youngsters from the area as part of the Flow Legends Community Outreach, were Gareth Hall and Sam Parkin, with local football freestyler Keiron Ford in tow.
It seems they underwhelmed the local lads.
Eager enough to see the legends in action, I had hitched a ride to the Speyside recreation ground. There were some primary school youngsters seated in the pavilion, awaiting the arrival of the legends. But many others, boys and girls, passed nonchalantly by, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a training session with the ex-pros was set to commence at 3 pm.
And still others walked carefreely past, in no great hurry to change into their football gear although they were clearly well aware of the scheduled training session.
It was not long before three when I heard someone say quietly “The legends are coming.” I turned my head towards the roadway just in time to see a 24-seat maxi take the bend and make its way toward the ground. When it arrived, four men sporting white and blue kits disembarked and made their way onto the field along with a couple of officials and their driver.
“When I come on this field,” joked the driver, “children supposed to be running towards me for autographs.”
It was his way, I think, of expressing dissatisfaction with the less-than-lukewarm response the legends had received.
When the youngsters in the pavilion and on the sidewalk seemed a bit reluctant to venture onto the field, Gayle and company announced that they were ready for business and invited the hesitant group to join them on the grass.
The sight of multiple footballs being rolled out onto the pitch was incentive enough and it wasn’t long before the players/coaches had separated the two dozen or so young participants into four groups and begun to put them through their paces.
Rapid short passing was the first order of the day for two of the groups while a third one had a scrimmage in progress with eager boys and girls.
Freestyler Ford, however, in charge of the fourth and last group, opted to give a demonstration of his great juggling ability and encouraged some of the older members of the group to put their own skill in that area to the test. Pulling a few neat tricks out of his bag, he left the younger members of the group looking on in something like awe.
Once the legends had settled into their training routines, I saw my chance to get them each alone for a few minutes to hear their thoughts on both the Legends Challenge and the Community Outreach initiatives. They were seemed excited and upbeat about the week ahead and were no less eager to have the opportunity to share their time with the youngsters.
Gayle confessed to being “not too excited” about the winding trip he had had to make to reach Speyside but he was very enthusiastic about the week’s activities. Saying that he hoped the legends can show the youngsters that football is a sport that breaks all boundaries and exposes young players to different cultures, he quipped, “We may not speak the same language but football can speak for us.”
He joked about being related to the other Gayle, Christopher, the hard-hitting West Indian batsman and warned that his Caribbean All Stars team was going to retain their title come the weekend. .
“Latas is our little genius,” explained the former Wimbledon and Brentford player, who was also a member of Jamaica’s 1998 World Cup squad, “so we just have to give the ball to him and he’ll work his magic for us.”
Hall, an ex-Wales international defender and the only one among the ex-pros present at the session to have represented Chelsea’s senior team, was exulting about the opportunity to be in Tobago for the first time.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” he told Wired868. “It’s something that has to be applauded, being able to come and pass our knowledge on to the kids.”
“They’re really enthusiastic about the session,” Hall continued, “and you can see they want to get on with it straightaway. We’re looking to pass on basic skills like passing, heading and ball control so if they get those things under their belt first, that would be good.”
The next stop on the day was the Cyd Gray Complex but before I could make my way to Roxborough I had to speak with the hard-tackling ex-Soca Warrior myself. Gray was lending some assistance to the officials and coaches on the day and explained that he was honoured and humbled to be among the ex-Pros.
“Maybe I can learn something from them (the legends) and then pass it on when the tournament is finished,” Gray told Wired868. “Imparting the knowledge of football to the youths can give them a way of life and take them out of poverty and into a better life.”
What will serve as music to the ears of many legends participating this weekend is the fact that the once robust national defender promises to be much more subdued in his defensive approach if he gets the opportunity to line up in the Legends Challenge.
“I think my days for hard tackling are finished; this is all about having fun.”
There were a few bumps and skids on the way to the Cyd Gray Complex but we arrived there in one accord. It was just after four now and the session which included roughly 20 youngsters was already in full swing.
I observed in amusement as the youngsters participating in the session, many of whom would’ve been under the age of 10, showed great technical ability and poise in a goal-scoring drill.
The youngsters did not have an easy task before them either as former Arsenal goalkeeper Vince Bartram stood between them and the back of the nets. Bartram, who spent much of his Arsenal career as an understudy to David Seaman, lauded the talent he saw on display.
“I’m involved in the elite level at one of the best leagues in the world so it’s good to see this talent here and it’s also great to see the kids smiling and enjoying every minute of it.”
The Southampton U-21 goalkeeping coach stuck to that theme of enjoyment as he explained what he wanted the aspiring footballers to take from the experience,
“They’ve just got to enjoy it, enjoy it. If you can’t enjoy the game at this age, then when you’re a pro and the pressure is on you, you won’t.”
While the young Roxborough participants were doing their utmost to get the ball past the 47 year-old, I bumped into another ex-Reggae Boy, this time in the form of striker Deon Burton.
The English-born Burton, who drew some comparisons to the speedy Theo Walcott on the day, was also quite impressed with what he saw on display from the youngsters but was bothered by one factor; timeliness, or a lack thereof.
“The session was carded for three to five and some kids only turned up with half-hour to go,” Burton told Wired868. “In England, if you were told three to five, then everyone would be there on time so they get a full session. So maybe that’s where they’re losing out on fulfilling their potential.”
The Legends Community Outreach continued across the island up until Thursday and I suspect many more eager young footballers made their way to the various sessions as the buzz spreads and the enthusiasm picks up before the weekend blockbuster.
I, for one, wish I could have had these former players to show me a thing or two.
Who knows? Maybe instead of my writing about these legends, someone would have been writing about me.