“The genuine quality to pick up the ball and run at defenders and penetrate or draw attention,” Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team coach Stephen Hart told Wired868, “and then be able to dish the ball off to players is now absent in Trinidad and Tobago football. When you go to the Pro League, who really excites you when they get the ball?
“Of course players can still shake and have quick feet. They can elude somebody. But they don’t destroy and I think it is a disappearing quality.”
“Soca Warriors” coach Stephen Hart spoke to Wired868 about the qualities he wants to bring to the National Team, the depth of his player pool and the strengths and weaknesses of the Pro League. And why he enjoys watching Central FC attacker Kadeem Corbin and the Shivu Boys Hindu College player of Tyrel “Pappy” Emmanuel and Quinn Rodney.
Wired868: What can Trinidad and Tobago football fans look forward to in 2016? And how costly was our 2016 Copa America Centenario play off defeat to Haiti?
Stephen Hart: Not getting to the Copa America was not only a disappointment, it was an opportunity lost to develop against some of the better teams in world football at the moment.
But we have to look forward. We (had) the first opportunity to have an all-local camp—a short camp albeit—and a game in Grenada. Now, we have two games against St Vincent (and the Grenadines), which to me is the ultimate priority at the moment.
Once that is completed, we will look at (our schedule for the rest of the year).
We have already secured a game against Uruguay, which is one of the top five or six teams in world football on their last four years of performance. And we are trying to secure a second game.
We originally thought we would play Chile but they want to play on the same date as Uruguay. And it is understandable because they want to peak at the right time for the tournament. So we are working on a second game in that time period.
Wired868: What is the difference in facing a team like Argentina or Uruguay in a friendly and in a tournament?
Hart: Well, I think the thing about the friendly game against Argentina (is that) it was their last game before they went to the World Cup. So obviously the game was a little more competitive than a regular friendly international, simply because players were playing for their selection. And players were playing also to be on the starting eleven.
I think it is going to be the same thing against Uruguay and if we get another game (against a South American nation) so close to the tournament. It will be their last game and that’s a lot different than if we were playing them last December or something like that.
So it does make a difference to them at that stage.
Wired868: We have had a couple of injuries recently, are you satisfied with the depth of our player pool?
Hart: It’s the nature of football really (as far as injuries go). Contrary to popular belief, Trinidad and Tobago’s player pool is very small at the moment while we sort of wait for the maturity of some of the Under-20s to come up and to get themselves playing on a consistent basis. Not many of them are playing on a consistent basis.
The pool in general is a small pool. (Our talented young players from the National Under-23 and National Under-20 Teams) need more playing time and probably a couple of international friendlies to understand how to approach a camp environment and to observe them playing at a higher level.
Wired868: What do you look out for when you go to Pro League games?
Hart: When you’re building a team, you have to look at it positionally. You can’t just pick players because they are having a good season or half a season or a couple of good games.
If in the position you are looking for, a player shows consistency or qualities. Or there is a player who can bring something completely different to the team that you can use tactically, of course you look for that player.
But, in building a team, you look for what you need positionally. You need two players per position roughly. (And) you need some sort of flexibility in terms of the thinking of the player, etcetera.
Wired868: You have complained about the fitness levels of Pro League players before? How do you gauge players’ individual fitness when a game is slow?
Hart: I can’t. I have seen a couple games in the Pro League and 90 percent of the games start off well; tactically, shape-wise, pressing and so on. Everything is beautiful.
But by the 40th minute, you already see a breakdown in shape and organisation and recovery and things like that. If one or two players are not physically capable, the whole team starts to break down. And even at an international level.
You saw in the US game for example, they were able to push in with a little more strength and vitality in the second half of the second half. And only in the last 10 or 15 minutes, we caught ourselves with the changes and started to push them back again.
I think that is the difference in international football. It is those that can mentally endure when things are past your comfort zone.
Wired868: What qualities are you looking to add to your squad right now?
Hart: We need a couple box to box midfielders. It will be very good if they have good shooting ability from outside the penalty area. Because I’m concerned with the amount of shots statistically from my team.
And I think right now in Trinidad and Tobago football, there is an absence of wide players who can pick up and destroy and penetrate and create opportunities from wide positions. So you are always looking for that.
And I love to play with full backs who can come forward. And full backs are far and few between in the league.
And I am talking about genuine fullbacks. No disrespect but some of them can defend and they do okay. But there are very few that have the capacity to get up and down the field.
Wired868: So you are finding it harder to find dribblers? Is it a crisis in the local game now?
Hart: The genuine quality to pick up the ball and run at defenders and penetrate or draw attention and then be able to dish the ball off to players is now absent in Trinidad and Tobago football.
When you go to the Pro League, who really excites you when they get the ball?
Of course players can still shake and have quick feet. They can elude somebody but they don’t destroy and I think it is a disappearing quality. Even when I watch a lot of (SSFL) games, there is not a lot of it. I think is something we need to address in our player development model.
Wired868: How would we address that?
Hart: I think there has been a lot of emphasis on faking and shaking and less emphasis on dribbling as a penetrative action (and) attacking the space behind the defender.
(I am talking about) not just off-balancing the defender but going past; and now you are one player up because they are one player down. And now the second defender has to make a decision. Does he stay marking somebody or does he come to help cover the space you are attacking?
I think that kind of destructive dribbling is something that we need to encourage. When a player has that quality at a very young age, stop saying to them ‘pass the ball’.
You can teach them to pass the ball later. You can teach them to combine later. But if you don’t (nurture penetrative players then) you have to break teams down with passing, very intricate passing. And that is extremely, extremely difficult. Especially on our pitches.
Wired868: I know you won’t want to give examples from the Pro League? But what about from the SSFL? Does Shiva Boys’ Quinn Rodney fit that role as a destructive dribbler?
Hart: Yes. Definitely. And I think he should be encouraged. And even the midfielder, “Pappy” (Tyrel Emmanuel). He should be encouraged when he shakes his man to attack that space in the midfield. Because getting between the lines is a very modern part of football.
It is not good enough to just shake your man and then next thing you know the man is back on top of you. Then you haven’t really done anything.
So you have to make defenders commit and make lines commit and then your players run off of that and you can be creative from the midfield. So it is not only about (dribbling) out wide. It is about from the midfield too.
So if I give you a modern example, you look at (Barcelona midfielder Andres) Iniesta and how he makes it happen. Even (Santi) Carzola with Arsenal. They get behind the midfield line and force the backline to make decisions.
Wired868: Are there other qualities we are missing now?
Hart: I think we used to have a lot of strikers like (Jerren) Nixon and Stern (John) who were really good in the box. Nixon could also come (at you) from outside the box.
We are not really producing the strikers I would like, who are aerially strong and two footed. We are limited at the moment.
But we are a small country and top player are always going to be like waves in an ocean rather than a river.
Wired868: So it is just cycle and not that we are doing something wrong in player development?
Hart: At the end of the day, if you have a lot of football at youth level, the cream will rise to the top. That is what the big countries have. They have a lot of football and there is a lot of competition. Competition is what breeds excellence.
So when you have a lot of competition at the youth level, you will find that you would probably raise those kinds of players. So, yes, I would put it down to player development too. Maybe 50/50.
But right now I am racking my brain thinking who is coming through as a striker that can put fear into people.
I think Corbin has tremendous talent. But he needs guidance and he needs to be playing on a consistent basis. But certainly he has a good energy level and he gets into good positions and he can score goals. He has proven that.
He reminds me a lot of Bert Neptune and he wouldn’t know how big a compliment that is. But I fear for him that, like so many other players, he might not realise the potential he really has.
Editor’s Note: Click HERE for Part Two as “Soca Warriors” head coach Stephen Hart talks about harsh lessons against Haiti and Honduras, what a Pro League collapse could mean to Trinidad and Tobago football, the Cornell Glen dilemma and why he has balls like grapefruits.