New Trinidad and Tobago National Under-17 Team head coach Stern John wasted little time in making his presence felt on the job as, even before his first training session, he advised parents that silence is golden.
A memo by national manager Aaron Pollard to parents last week warned that they would no longer be welcome at training sessions.
“The head coach has instructed that parents/family/friends would no longer be able to stay in the stands to view the sessions,” stated Pollard’s despatch. “Please abide by the wishes of the head coach…”
In the end, John opted not to take such a drastic stance. The former Soca Warriors hero—he is still Trinidad and Tobago’s record goal scorer with 70 full international goals—said he appreciates some parents would travel long distances to drop their sons off and could not reasonably be expected to leave and return for them.
However, the current National Senior Team assistant coach wants to keep tabs on who attends his sessions and their behaviour once present.
“I’ve heard reports that, before, parents were showing up at the practice and distracting the kids by shouting orders from the stands and so on,” John told Wired868. “I’ve coached at academies around the world and parents aren’t allowed to be on the training facilities because they can be a distraction.
“We know in some cases that parents would drop their child from Port of Spain and it is a long way to go back and then come again to pick up their child after training. So we are saying they can show up [to watch training] but they have to ask.
“We know they want to be a part of it and we want them to be a part of it. We just want them to also respect what we are doing and not interfere. We want the parents to buy into the philosophy of what we are doing now.”
The National Under-17 Team begin their World Youth Cup qualifying campaign at Concacaf level on 1 May when they challenge Bermuda in what could be a decisive affair.
Trinidad and Tobago are grouped with Bermuda, Jamaica and Mexico and one from the quartet will be eliminated while the other three advance to the quarterfinal round.
The junior Warriors have not trained since April 2018 and John has roughly seven weeks to create a team fit for tournament play. Notably, his core players were mauled at Concacaf Under-15 level in 2017—under then head coach Russell Latapy—when they conceded 21 goals in four matches, including an 8-1 loss to Jamaica.
Yesterday, John arranged two scrimmage matches between his 31 inherited players and a North Zone XI team. At the end of the games, the Under-17 coach invited five boys from the North team to join his training squad.
The coach hopes to continue such scouting sessions in every zone, including Tobago—although it is unlikely that any other region has a youth team already drawn up, as does the North Zone under president Anthony Harford.
John also hopes to have a combine in Miami to allow him a chance to scout eligible players in North America, who expressed willingness to represent the ‘Red, White and Black’.
Whether Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) president David John-Williams is minded to expend much resources on the development and dreams of the young men is another matter entirely.
John’s technical staff will consist entirely of persons willing to work without pay—an astounding reality considering that the John-Williams-led body gets more than three times the FIFA funding available to previous bodies.
More than five months after the National Under-20 Team were disbanded, Wired868 can confirm that their staff members are still owed as much as 10 months’ stipend, estimated at between TT$3,000 and $5,000 per month.
Five members of the Under-20 staff, headed by Latapy, were members of the Defence Force and were therefore forbidden from refusing national duty—a technicality that often makes soldiers coveted employees during lean financial times.
Yet the Under-20 team’s preparation ground to a halt for close to three months, as Latapy cajoled John-Williams to eventually meet part—but not all—of their arrears.
“There were some staff members who were not working and [the non-payment of stipends] really mashed them up but they were afraid to talk out of fear of not getting a job again,” said one football insider. “It affected the boys because they were not able to train and they would see coaches watching them at a school game and ask what is happening; and the coaches couldn’t tell them when they would train again.
“It was unfair to them but it was unfair to [the coaches] too.”
John-Williams opted to avoid such friction with the National Under-17s; not by pumping some of the TTFA’s development money into the team or activating the body’s marketing and finance committees to raise funds for their campaign. Instead, he restricted potential employees to those willing to do the job pro bono.
John, the head coach at Pro League club Central FC for the past year and a half and National Senior Team assistant coach for the last two years, thinks he has what it takes to succeed though.
“It is a great opportunity for me and I am relishing the opportunity,” said John. “People say I don’t have experience; but I have a lot of experience. I have been in the Pro League for a number of years as head coach and assistant to Dale Saunders and Dennis Lawrence on the senior team.
“I won the Caribbean Championship with Central [as assistant coach] and I think I have a lot to offer.”
Pushy parents and preparation problems aside, John’s most pressing issue appears to be the timing of the CSEC examinations which takes place in mid-tournament. Social studies, Caribbean history and English literature are scheduled for early May while mathematics and English language—scheduled for 14 and 15 May respectively—could be another headache if Trinidad and Tobago advance to the semifinal round.
The Jamaica and Barbados football teams are in the same boat and, since the CXC ruled out deferring the exam times for the players, team manager Aaron Pollard is expected to request that the TTFA petition the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) to fund the cost of sending an invigilator to Florida to oversee the tests.
Failing that, the hope is the three FAs collaborate to split costs for sending an invigilator to the Concacaf competition.
Either way, new TTFA general secretary Camara David would be expected to step in quickly to assure parents that their children’s academic pursuits will not be affected.
Wired868 understands that some parents are willing to have their children skip the exams altogether and sit them the following year. However, most are reluctant to have their teenaged sons make such a sacrifice.
John is leaning on Pollard, a teacher at Trinity College East, to find a solution while he focuses on creating a team capable of competing at Concacaf level. He is mindful of the team’s horror show at Under-15 level and suggested that he wants to take strong characters to Florida.
“I have to see what players we have before we know our style of play, even though I have a style in my head,” said John. “I want to put the ball down and play; but if we don’t have the players to do that, then we can’t. We don’t want to just show up for tournaments, we want to compete; and if we have to make the game ugly to do that then so be it—just like Jamaica would do to us in the past.
“This is about tournament play and it is not about playing pretty football, it is about getting a result.”
The National Under-17 Team held their first session under John today at the Mannie Ramjohn Stadium in Marabella, although John’s backroom staff is still to be confirmed. For now, he is utilising the remnants of Latapy’s technical team.
“I am trying to stamp my authority and do things a bit differently,” said John. “I know we don’t have much time, so we are trying to hit the ground running. Before this team trained twice a week but now we will train five times a week.
“I know I need the parents on my side to do that. We met with them [yesterday] and it went very well.”