The following article, written by Lasana Liburd, was first published in the Trinidad Express on Thursday 20 November 2003:
“We were really close to qualifying (for the Olympics),” said Trinidad and Tobago hockey captain and England-based star Kwandwane Browne. “We ended up fifth but the difference was 15 minutes. If we had held our 1-0 lead against Canada for the last 15 minutes, we would have been in the final.
“By losing, we dropped from first to third [in our group].”
Browne, who is employed as player/coach of Sussex club East Grinstead, has more big games than most. But he is still haunted by memories of the 2003 Pan American Games in Santo Domingo.
Browne, who was named among Trinidad and Tobago’s top athletes of the past millennium at just 22 years of age, left Santo Domingo with another landmark under his belt. His 17 items in five games was a tournament record, eclipsing the previous 14 goal mark set by Argentina striker and his old friend and rival, Jorge Lombi—the Argentine matched his 14 strikes at the 2003 competition.
But it is Lombi who will be showcasing his talents at Athens next year while Canada, as runners-up, had the opportunity to book their place through a play offs.
Then national manager Captain Gary Griffith suggested that it was the men’s best chance at an Olympic berth, after Trinidad and Tobago’s unprecedented success in sweeping the men’s and women’s gold medals at the 2002 Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games.
But Browne is not giving up on his dream that easily.
“It was the first time that we played with some of us having experience from outside [the Caribbean],” said Browne, “and we were able to compete with the top teams. So, the next four years, we have a good chance I would say.”
It is no coincidence that the 25-year-old Browne plans to continue playing hockey for another five years. The Olympic Games is to be the climax of his exceptional career.
It is a pipe dream if you pay any notice to the unbelievers—and there are always many of them—in Trinidad and Tobago.
South American and world hockey supremos, Argentina, are considered unbeatable and favourites for the sole automatic qualifying spot. Canada have traditionally been too tough while Cuba and the United States also do not suffer fools lightly.
Mexico, Venezuela, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago have often made up numbers at Pan American level.
Yet, it is hard—if not impossible—to dismiss the single minded Browne.
At 14 years old and a puny 114 pounds, he told his doubtful senior teammates on the National Under-21 squad that he would be the best midfielder the country has ever seen. Four years later, he was captaining the National Senior squad before he was even old enough to vote, and already the Pan American region was paying special notice.
Browne has added at least two more continents to his fan base since. Spectators in Europe and the Americas marvel at his skill on the ball. His acceleration makes opponents look as though they are standing still and he controls the hockey stick as if it were a fifth limb.
Those who know him well pay tribute to his remarkable drive and ambition. Bettering himself, it seemed, was a virtue in itself for Browne and it is instructive to hear him reveal the secret behind his meteoric rise.
“People talk about me being blessed by God but I don’t know about all that,” he said. “I know that I would train almost everyday, five times a week, until I was 16. It was even worse when they moved the astroturf close to my house [in Tacarigua].”
Browne was just five years old when he was introduced to the discipline of sport by his aunt Ann Browne-John, the present West Indies women’s cricket team manager and a former national cricketer and hockey player, who took him along to her sessions with Paragon.
By 18, Browne—then, and now, a Notre Dame player—was begging his way past the security at the National Hockey Centre, Tacarigua to train by himself.
“They would let me in at about 7 am,” he said. “I would train for about two hours myself before I walked home for breakfast. I would watch some video tapes [of international hockey games] and then head back to the turf.”
His teammates laughed and called him a ‘ball peeyong’. Now, they call him captain.
Newly appointed Trinidad and Tobago national men’s coach David Francois calls him often. Browne’s success in England has paved the way for some of his more talented compatriots and, at present, there are six national players in London.
Francois knows that they could not be in better hands.
While the ‘Soca Warriors’ constantly gripe about the challenges in integrating their overseas football players, Francois’ relationship with his London-based stars would prompt national football coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier to envy.
“He [Francois] calls me every week to find out how our sessions are going,” said Browne, “and he tells what they are doing at home so that we can incorporate some of it in our own work. Sometimes, he would tell me to use a certain player in a particular position so that he will fit in better with his plans when we rejoin the team.”
Twenty-one-year-old United Petrotrin forward and 2001 Trinidad and Tobago Hockey Player of the Year, Dwain Quan Chan, and 20-year-old Paragon attacker Dillet Gilkes are the most recent recruits.
The pair play under Browne for the London Metropolitan University (where Browne completed his Masters in European and International Law) as well as at East Grinstead.
Utility player Brian Garcia and defender Nigel Providence are also part of Browne’s university team while goalkeeper Sheldon ‘Horsey’ Braithwaite should soon join Providence at Southgate HC—Browne’s first club in England.
Garcia, Browne’s Notre Dame teammate and close friend, represents Canterbury, which is another past team of the hockey icon.
A rule prohibiting any professional hockey club from fielding more than two foreign players—Browne is waived as he holds British residency—keeps the international teammates apart at club level but they all live within five minutes from each other in Islington, London.
Garcia was the first to join Browne in London as part of Southgate’s efforts to keep the Trinidad and Tobago star happy.
The powerful London club had 14 internationals on their roster when Browne joined them in 1998 and they made the unfortunate mistake of slighting the Trinidad and Tobago player.
Hockey is generally an elite, white sport in England and, at the time, Browne was the only ‘black’ player in the Premier League.
However, he feels the early reactions to him had more to do with his emergence from an unheralded hockey fraternity than his race.
“I didn’t really feel my colour made any real difference,” he said. “For me, it was more about coming from a country that is not recognised for playing hockey. Most people did not even know that we had hockey teams or a turf in the Caribbean.”
Southgate presented all but one of their overseas players with vehicles. Browne was given a mountain bicycle and a tube (subway) map.
They were soon furiously backpedaling in an effort to keep their new star.
The club already had two foreign players on their roster and Browne was initially asked to run out in the reserve competition.
Browne protested and Southgate, once they realised his calibre, hurriedly de-registered a South African international to allow for his promotion.
To better understand the chasm between the two hockey nations, South Africa whipped Trinidad and Tobago 12-0 at the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
Still, Browne was never very happy at Southgate who wanted him to compromise his flair and favoured position as an attacking central midfielder to play a less subtle game of ‘stop and hit’ on the flank.
The club, in another effort to appease Browne, asked him if he would be happier with a Trinidadian for company, and Garcia was on the next flight to London.
Regardless, Browne left Southgate at the end of the season for Canterbury, who he steered to their first ever Premier League title while becoming the first black and non-British person to be adjudged English Player of the Year in 1999-2000.
His list of accolades would require a separate column and he has to sift through his more special keepsakes.
Queen’s Royal College Sportsman of the Year and Victrix Ludorium, Witco Sportsman of the Year nominee (1995 to 1998), London Metropolitan University Sportsman of the Year and Player of the Year, British Universities Player of the Tournament, British Universities All-Star member (1998 to 2002), T&T Athletes of the Millennium member (2000), European cup and Holland domestic league and cup titles with ‘s-Hertogenbosch (2001-02), CAC gold (2002) and Pan American scoring record (2003).
Browne is also the first ‘black’ coach in the English national hockey leagues as well as the youngest coach at present.
He plans to leave a special mark at East Grinstead, a fallen superpower who turned to the Trinidad and Tobago star to spur their revival. But he refuses to lose sight of the Olympic circles.
“My only goal really,” he said, “my biggest dream is to qualify for the Olympics.”
The Trinidad and Tobago Hockey Board (TTHB) and the national men’s coach share his vision. Already, the TTHB have earmarked next Easter for a tour of England and Browne is using his considerable influence to ensure top international exposure once they get here.
He expects to arrange a four team international tournament with Wales, Scotland and Ireland as well as contests with English Premier teams.
Canada and the 2003 Pan American Games is considered an unkind reminder of an opportunity wasted. For Browne, though, it is a platform to greater things.
Editor’s Note: Kwandwane Browne still coaches professionally in England. However, he never got to the Olympic Games as a player.
Click HERE to read Part One as Wired868 revisits an interview with iconic Trinidad and Tobago hockey player Kwandwane Browne—one of the twin island republic’s most gifted athletes.