In the second instalment of a series on Trinidad and Tobago’s World Cup football adventures, adapted from articles published first in the Trinidad Express in 2006, Lasana Liburd talks to iconic playmaker Leroy De Leon:
The Trinidad and Tobago football team returned from Suriname on 15 March 1965 with red faces as the 1966 World Cup campaign ended with an embarrassing 6-1 defeat to its Dutch mainland rivals.
There was no shame in losing to a talented Surinamese outfit but the margin of defeat left a bad aftertaste, particularly because Trinidad and Tobago kicked off its campaign with a 4-1 win over the same opponent at the Queen’s Park Oval on 7 February 1965 .
Team captain Sedley Joseph and his troops, which included talented goalkeeper Lincoln ‘Tiger’ Phillips and skilful attackers like Andy Aleong, Alvin Corneal and Gerry Browne, were humbled but felt certain that they would build on the experience. It was not to be, though.
The national outfit, in those days, was chosen by a selection panel of administrators rather than the team coach and the selectors always seemed anxious for a revamp. Within months, Joseph had a precocious new teammate who would become one of local football’s all time greats.
Everald ‘Gally’ Cummings was still 16 when he won his first cap in a 4-0 defeat away to Jamaica on 5 August 1965. A Tranquility Government student at the time, Cummings went on to serve his country with distinction for over three decades and remains a household name.
Fifty-six years ago, Cummings signalled a bright future. Short and athletic, the Paragon Sports Club playmaker had a powerful shot and vision and was always willing to try a trick.
But, arguably, even better was to come as the country became seduced by schoolboys.
Today, Cummings remains the only footballer to be named Trinidad and Tobago Sportsman of the Year while his accomplishments as player and coach are unrivalled. Yet, the player who many grey beards rate as the most gifted product of this tiny twin-island republic was still largely unknown north of San Fernando at the time.
His name is Leroy De Leon.
De Leon was born and grew up in Point Fortin. His father, Sistel De Leon, never played sport and Leroy did not seem to fit the profile of a star athlete at first glance. First, there was young De Leon’s slight build added to a left knee that curved inwards.
But more overwhelming than De Leon’s shortage of sporting genes and physique was his uncanny knack for tricking opponents and his grasp of the cerebral aspects of the game.
The Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board of Control was first to spot his potential and football nearly lost a gem when he scored an unbeaten half century as a 13-year-old in Barbados. It was his maiden tour as a national player for any sport.
“My family never played sport,” said De Leon, “but cricket in those days was a game, like golf, played by the rich and powerful. My father wanted me to play cricket but I knew we were not rich and powerful; so I chose football.”
St Benedict’s schoolmaster Dom Basil Matthews heard of De Leon’s ability and recruited the diminutive midfielder to his all conquering schoolboy team that included Warren Archibald and Wilfred ‘Bound to Score’ Cave. But De Leon was still relatively unknown when he visited the Queen’s Park Oval in 1965 to play in the North/South Classic as a 17-year-old.
North Zone player Raffie Knowles sized up his opponents on the day and loudly dismissed them as ‘a bunch of kids’. De Leon seethed but the scoreline vindicated Knowles at the interval as North led 2-0.
The final straw came as the teams returned to the field after the half-time break. A spectator inadvertently heaped one indignity too much on the proud De Leon.
“Country bookie,” said a clearly amused patron, who was looking in De Leon’s direction, “go back to the country.”
The rest of the fixture was a blur of step overs, dinked passes and goals. At the final whistle, South were 5-2 victors and the local FA had unearthed a new star.
Months later, De Leon proved it was no fluke when he again confounded the powerful North outfit with a superb individual performance at a return match in south Trinidad. Selectors were confounded to see the teenager strike terror into the national’s respected centre-half, Joseph.
At one stage in the match, De Leon took possession and made a beeline to Joseph who back-pedalled furiously.
“Joseph was shouting to his teammates ‘tackle him, tackle him’,” claimed one observer, “and De Leon just kept pushing the ball straight at him. He crossed over the ball one way and then the next and Joseph just fell right on his backside.
“The entire crowd just went into uproar. No one did that to Sedley Joseph in those days.”
St Benedict’s was found to have used over-aged players in the schools’ competition and Matthews was forced to return trophies in 1966. But De Leon, Cave, Archibald and Jan Steadman were already senior players.
The quartet, as well as Cummings, was signed by North American Professional Soccer League clubs in 1967.
Even in the absence of such talents, Trinidad and Tobago celebrated its first major medal at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada. The Pan Am Games was strictly an amateur tournament and few teams were at full strength but T&T fans were still greatly encouraged by famous wins over Argentina (1-0) and Colombia (5-2) and a 1-1 draw with eventual winners, Mexico.
Trinidad and Tobago ended the competition with a bronze medal after losing 3-1 to the unfancied Bermuda in the semi-final but there was still plenty enthusiasm for an improved showing at the 1970 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Eager young faces were everywhere as the TTFA performed a remarkable clear out of the country’s senior players. Only Tyrone de la Bastide, a central defender, remained from the starting team of 1966 while goalkeeper Jean Mouttet was understudy to Phillips, four years earlier.
De la Bastide was partnered in central defence by Selwyn Murren while Lawrence Rondon and Arnim David began the campaign at full back—Steadman eventually replaced David. Rawle Aimey did the dirty work in midfield alongside the graceful De Leon while Cummings and Archibald played supporting role to strikers Ulric ‘Buggy’ Haynes and Cave.
The odds were against the boys in ‘red, white and black’ strip from even before a ball was kicked, though.
Trinidad and Tobago was scheduled to play two-legged fixtures against Guatemala and Haiti to progress to the final qualifying round. But the players soon discovered that they would play all their games on foreign soil.
TTFA president Eric James had forfeited his association’s right to play any matches at home and whispers in the dressing room suggested that the national outfit was sold out.
“We could have played at least one game in Trinidad for we home crowd to get to see we self and get we home support,” lamented one player.
Home felt a galaxy away after the opening World Cup qualifying fixture away to Guatemala on 17 November 1968. Guatemala trounced T&T 4-0 and the margin of victory did not flatter the hosts.
Trinidad and Tobago were led, at the time, by English coach Michael Laing and Cummings was among a group of dissident players who felt that Laing’s insistence on direct play did not suit the team’s style and they conceded possession too easily to the Central Americans who made better use of the ball.
The second tie was held at the same Mateo Flores Stadium, three days later, and Laing sacrificed Cave for an additional midfield workhorse in the form of Kenneth Butcher. The visitors managed a goalless draw but the horse had already bolted.
Cave returned for the first leg away to Haiti on November 23 in place of Aimey while Butcher kept his place alongside De Leon but an emphatic 4-0 loss ended all hope of progression.
Despite the poor results, Trinidad and Tobago’s reputation for producing good individual talent was blossoming throughout the region. Considering the fact that T&T conceded eight goals and scored none in its opening three outings, it was a testimony to De Leon’s outrageous skills that he received the MVP accolade for his performances in the group stage.
A silky bag of tricks, De Leon was unstoppable in possession and had the confidence to match his ability.
“When I grew up in Point Fortin,” he said, “everyone wanted to be the next Pele or [Alfredo] di Stefano. I just wanted to be Leroy De Leon. I always felt I could be better than all those guys…
“My main strength was my tricks, but I could analyse a game and my opponents. What position was a defender standing in? How can I take advantage of him?
“I always believed that you should be mentally tired after coming off the field although your body should still be ready to run another 90 minutes.”
Trinidad and Tobago did get some consolation in its final fixture with a 4-2 triumph over Haiti in Port-au-Prince.
Archibald, a graceful, athletic left sided attacker, scored three times with Cummings bagging the other item. Haiti did not roll over and there was a fierce exchange of tackles in the closing minutes as the French-island took exception to Trinidad and Tobago’s dribblers.
“I remember the ball was out of play and I was going for water,” Cummings recalled, “and a Haitian player just kicked me. Keith Renaud saw what happened and ran on the field and cuffed the guy in his face and got a red card.
“It was the first time I ever saw a guy get a red card from on the bench.”
Another unsuccessful campaign ground to an end but Trinidad and Tobago fans were convinced that their national team was better than the records suggested. De Leon and Cummings were both just 20 years old while Archibald, Cave and Steadman were not much older.
If only they could keep these talented youngsters together, surely things would be better at the 1974 trials.
(1970 World Cup qualifiers)
17 Nov 1968, Ciudad de Guatemala, Estadío Mateo Flores, 26,845
Guatemala 4, T&T 0
20 Nov 1968, Ciudad de Guatemala, Estadío Mateo Flores, 16,215
Guatemala 0, T&T 0
23 Nov 1968, Port-au-Prince , Stade Sylvio Cator, 6,368
Haiti 4, T&T 0
25 Nov 1968 , Port-au-Prince, Stade Sylvio Cator, 2.233
Haiti 2, T&T 4
Goals: Warren Archibald (3), Everald Cummings.
For your information:
Trinidad and Tobago used a similar 4-2-4 line-up as its 1966 campaign, although only Tyrone de la Bastide kept his place.
Jean Mouttet started in goal while (from right to left) Lawrence Rondon, de la Bastide, Selwyn Murren and Arnim David started in front of him for the opening qualifier. Rawle Aimey and Leroy De Leon patrolled the midfield area with Everald ‘Gally’ Cummings on Warren Archibald on the right and left flanks respectively. Ulric ‘Buggy’ Haynes and Wilfred ‘Bound to Score’ Cave started upfront at centre forward.
Warren Archibald’s treble in T&T’s final outing was the country’s best individual scoring performance in a World Cup qualifier. Mouttet’s shut-out against Guatemala was also the first clean sheet by a local goalkeeper at this level.
At 20, Cummings was also T&T’s youngest scorer in World Cup competition at the time.
1966 WCQ XI (4-2-4): Lincoln Phillips (GK); Aldwyn Ferguson, Tyrone de la Bastide, Clement Clarke, Doyle Griffith; Sedley Joseph (captain), Ken Furlonge; Andy Aleong, Jeff Gellineau, Pat Small, Alvin Corneal.
1970 WCQ XI (4-2-4): Jean Mouttet (GK); Lawrence Rondon, Tyrone de la Bastide (captain), Selwyn Murren, Arnim David; Rawle Aimey, Leroy De Leon; Everald Cummings, Ulric Haynes, Wilfred Cave, Warren Archibald.
Editor’s Note: Wired868 will publish its third instalment on Tuesday 23 March 2021. Enjoying the series? Do leave us feedback in the comments section.