‘I will be back!’ ‘Ball Pest’ Cummings on his football education, silencing Mexico, and his international exile

“I will be back on the pitch soon,” said Terminix La Horquetta Rangers playmaker and ex-Trinidad and Tobago international star Keron ‘Ball Pest’ Cummings. “So I hope Mr [Angus] Eve keeps a place open for me!”

Cummings was not among the 60 players selected by Men’s National Senior Team interim head coach Angus Eve in his provisional squad for next month’s Concacaf Gold Cup. And the omission followed his non-appearance at the Concacaf Futsal Championship in May, after a medical scare.

But the gifted 33-year-old maestro assured his fans that it is just a temporary hiccup.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago playmaker Keron “Ballpest” Cummings (centre) tries to find space between the lines against Nicaragua in Port of Spain on 26 October 2015.
Cummings is employed by Terminix La Horquetta Rangers at present.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

Four days before the National Futsal Team’s departure to Guatemala, the players had a pre-tournament physical check-up inclusive of an ECG scan. On the eve of their flight, the results returned with a note of concern for the attacker.

Cummings and team doctor Dr Akash Dhanai immediately headed to see a specialist, but there was not sufficient time for the athlete to be cleared before the team travelled.

“They said my heart is large but they also said that is a normal thing for sportsmen,” said Cummings. “But for them to give me clearance, I needed to do a stress test first—and it was Sunday night and it would be 48 hours for me to get back the result. If I did that, I would not have been able to leave with the team. 

“[…] The coach asked me to still travel with the team to help motivate the players, because of my seniority in the squad. So I went and said I would do the stress test when I get back.”

Photo: Police FC midfielders Dillon Kirton (left) and J’deem Parris try in vain to contain TLH Rangers attacker Keron Cummings during Pro League action at the Hasely Crawford Stadium on 14 January 2020.
(Copyright Daniel Prentice/CA-Images/Wired868)

On his return, though, Cummings found a public health sector reeling from a surge in Covid-19 cases. More than a month later, he is still waiting for his medical appointment. He expressed gratitude for the Robert Hadad-led Fifa-appointed normalisation committee, which is helping him to navigate the health system.

A National Futsal Team technical staff member, who preferred to remain anonymous, confirmed Cummings’ account of the doctor’s visit in May.

“I went with Cummings and it is true that they told us that what they saw was not abnormal for athletes,” he said, “but they still wanted to rule out the possibility that it might be something serious. I think they wanted to be sure he wasn’t the one in a million case like [Denmark and Inter Milan midfielder Christian] Eriksen.

“[…] The advice at that time [from the cardiologist] was he could not authorise him until he did a stress test, a MRI of the heart, and a third thing that I cannot recall at the time, which would rule out the possibility of a particular condition. Those tests would have been able to confirm that it was just a case of him having that size heart-wall because he is an athlete.

“[…] It definitely is not a case where he can’t play anymore.”

Photo: Then Central FC playmaker Keron “Ball Pest” Cummings (foreground) tries to hold off W Connection midfielder Kevon Goddard during Pro League action at the Ato Boldon Stadium on 18 August 2018.
(Copyright Allan V Crane/CA-Images/Wired868)

Trinidad and Tobago football fans could breathe a bit easier then. Whether they will get to see him in national colours again is a different story. But, before we get there, it might be instructive to understand why this left footed maestro became such a cult figure in the first place.

Cummings’ entire national senior team career so far adds up to just seven starts and nine substitute appearances with three goals. He has made only one appearance more than forward Trevin Caesar and one less than left back Triston Hodge, who can hardly claim to have established themselves at that level.

But Cummings feels different.

Trinidad and Tobago have never lost a competitive match with Cummings on the field. And before you sniff suspiciously at those stats, his appearances comprise fixtures against: Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, and the United States—only the final outing was played on home soil.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago attacking midfielder Keron Cummings (centre) celebrates his 2015 Gold Cup goal against Mexico with teammates (from right) Cordell Cato, Joevin Jones, Mekeil Williams and Aubrey David.
(Courtesy MexSport/CONCACAF)

(Trinidad and Tobago lost on penalties to Panama in the 2015 Gold Cup quarterfinal fixture, but Fifa records games decided by penalties as drawn—even though the loser goes home.)

His three goals came in two matches against Mexico: a double in a thrilling 4-4 group stage tie, and then a single item in the rematch, which ended 3-3.

Cummings’ last competitive international appearance was also the last occasion in which the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) had anything resembling a sell-out crowd, as over 20,000 patrons watched the Soca Warriors play to a goalless draw against the United States on 17 November 2015—with thousands more forced to leave the venue, due to poor management of the gates and unholy lines.

But let’s go further back still to the birth of ‘Ball Pest’, near his home in Simeon Road, Petit Valley.

Photo: Playmaker Keron Cummings (centre) prepares to take on a Central 500 Spartans opponent (left) while representing Petit Valley Diego Martin United in a TTSL Two match at the Diego Martin North Secondary ground on 15 July 2017.
(Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

As a boy, Cummings would slip outside and down to the nearest recreation ground to watch minor league action at night. And, as the teams caught a breather during the intermission, he was one of several children who would snatch a ball and run on to the field—pretending to be football stars themselves.

“During half-time, I would take the ball and try to dribble everybody who would come out with me,” he said. “I remember a man there told me one night: ‘come off the field nah boy, you’re a pest eh!’ And it went from there to them calling me a ‘ball pest. And the nickname just stuck.”

Cummings played Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL) competition with a talented East Mucurapo Secondary team that included Khaleem Hyland, Tyrone Charles, Ataulla Guerra, and Richard ‘Shaka’ Roy, who all went on to win national senior team caps. Current Soca Warriors stars Kevin Molino and Joevin Jones were two younger members of that school team.

The Mucurapo stand-outs were not short of offers from Pro League clubs. Cummings chose W Connection in Couva.

Photo: W Connection head coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier points the way for his troops.

“I was the only Port of Spain player there at the time,” he said, “and that was when they had all the Brazilians, like Gefferson Goulart and them.”

While Hyland went straight into the San Juan Jabloteh first team under then coach Terry Fenwick and won a professional contract in Belgium before his 20th birthday, Cummings’ rise was slower.

“For a young player in Connection at that time, it was hard to get into the team and I had to wait my turn,” he said. “But I think that’s the club where I learnt the most about professional football. From the Brazilians in particular, I learnt about professionalism, about developing your technique, and the sacrifice you have to put in for the game.

“At the time, we were travelling a lot and playing in the Caribbean Championship and so on. It was exciting and a really good opportunity for me.”

By then, Cummings already knew how he wanted to play. He offered a clue when asked to name his favourite player.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago maestro Russell Latapy (left) controls the ball under pressure from USA midfielder Claudio Reyna during a World Cup qualifier at Foxboro Stadium on 20 June 2001. (Copyright AFP Photo/John Mottern)

“I can’t name one favourite player—I have to name four,” he said. “My four favourite players are Ron La Forest, Russell Latapy, Kerwin Jemmott, and Nigel Pierre. I love technical players!

“[…] The game has changed now and it is just about energy. But before it was what you could bring to the table with your touch.”

North East Stars, rather than W Connection, finally unleashed Cummings on the Pro League. And there was plenty to appreciate about the slim ball handler with dancing feet and a booming left foot shot that could extend goalkeepers from almost any distance.

Eve, who was Stars’ head coach at the time, is not the type to encourage ball possession just for the sake of it, though. Cummings was a playmaker who relished attackers running off of him to create passing angles. Instead, Eve stuck him upfront as a ‘false 9’ and challenged him to become a finisher.

Photo: W Connection goalkeeper Aquelius Sylvester (left) and defender Bradley Beaumont (right) combine to keep out North East Stars attacker Keron Cummings during the 2015 TTFA FA Trophy final.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

“Eve for me is one of the coaches who knows how to get the best out of you,” said Cummings. “He takes you out of your comfort zone. I was a creator before; it was not that I couldn’t finish but my game was built around trying to create for others. He brought out the goal scorer in me, by teaching me how to play with my back turned [to the opposing defence]. 

“One of my most exciting times as a player was with Eve playing me on top as a false nine.”

As it turned out, then National Senior Team head coach Stephen Hart was looking for just that sort of player, as Molino was out with a serious knee injury.

In June 2015, Hart selected Cummings for the first time in his provisional squad, just weeks before the July Gold Cup. Initially, he was back-up to Guerra—remarkably, all three Trinidad and Tobago ‘number 10s’ at the time were former Mucurapo teammates.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago midfield ace Kevin Molino (centre) flicks the ball around Dominican Republic midfielder Heinz Barmettler (left) during the 2014 Caribbean Cup qualifiers while coach Stephen Hart looks on.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

However, while Molino perfected the role of an advanced midfielder, playing in tandem with giant, talismanic centre-forward Kenwyne Jones, Guerra was often unwilling to follow suit. Instead Guerra preferred to drop deep or slide to the side of the field in search of a pass to feet.

Cummings, thanks to his new role at Stars, was a natural fit.

His first game under Hart was a 3-0 loss away to Jordan, after which the coach criticised the players for an ‘awful’ showing. Cummings said they were just jet-lagged. A few days later, they managed a 1-0 win over Haiti in a scrimmage before entering the competition.

“For the Jordan game, I feel after the hours we spent travelling we didn’t get to settle in so we could play properly,” said Cummings. “But for me when I got to see the level of those teams, I knew I could compete. Against Haiti too, I realised that these teams are beatable. They are not more talented than us; they just work hard and are a bit more focused. 

“Once we applied ourselves, we could get a good result.”

Photo: Then Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team coach Stephen Hart (centre) and players (from right) Mekeil Williams, Daneil Cyrus, Kenwyne Jones, Radanfah Abu Bakr and Sheldon Bateau at a national training session.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/CA Images)

Cummings was an unused substitute in Trinidad and Tobago’s Gold Cup opener, which was an impressive 3-1 win over Guatemala. But Guerra did not distinguish himself and was replaced by forward Willis Plaza in the 62nd minute.

In the second outing, the Warriors defeated Cuba 2-0 with both goals in the first half. Again, Guerra came off after just over an hour. On this occasion, Cummings replaced him.

For the final group match, the Warriors led Group C by two points and facing a Mexico team that were not used to being runners-up to Caribbean opposition.

With nearly 56,000 partisan Mexico supporters at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, Hart decided the time was right to give the then 27-year-old ‘Ball Pest’ his first international start.

“[Hart] said he wanted me to stay close to Kenwyne Jones to feed off the second balls,” said Cummings. “He kept stressing to me ‘stay close to Kenwyne and the chances will come’, and that is exactly what happened in the game.”

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago forward and captain Kenwyne Jones (left) beats Guatemala defender Christian Jimenez to the ball during Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying action at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain on Friday 2 September 2016.
(Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

Mexico, as expected, went ahead through an opportunistic far post finish by Paul Aguilar in the 31st minute. Ex-Arsenal forward Carlos Vela put ‘El Tricolour’ two goals clear in the 51st minute with a fine solo effort, after a wayward pass by Jones (K).

But then the Warriors tore up the script. Jones (K) got a chance to run at the Mexican defence and played a square pass to Cummings who was at his side—just as Hart instructed—to tuck past the opposing goalkeeper.

Cummings was involved in the equaliser too, three minutes later, as he released Cordell Cato down the right flank and his cross was steered home by Jones (K). Then, in the 66th minute, Trinidad and Tobago scored the type or route one goal that was only possible with the big forward.

Jones (K) chested down an Aubrey David long throw and Cummings beat Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa with a sublime angled shot into the far corner.

The Warriors were ahead 3-2!

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago midfielder Keron Cummings (left) challenges Mexico midfielder Hector Herrera during 2015 Concacaf Gold Cup action.
(Courtesy Concacaf)

There would be three more goals in the last six minutes of the breathless affair, with defender Yohance Marshall tying the scores at 4-4 with a memorable stoppage time header off a Jones (J) corner kick.

Cummings was the only outfield Trinidad and Tobago-based player in Hart’s starting team that evening; and if that didn’t matter to you, it sure did for him.

“Honestly speaking, I don’t fear no player—I respect players for what they bring to the table, but I don’t fear any player at all,” said Cummings, after brushing shoulders with the likes of Giovani Dos Santos, Herrera, Andres Guardado and Vela on his full international debut. “[…] I wanted to do well for my people back home, to let them know I am representing them. I was also representing the local players in the Pro League. 

“Many times, you don’t get a fair chance when you are fighting for your place against the foreign-based players. I wanted to show that the local-based players are people to respect too!”

In the Gold Cup quarterfinal, Phillip saved two penalties while a Panamanian kicker skied a third. However, Sheldon Bateau, Jones (J) and Daneil Cyrus all failed to score from the spot as the Warriors were eliminated on penalties.

Mexico went on to win the 2015 Gold Cup. But they were not done with the Warriors yet. The Mexican Football Federation (FMF) rang the TTFA and proposed a return match on 4 September, at altitude in Salt Lake City, to see if Trinidad and Tobago could match them a second time.

“I had an abscess in my mouth and I remember Hart saying: ‘Cummings, you sure you could play with your mouth swell up?’” said Cummings. “And I said it is not if I want to play; I have to play! Plenty people were saying it was a fluke. It was the greatest game in the history of the Gold Cup and people thought we couldn’t do it again.

“I wanted to show them!”

The Warriors were ahead after just seven minutes as Cummings dribbled between two opponents and his right footed shot deflected off a Mexican defender and looped into the air, before being headed in by forward Jonathan Glenn.

And, six minutes before halftime, Cummings doubled T&T’s lead with a close range finish after flanker Lester Peltier stole the ball from the dozy opposing left back.

This time, Mexico were the ones who had to claw their way back; and they did. Jones (J) scored a second half free kick but the game finished 3-3.

Cummings was wearing number 20, but the ‘number 10’ role—at least in Molino’s absence—was his. He played for 90 minutes in a 2-1 friendly win away to Panama, as the Warriors continued to defy the Concacaf’s top nations.

Then, Orlando City offered him the chance to play alongside Molino for the Major League Soccer (MLS) club.

“I was training with them and it was going well,” said Cummings. “They wanted me to stay with the team so I could fit in with their players, and they would sign me for the next season. But then we had the game coming up against America.

“So far, all my games for my country were away and I didn’t feel the people in Trinidad really saw the level I was playing at. I mean they saw me on tv but it is always better to see someone live. So I asked [Orlando] to let me come home.”

Cummings played from the start in a 2-1 World Cup qualifying win over Guatemala in Guatemala City on Friday 13 November. And, with Hart starting a slightly more conservative line-up against USA on Tuesday 17 November at the Hasely Crawford Stadium, the attacker featured for just the closing 10 minutes in a goalless draw.

Photo: Fans turned out in their numbers to see Trinidad and Tobago play the United States in a World Cup qualifier on Tuesday 17 November 2015.
The national team has not had a similar turnout since.

He was still in Trinidad, biding his time to return to Orlando and become a MLS player when he went to a boat cruise put on by a Pro League colleague.

“After two months outside and hardly doing anything, we decide we will take a little go out,” he said.

Cummings was shot in the leg by an unnamed assailant after the party, just outside his home, on the morning of Sunday 27 December. By the time he recovered fully, Hart had been sacked while the Orlando City offer was a distant memory.

His international heyday lasted just six months, between June and November 2015.

He got two subsequent caps as a substitute for Lawrence against Barbados and Grenada in 2017. But he never felt the former World Cup 2006 hero had confidence in him.

Photo: Coach Dennis Lawrence gestures from the sideline during Trinidad and Tobago’s 3-0 loss away to Panama in a 2018 World Cup qualifying contest at Panama City on 5 September 2017.
(Copyright AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

“I had a good Gold Cup and then I had an unfortunate injury—and after that you don’t see Cummings again,” he said. “It was the same for Ataulla [Guerra]. You keep asking yourself, if you were getting success with something and the players are still there; how can you turn away from that and pretend that there aren’t people to do the job, even when you’re losing games?

“I remember when [Tom] Saintfiet was here and Tyrone [Charles] got picked. He was playing amongst the foreign-based players and showing form. Then a new coach comes (Lawrence) and you don’t see Tyrone again; and you ask yourself why are you not seeing Tyrone?

“There are local players who have the ability to do well and are not getting a fair chance. Football is not forever [and they are denying us our opportunity].”

He slammed Lawrence’s decision to leave him out of the national squad for the remainder of Trinidad and Tobago’s 2018 World Cup campaign, the 2019 Gold Cup, and the 2019 Concacaf Nations League. The Warriors finished bottom of the table in all three competitions.

Photo: Then Central FC playmaker Keron Cummings (right) is closed down by Defence Force players (from right) Chris Durity, Rodell Elcock and Justin Garcia during the Pro Bowl final at the Ato Boldon Stadium on 19 February 2017.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

“You saw me play [for Central FC] against ‘Army’ in the [2018] First Citizens Cup final,” said Cummings. “Did I look like I had lost it to you? Can a man in bad shape play like that?!

“A coach can give any excuse and say anything in the press and people will just go with it. That’s unfair.”

Cummings left Central for Terminix La Horquetta Rangers in 2019. The style of play there—Rangers play a direct game at high speed—is not tailor-made for the silky playmaker, but he found a way to fit in.

He hopes Rangers provide him with a launchpad to return to the national team.

As Rangers managing director Richard Ferguson and then Warriors head coach Terry Fenwick butted heads over the national team’s training schedule, with the former refusing to release his players, Cummings turned temporarily to Futsal.

National Futsal Team manager Nigel Roberts said he is still heartbroken that Cummings could not play. He suggested that American coach Constantine Konstin’s decision to take him as a non-playing team member was a master stroke, though.

Photo: Terminix La Horquetta Rangers playmaker Keron Cummings controls the ball during Ascension Invitational action against Prison Service FC at Phase Two, La Horquetta on 4 September 2019.
(Copyright Annalicia Caruth/Wired868)

“Cummings played an invaluable role for us at the Futsal Championship,” he said. “I never knew he had that side to him. He has such a calm demeanour and he is very analytical, and also assertive when he needs to be. Whether it was in the hotel, at training, or on the field, he was excellent with the players and they responded to him.

“Had he been able to play though, it would have been a different story. We were depending on him to make a difference on the court, but if we didn’t carry him at all it would have been a huge disadvantage.”

Cummings, he said, would make an excellent coach in the future. But the player still believes he can have more glorious adventures on the field.

“I have goals that I still want to achieve,” he said. “I’ve never stopped training. The doctor said I can do fitness work at 70 percent, so I keep doing work. I am looking forward to getting back on the team.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago midfielder Keron Cummings (third from right) celebrates his second strike against Mexico with teammates (from right) Khaleem Hyland, Kenwyne Jones and Kevan George at the 2015 Concacaf Gold Cup.
(Copyright Nicholas Kamm/AFP 2015)

“[…] My ambition is to get back on the pitch as soon as possible and compete for a pick with Mr Eve. He asked me about the health scare and he knows I am waiting to do the medical tests. He said once I get the clearance, I can compete for a pick.”

At 33, it might seem unlikely that Cummings can reclaim his international place—after six years in the wilderness. But then Mexico might have thought they had nothing to worry about with a 27-year-old debutant who was still a Pro League player. 

And we all know how that went.

The Simeon Road kid dismissed any suggestion that his international career was over. Ball Pest has no intention of being chased off the football field.

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