“[…] It is very difficult [to be head coach of two national football teams at once] because it means your priorities are divided. You may not think so but your priorities are divided. The time you may give to them may not be the necessary time each team needs.
“Again, associations that are financially strapped—I am assuming that is done because of the limited finance and the situation the association has gone through for the last couple years… Is it the ideal situation? No, it is not the ideal…”
Recently re-appointed Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) technical director Anton Corneal, who was a technical staff member for three successful World Cup qualification campaigns in 2006, 2007 and 2009, speaks to Wired868’s Lasana Liburd about the resumption of the national youth programmes, the current technical shape of the TTFA and lessons from the Women’s National Under-20 Team’s dismal Concacaf adventure:
Wired868: So how’s it going so far? (Corneal was re-hired by the TTFA on 2 February 2022.)
Anton Corneal: Hmmmmm, it’s been a lot. Just in the sense of putting each programme back in place [and] having to deal with the Covid protocols that are still in place. We have three leagues that are sanctioned to have temporary programmes: the Ascension League, the Brian Jordan [Next level Consulting Ltd) Under-20 competition and the Tiger Tanks [Under-20]. They have really done well to go through the long procedure of getting all the necessary documents to start such a league.
We are finding it challenging when it comes to restarting some of our programmes. We have had to find creative ways to do it. Our major undertaking right now is the high performance programme, which is the elite side of the football pyramid. So what we have decided to do, we are hoping the final outcome will be us having around 40 players, U-13 and U-15—boys and girls in each group. That should normally come out of the zones so we have had nice discussions with the zones. But what we are recognising is it is difficult to screen players when teams are not even training.
So the thinking is rather than waiting until all the restrictions are over, we will work with the zones and we will help them, through the TTFA, with the screening process.
I understand they will have challenges. They can’t find [designated] safe zones and it is a very long procedure… I think for the next year we need to run the football and do it in collaboration with the zones.
Wired868: When you say ‘we’, you mean the TTFA?
Corneal: Yes. So the thinking is we go back to the zones and help them run the football until everything is back to normal, because the zones are also restarting after two years. I understand that will be a challenge for them in so many ways, so why not just work with them and let us do the logistics and at least get youth football [running] in two to three age groups?
But while that is being done, we will use that opportunity to screen players. So right now we are in those discussions. We have had discussions with them together and we have had discussions with them individually, because we do realise that each zone is different—their areas of concern are different. It is not a one-[size]-fits-all [situation]. We have to tailor it to each zone. So that is where we are now.
I have started my second [coaching] course since I’ve been back… The course before was for women’s football. I don’t know that any country in the region has had so many women attend one course…
Wired868: How many attended?
Corneal: We had 24 women attending the course, which is quite encouraging, especially when we had more than a few players who came through our full programme with the national team. There is a lot of potential when it comes to coaching coming out of that group. It was encouraging.
(He goes on to explain how Jinelle James was instrumental in setting up the women’s course and shares plans to have four more C license coaching courses this year along with a B license and, possibly, an A license in July with the assistance of an English coach. It costs TT$1,500 for participants to do the C license.)
Wired868: I know the National U-17 Women are in training now. What about the U-17 Boys?
Corneal: The U-17 Boys [are] something that we will put in place very soon. Hopefully in the very near future, we [will decide] the direction of the U-17 Boys.
I know this year there is a U-14 Boys tournament. I know there’s a U-15 Girls tournament at the end of July/August. That’s why we want to screen now and we are working with [the zones], so we can start putting that programme in place. That programme is part of the high performance programme which is really something that Fifa is affording every MA and they must see it in place. But when I look back at what they are doing, it is no different to what we did 10 or 12 years ago.
[…] Hopefully we will see better results, players that are able to compete consistently at the Concacaf level—with the top five teams in Concacaf. I think that is so realistic. But, again, it must come out of a programme.
It is not going to happen without a programme, it is not going to happen ad hoc. It needs to be planned, it needs to be implemented and evaluated quite often so we can see areas we need to improve in the programme. That is pretty much the direction in which we are going.
Wired868: How long do you think before we can compete at the level you’re suggesting?
Corneal: Hmmmm, I’d like to think at least it’s going to take… (Pauses) hmmmm, I’d love to say it would take a year or two. We need to start the player at U-13 level but we need to have enough tournaments at U-11 so that kids can play and compete and have fun and they can express themselves. These are the building blocks of the elite player.
I know it’s going to take a while but we must put it in place. And no one person can do this. This is not about just the TTFA. This is about all the stakeholders playing their part, hence the reason we have been reaching out to stakeholders. But all of this has happened within a month and a half. Bet your bottom dollar we are going to do what it takes to make it work.
We are also going to have to work with any challenges that we face. Our challenges now are still based on the Covid protocols, on the type of financial support that we get, the input from the business community to support some of the programmes. We know we will have some hurdles but […] we have to find solutions.
Wired868: In an interview a few years ago, you said it would take us three to four years to get to the level we need to be at. Has that timeline changed with the pandemic, which might have set us back further…
Corneal: Of course! But passionate people with a plan who are prepared to go the distance, we could fight to change that—and that’s pretty much what we need to do. […] We need kids to play again. We need people to start competing and then the ones with talent, give them the opportunity to do more concentrated work.
So we know exactly what needs to be done and it is going to take all stakeholders to play their role: the zones, the community and academy programmes, secondary schools football, primary schools football. But the role must be part and parcel of a bigger plan and that’s the plan that’s being put in place.
Wired868: As far as the U-17 Boys go, I looked online and there wasn’t information on their qualifiers. Are you saying there will be a qualifying tournament this year?
Corneal: That we have to find out because [one of] a couple things we don’t have is the age groups. Are they going to go back a year [with the cut-off age] because of Covid (and cater for players who missed the chance to play in the last Concacaf U-17 series)? That was mentioned already…
Wired868: To make it an U-18 competition, you mean?
Corneal: Yes, yes. So we are patiently waiting to get that information… It’s a big programme ahead and I wish we could put everything in place within a week or two [but that’s] impossible.
[…] I don’t want to do too many things at one time and it’s not of quality so, again, one programme at a time. It has been one month and three weeks and this is what we have done so far.
Wired868: What is there in place of a technical committee? Is there anyone you have to report to on the normalisation committee?
Corneal: I report to the normalisation committee and [on] the day-to-day matters to the general secretary. The technical department, which is pretty much the women’s development person and we were targeting coach Dion [La Foucade] to be part of us, to be a director of operations who would help with the logistics and operations of the coach education and high performance programme and even with the leagues.
We will need someone to head up the youth leagues if that is going to come under TTFA, because that can’t come on our plates also. That’s something like what Tony Harford did with a series of people. But we would like to bring something like that under us and we would want to bring in two people to run that under the directive of TTFA.
So as far as a technical committee, it will be an advisory committee that I can bounce ideas off of. I think it’s very important but we have to find the right people because it’s a supportive committee.
So we have to sit and think [about] what would be the characteristics of a technical committee that comes together maybe once every two or three months. Or it could just be people we bounce ideas off of. Not someone who comes in and asks ‘what allyuh doing?’ but someone who understands the programme and is here to support it.
We need to make sure the right people and leaders will be part of that committee. People who will see the big picture and be able to give some type of input about the big picture.
(According to the TTFA Statutes, the technical director is meant to answer to the technical committee rather than the other way around.
Article 47 of the TTFA Statues states that ‘the Technical and Development Committee shall primarily analyse the basic aspects of football training and technical development’ while article 20.3 says ‘The standing and ad-hoc committees shall advise and assist the Board of Directors in fulfilling its duties; their duties, composition and function are defined in this Constitution and/or special regulations drawn up by the Board of Directors’.)
Wired868: You mentioned the youth tournaments being brought under the TTFA. In the past, the TTFA has admitted that it did not have the know-how and the only competition under the aegis of the TTFA was the FA Cup, and even that was not well run.
Do you think there is any benefit to the TTFA having oversight of domestic competitions now?
Corneal: One, it can be tied in directly to the long-term development plan, especially with our youth football plan. And when we say ‘the TTFA’, please also mention that it’s inclusive of the zones. The zones make up the TTFA, so we don’t want that divide at all. We agree that the zones and TTFA should be the ones running youth football.
For the other tournaments, I don’t want to speak on behalf of them… When I came in, there were a lot of proposed leagues and the direction of them, I’m not sure who is going to end up running it and how it is going to be structured. It is one thing at a time and you realise you asked me 10 different things. So I have to be very wary of what I can speak on and what I cannot speak on.
What I can speak on is we would like youth football to be run directly under the TTFA in collaboration with the zones. We also want to be able to work alongside the TFA (Tobago Football Association) in Tobago. We owe it to them to make sure they are able to replicate what we are doing here in Tobago—with the leagues, the high performance [programme], coaching education and general support. It is important.
Wired868: Were any of the women’s coaches from Tobago?
Corneal: Yes, we had (Women’s National Senior Team stand-outs) Kimika and Karyn Forbes on the course and there was another. I used to remember all the names but now I am getting slightly older.
Wired868: We don’t see many national footballers from Tobago on the men’s side but on the women’s side they are very well served. Something seems to be going right there (in the development of Tobago women’s players) because they are getting players on the national team, and the players they get are important players.
Corneal: I think one of the things that happens in Tobago because of the general inactivity of women’s football is that some of the girls play with the boys. They probably didn’t realise how important that was, that girls were challenged to grow as players and it actually fast-tracked their development. So it is something to look at and probably something we can learn from.
(He goes on to explain that they are finalising their vision for the domestic youth game before they reach out to long-standing stakeholders like Republic Bank.)
Wired868: What about the 2022 Concacaf U-20 Women’s competition, which took place while you were TD? What are your thoughts on how we fared there? I’m guessing you would have gotten a report from head coach Jason Spence already?
Corneal: Yes, but you know, what kind of report do we really expect when we came out of a situation where we were in the middle of our Covid protocols, teams weren’t training, we screened in December and, what, we gave him January to prepare?
What substance could we really ask of the team? Things like that make it so unrealistic. That was not a good situation when it came to the preparation for any tournament at any level.
Wired868: You probably know that most of the Caribbean had the same issues with Covid and their leagues being closed, right? It’s pretty much the same throughout the Caribbean, isn’t it?
Corneal: No, it’s not. I was fortunate to travel the Caribbean a little bit around that time. Some of them were able to speak to their authorities and get permission to train.
Wired868: Yes but we had permission to train.
Corneal: Yes, but it took a lot longer. I will give you an example…
Wired868 (interjects): One second, Anton. We had permission to train since June 2020. The Government gave all national teams permission to train since then…
Corneal: Well, I guess at that time then… I don’t know. I don’t want to say why they didn’t train. I wasn’t part of the decision-making then. What I saw was when they started and they started in December.
Wired868: Okay, we conceded seven goals to St Kitts and Nevis. Is it that you are saying St Kitts had a vastly improved situation to us, in terms of…?
Corneal (interjects): I don’t know. Again, Lasana, things like that. I don’t think it’s worthwhile… It is very difficult to discuss something when a team starts to train in December. Is it that we are trying to say the team didn’t start training early enough? You don’t need my input for that. Of course earlier [preparation] is obvious.
Why [did they start that late]? I don’t know. I came in the same month that the tournament was played. Even when we met with the coach, he went deep into explaining and I told him what can you really explain? Can you imagine if we qualified from that group? What would that say about us? That we only need a month and a half to prepare?
We just did not have the necessary time to prepare. Other countries might have done it slightly differently. They all may not have had our [Covid] protocols. I am seeing where fete match teams are playing so what is the real protocol then?
(He goes on to discuss the inconsistencies with the demands of Covid-19 protocols.)
Coming back into this job, it has been mentally stressful because there are so many things to do. It is like rebooting a computer. But I will do as much as I can possibly do and I have a good support team around me.
Wired868: Okay. In terms of the Under-20 situation, the U-20 coach is now in charge of the U-17 team. As you’ve probably observed yourself, the public does not find it easy to get information from the TTFA. That is not your fault but you are the man I have on the other end of the phone right now… Is it that you believe Spence can do a good job with the U-17 girls? Is it that the public…?
Corneal (interjects): Let me call you back in a minute…
(In fact, the conversation eventually resumes more than a week later.)
Wired868: Essentially, I am trying to give the public an idea of what is going on as far as technical matters within the TTFA go and to find out if anyone is taking responsibility for what goes on with our national teams. Our Under-20 women’s coach did not have a good time at the Concacaf Championship and he is also our Under-17 Women’s coach, so he moves from one tournament to the other…
Corneal (interjects): In this situation, he did. But that’s not the norm. That has not been the norm from my recollection.
Wired868: You mean for coaches to be doubling up in that way?
Corneal: And also moving from one team to the other. That is not the norm. But, of course, I met that in place when I went in. He was already coaching both…
Wired868: Well, let’s start with coaches being asked to double up as head coaches of multiple teams. This is new to Trinidad and Tobago but is not new in the smaller Caribbean football nations, where you hire one coach and tell him to coach all three or four national men’s or women’s teams.
Do you see any benefit to coaches having to focus on two teams at the same time?
Corneal: It is very difficult because it means your priorities are divided. You may not think so but your priorities are divided. The time you may give to them may not be the necessary time each team needs. Again, associations that are financially strapped—I am assuming that is done because of the limited finance and the situation the association has gone through for the last couple years. I cannot exactly say why. I can see that being one of the reasons.
Is it the ideal situation? No, it is not the ideal. Is it a situation where we may have to sacrifice for a year or two until we see the right financial support systems to be able to afford the right coaches in each group?
We must be realistic and we cannot revisit what was done before as it was part and parcel of having us where we are now, meaning financially strapped and not being able to fulfil the financial remunerations for all the teams over the years.
We have to come up with strategies that will work and are best for our situation. Does it mean paying less? Does it mean lessening the staff? We don’t know.
There is always an ideal situation. We have to figure out do we have the financial support for the ideal situation and if we don’t, what do we do? Do we live with empty promises to coaches and go back down the same road again? Or do we look at things realistically and see what we can afford and while we are doing that see if we can get that financial support to see if we can get each team with the right staff and the right type of preparation…?
That is something that must be juggled in a way that is fair to the game, to the administrators, to the players. In doing that, it does take some planning—which includes financial planning.
Wired868: Is there anything learnt from the U-20 Women’s competition, that can lead to a better experience for the U-17 Women? Are you satisfied that it benefits the U-17 Team to have Spence continue at the helm after the U-20 tournament?
Corneal: I think coming out of the U20 tournament, it was very difficult to analyse because of the limited time spent in preparation. There is a little more time now with the Under-17s so the expectation will be more—but still not a lot of time more. Hopefully we can actually use this opportunity to see exactly where we are…
We would like good results but it is difficult to have big expectations. There is nothing that is hidden. Where have our girls played in the last four months? Have we gone on any tours? We did not because the finances would not have allowed that.
Wired868: Obviously, we are nowhere near the Mexicos and Costa Ricas and so on in terms of preparation. But when we are in the same group with teams like St Kitts and Nevis and Guyana, can we compare ourselves to them?
The Guyana women’s coach said his team had no pre-tournament camps or practice games at all while Kenwyne Jones’ team got four good warm-ups against Panama and the Dominican Republic. So are we able to compare oranges and oranges in terms of how we do against teams like Guyana and St Kitts?
Corneal: Well what we saw there is their development over the last ten years, where they have been slowly developing year by year and have been competing better and better. What we are seeing now is the final outcome.
It is the only way. You must put time into development and not just spend on your senior team only… Some of these countries are doing it right and they are starting to reap the benefits. We have done it sporadically.
If you look at the women’s game, we had teams that could have competed at the highest level of Concacaf just eight years ago. We could have been on the field easily with Mexico and Costa Rica and so on. We saw it. USA are world champs and Canada is a world champ but we could have competed with all the others…
Now I think long-term development that is sustainable and consistent for four to five years for them to be able to compete at a comparable level in Concacaf, that is being ignored. There is no magic formula, it is the only way…
Wired868: So to be specific now about the upcoming Concacaf Under-17 Women’s Championship, does the coach have any responsibility to the public beyond just showing up for the fixtures?
Corneal: Of course. Every coach is going to prepare to qualify, whether it is two months of planning or two weeks of planning. How they do it and the results will depend on what type of planning was put in place. As I said, there is an ideal situation and then there is our reality, which is what it is. The expectation of qualifying must be there and it should be there.
Wired868: We accept that our standards have slipped. At the same time, St Kitts and Nevis have never scored more than two goals in a Concacaf qualifying game before—we got seven from them. How do we take that? Should fans just accept any result now?
Corneal: No, we can’t. And hopefully we can look at that and think how much work can be done now. We have to look at it and think there is a lot of work to be done; we have fallen behind for whatever reason… There is no one reason that can put us there; it has to be more than one. The result is too drastic a result and we must look at the reasons.
Is it a matter of preparation? Is it a matter of development? Is it that the players needed more opportunity for development or longer opportunities for development?
Wired868: And what responsibility does the coach have?
Corneal: To work with what he has and the players that are afforded to him… What are the expectations? We have to be realistic.
Wired868: Well, our expectations have dropped now. But I think one of our expectations is not to get seven from St Kitts and Nevis…
Corneal: Correct. And if that doesn’t tell us a story… But we have to consider, should we even play if we are not prepared? Or should we play and just let this be an experience that gave us three games, hoping that in a couple years this experience and exposure might have helped, even if it is not the exposure and experience we may have wanted? What is the answer then?
What I would not want to do is speculate as technical director. The answer is proper long-term development. We have to sit and think we must have blundered somewhere across the line with our development…
It is not even an excuse; the facts are there. What we have to make sure is this does not continue to happen and we put things in place so that we are more prepared. And for that, we must have an elite programme like what we are putting in place right now. If that is properly implemented, it means the next crop of National Under-17 players will have three years of preparation going into their tournament—and that is what is needed.
There is no magic formula. There is nothing you can do with a group of players that have not gone through that process.
Wired868 (interjects): Although the core of that Under-20 team–about eight players–were part of the Under-20 Team that got to the Concacaf quarterfinals about two years ago…
Corneal: Correct. It was the players that reached the quarterfinal. But if we went through that team to see how many players were playing in the last year… And that’s what I am saying.
Wired868: In your opinion—there is no technical committee right now and you’re the main technical guy—do you believe the players and the public deserve any sort of explanation after a competition–and especially a competition like that?
Corneal: Is that to chastise the players? The same players we must go to in a year or two? What is the reasoning for it?
Wired868: To suggest chastising the players would assume that we believe the problem lies with the players…
Corneal (interjects): Well, because of the results.
Wired868: … It could be that the technical people of the TTFA apologise to the players if they felt they were sent into a situation they were not ready for. Or it could be if the technical committee feels that the players didn’t do what was required, they ask the players for an explanation.
Corneal: I am trying to understand what you’re saying—the technical staff apologise to the players?
Wired868: After a tournament like this happens, do the players just go their own way? Or is there any sort of debriefing?
Corneal: I am sure the coaching staff would have debriefed the team, they would have spoken to the team. That is done internally. But for the staff to have to ‘apologise’—because that’s the word you used…
Wired868: Well, I’m just giving you two examples at both extremes. I’m not saying what should or shouldn’t happen.
So, as technical director, you were not involved in any meeting with the players afterwards?
Corneal: No. I was actually involved in a meeting with the coach. And he went very detailed into what he thought happened and went through. And you know what? I told him you are speaking about a team that came together how many weeks before the tournament. The expectations would have been unrealistic.
We have to learn from the result. We have to make sure this does not happen again. It may mean us having to prepare differently… and these are the outcomes when you don’t do it.
Wired868: You say we are about to start screening for national youth teams. Without a technical committee in place, would you recommend coaches to staff these teams?
Corneal: We will put together some kind of committee if we have to look at coaches to see who best suits the position that is needed. That is going to be based on experience, qualifications, leadership qualities of the coach, have they coached at this level. There are so many criteria that are important to take into consideration.
Is it a team that is built around development? Is it an age group that you are fighting for results over development? You are looking for a coach that fits that bill.
Wired868: Now as TD, the youth teams fall under your portfolio, right?
Wired868: And the Men’s National Senior Team does not, right?
Corneal: It does not.
Wired868: But you have a situation here where the Men’s National Under-20 coach is also the Men’s National Senior Team head coach. How do you deal with that when you interact with the National Under-20 Team?
Corneal: Well, it is interesting but I met this in place. I am here ten weeks now, so it is something that must be discussed. Football now is governed by a normalisation committee and they would have had, I am sure, some method for making decisions and choosing coaches and that has to be standardised. Me coming on board, of course I am going to advise. Especially with the youth teams, I will strongly advise.
With the senior team [there is already something] in place and the coach has a contract [which includes the Under-20 team]… When it comes to the youth teams, I am going to advise strongly about who is going to be coaching at the youth levels. But this is going to be based on a couple of different criteria. It must also fit the financial support that is given for that position.
[…] We have seen in the past if it is not realistic, we don’t want coaches to be owed anymore. We went through that already and that is why we are were we are.
Wired868: What message would you like to send to the football public and also some of the players who might be hurting during this period?
Corneal: You know what? Sometimes in adversity, we use these opportunities to rise. I am hoping this is one of these times. And not just the players but also the coaches and the programmes, hence the reason we have put together the high performance programme. It is just a matter of implementation.
What will aid the implementation or retard it will be the financial support, so we may need to prioritise how we move forward with the high performance programme. But we know ideally that will change our [future].
Will it take four years? Probably. Are we prepared to wait four years? Hmmmmm. But what we know is if that is put in place, we will see a different U-17 team and a different U-20 team. Again, we ask for some patience.
The screening for U-14 boys and U-15 girls should be in the very near future. Also, as soon as the finance is available to us, we will screen U-12 boys and U-13 girls. So then we will have two groups of 40 in boys and girls.
[…] This is the start of the programme and, of course, that will be supported by youth football [competitions]. But everything I am saying here, there is a cost to it. We have to make sure we can cover that cost and it is a programme that is not just planned on paper but one that we can implement.
Wired868: Any other closing words?
Corneal: This is impossible for the TTFA to do alone. We need all stakeholders on board. We have had discussions with the Secondary Schools Football League, we have had discussions with all the zones about what roles they can play in collaboration with what we are doing.
We have had discussions about putting futsal into the schools from a very young age. It is really going to take all of the stakeholders, inclusive of the media, to get the information out here.
In three months’ time, we will able to see how much we have accomplished. If we don’t have the U-15s and U-14s in place by then, then we really have issues.
Actually, in four weeks, if we haven’t started screening the U-15 girls and U-14 boys, then we have to now look in the mirror. Because we need that group of players to be playing and training.
And as soon as that is done and we have the financial support, we do the group below them and we put the staff in place to start the high performance programme. That’s on us to make sure that happens.
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