So, we meet again, old friend.
The Trinidad and Tobago football community might not have been paying particular attention when St Benedict’s College hosted Fatima College in Secondary School Football League (SSFL) Premier Division group stage action on 14 September.
In the previous SSFL top flight season, St Benedict’s finished in seventh place—17 points shy of winners Naparima College and 15 points ahead of table proppers St Mary’s College. Literally, in other words, they were closer to the bottom of the table than the top.
And Fatima were not even in the frame, since, in 2019, they competed in the second tier Championship Division.
Tomorrow, St Benedict’s and Fatima will be at the centre of the schools’ football game though, as they kickoff from 3.30pm in the Big 4 final at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva.
Neither Fatima nor St Benedict’s have lost this season, while their opening round meeting ended in a 1-1 draw. And, on the eve of the final, the mutual respect was evident.
“I expect it to be an even match and well balanced,” St Benedict’s head coach Randolph Boyce told Wired868. “The two teams play a similar style, so it is just on the day which team holds their nerve and applies what they have been taught in training.”
Even as Fatima and St Benedict’s supporters brag about the superiority of their respective camps, Boyce sees lots in common with the two sides.
“[Fatima] put down the ball and move it around—they are not a team that plays route one,” said Boyce. “They don’t rush it. They are a well-coached and well-structured team with a good game plan. From what I see, they play in a way that is similar to what I am trying to implement here.
“They know what they are doing at Fatima.”
Fatima head coach Hutson “Baba” Charles, who was interviewed separately, seemed just as impressed with St Benedict’s.
“Overall I think [coach] Randolph Boyce has done a tremendous job with Benedict’s,” Charles told Wired868. “When you look at their play, you can hardly see a flaw or a weakness.”
The former national standout player and coach offered a caveat, though.
“But that is our opponents and we will find a way to get through them,” he said, “and win this final tomorrow.”
Thus far, Charles’ troops have always found a way to get a result—albeit with some help from an officiating error, which nullified a “goal” by San Juan North forward Larry Noel in the semi-final round.
Fatima’s ball movement and collective play has been a breath of fresh air in the 2022 competition.
Charles noted that he added his competitive spirit to the mix.
“It is a big achievement getting Fatima to the final [and] it is one of the goals that the staff and myself set out,” said Charles. “After we saw the group [we were in], the first goal [for the team] was to survive. But when I spoke to my staff and the team in pre-season, I told them I like to play the football nice and I like to win.
“If I am in any competition, I want to win. We set out with that mindset and here we are in the finals looking to win the League.”
Fatima have talent to match Charles’ ambitions. Their players are technically capable and able to play at a high tempo: with flanker and captain Christian Bailey, goalkeeper Tristan Edwards, defender Jaden Williams and midfielders Khiba Romany and Aidan DeGannes among the standouts.
And, of course, left back Alijah Nunes carries an ‘X factor’ with his ability to join the attack with a raking cross or, as against San Juan North, a blistering shot.
“[Fatima] have a number of different strong points—their goalkeeper, their defence, their midfield is good,” said Boyce. “[…] Where you see other teams rely on two or three players, they play good team football and that is one of their strengths. You wouldn’t know where their goals or opportunities will pop up from.”
In the semi-finals, Charles said Fatima focused almost exclusively on San Juan’s attacking pair of Noel and playmaker Lindell Sween. But Benedict’s are not nearly as limited.
Captain and centre forward Tarik Lee is fast, wily and clinical. The industrious Nicholas Bobcombe and tricky Jeremiah Niles flank Lee, while midfielders Derrel “Zoom Zoom” Garcia and Josiah Ochoa are always ready to join the attack from deeper positions.
“[Benedict’s] outside midfielders and skipper are guys who can change the game at any time,” said Charles. “We are preparing for them. We played them in the first game to start the league, so we have an idea of how they are operating.”
St Benedict’s speed and decisiveness in transition has been one of the highlights of the 2022 SSFL competition so far. Boyce noted that it was the result of long, hard work on the training ground.
Most school teams begin preparation for the September season between May and June. Boyce said Benedict’s work began in April, when he entered the bulk of his team in the Next Level Consultant Ltd (NLCL) Under-19 Community Cup as Cunupia FC.
He suggested that the extra time together led to performances that are more consistent and allowed him additional team for player development.
“Benedict’s always had the talent, [but] this year we just did a couple things differently in terms of starting earlier, intensifying a couple things and getting the programme up to a higher level,” said Boyce, “and the whole organisation is seeing the benefit of that.
“It is a nice happy time at the St Benedict’s organisation right now and it is just to get a win tomorrow to top off things.”
So how will the Big 4 final be decided?
Charles suggested that fortune would favour the brave.
“I think we need to try to get an early goal and unsettle them—that is what I will be pushing for,” said the Fatima coach. “We need to get an early goal and throw them off their rhythm.”
Boyce believes the event will be determined by “discipline, commitment, patience, sticking to the game plan, taking the opportunities that are given to you and trying to force mistakes and errors for the other team to make”.
“I would definitely like St Benedict’s College to win but it is a game that might come down to who scores first,” said Boyce, with a laugh. “It can be a match like that, so we really have to be on our game tomorrow.
“[…] Sometimes you need a little luck or football brilliance to get things going your way.”
Charles insisted that Fatima would not back down.
“We will find a way to get through them and win this final,” he said. “I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
Thousands of school football fans across the country would agree.