Return of the Glory Days:
It took a total of 120 minutes, stoppage-time, and a ten kicks from the penalty spot to separate title holders W Connection and 10-man North East Stars in the final of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) FA Trophy 2015 on Sunday at the Ato Boldon Stadium.
When the dust cleared, North East Stars, 5-4 winners on penalty kicks following a 0-0 draw, were the ones celebration as FA Trophy champions for the first time since that memorable 2003 when Guyanese coach James Mc Lean led the Darryl Mahabir-owned club to the title.
Back then, it was the first ever title celebrated by the Sangre Grande club, in just their third year of existence, defeating Connection, then three-time winners (1999, 2000 & 2002).
Now 12 years later, under third-year coach Angus Eve, the FA Trophy heads back to Sangre Grande, after again defeating (2013-14) holders W Connection.
A miniature FA winners’ trophy, the MVP award which was presented to goalkeeper Cleon John, and winners’ medals were given out of TTFA officials, but neither the tournament organisers nor finalists clubs’ officials could confirm whether or not prize money will become available for the oldest and "most prestigious" trophy in Trinidad and Tobago.
Needless to say, North East Stars were in a jubilant mood to take the status of FA Trophy 2015 champions.
“It brings back memories of 2003 (FA Trophy) and 2004 (Pro League championship) when our football was at its best,” said North East Stars owner/chairman Darryl Mahabir following Sunday’s final. “I think (coach) Angus Eve has done an excellent job so far. In the last two to three years we have seen significant improvement in the development of the youths, and tonight it is as a result of youths working hard together with the coach.
“It was really an intense final. The 30 minutes extra-time was a little different from what we experience in regular finals. It had us on the edge all the way to the end.”
Mahabir said while the FA Trophy means great for the club going forward, the real joy is returning the title to the people of Sangre Grande.
“We targeted the FA title,” said North East Stars Angus Eve, who now boasts winning the FA Trophy as a player and head coach. “I told the guys at the beginning of this season that the chairman really loves this title. We lapsed last season and in the season before that, so we really wanted to get this one. We prepared for it. For the people of Sangre Grande this is fantastic.”
Eve was forced to make a premature change in the 24th minute, replacing hard-working utility player Keryn Navarro in midfield with Jayson Joseph due to a right ankle injury picked up by the veteran in a tackle by Connection's St. Lucia midfielder Tremain Shayn Paul.
Eve's troubles doubled eight minutes later -- his side reduced to ten men -- when Joseph was shown a direct red card by referee Cecile Hinds.
Joseph, who had an attempt which sailed high seconds before, had lunged in to meet a neat Keron Cummings' pass but caught the legs of Colombian Christian Rodriguez.
North East Stars, defeated FA Trophy finalists in 2006 and 201-11, continued to look the better side in the first half and even had a superb try from 30-yards out from former Connection player, Cummings, in the 38th minute that goalkeeper Aquelius Sylvester was only able to push high into the air before it landed safely behind.
“The plan went to shot,” said Eve. “We tried to play 4-3-3 and pressure them high up the pitch and it worked. We thought that we could have won the ball higher up the park and then break from in their half. It worked well until the red card, which I think was very unfortunate. It changed the game plan to 4-4-1 and 4-3-2 but we still kept pressing them till the end.”
There was some confusion from the tournament officials though, initially informing both teams that the match will head straight into kicks from the spot at the end of regulation time, before reverting in the second half to the competition rules which states that extra-time will be played in the final after the end of regulation time.
Eve said wasn’t pleased by the mix-up but “I trusted our fitness and we knew that we can play defence having [one of] the best defensive record in the last two seasons. Our players were tremendous tonight.”
In the second half Connection, whose best chance of the opening half was curled inches wide by Colombian Yefer Steven Lozano in the 34th minute, adjusted to the extra player advantage while North East Stars were forced to defend and attack on the counter with Reserve team player Gorean “Ratty” Highley the lone forward.
Highley, a former Connection player, sliced an effort high and wide of the net from a tight angle in the 88th minute after errors by 'keeper Aquelius Sylvester and Canadian defender Bradley Beaumont in dealing with a Cummings pass into the box.
Twenty minutes earlier Highley was fouled just outside the area during a counterattack led by Cummings but Cummings, Stars man-of-the-match, was inches wide of the bottom corner just as he did in open play ten minutes inside the first period.
But it was Connection’s prodigy Shahdon Winchester that had the best opening of the match in the 90th minute. However the former Finland-based forward struck directly at goalkeeper Cleon John from point-blank range after being picked out by substitute Jerrel Britto.
Incredibly the intensity was lifted in stoppage-time with both sides creating a number of openings before Connection finally had the ball into the back of the net in the 114th minute.
But that goal was overruled by referee Hinds, ruling that there was infringement by Connection’s Britto, who knocked in the ball at the near post. North East Stars goalkeeper Cleon John had initially failed to grip the ball played towards goal and on his second attempt after the ball rebound off the upright, Britto pounced to hit in.
“I am disappointed that we did not win the game,” expressed W Connection head coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier, who led his side to four FA Trophy titles previously. “…because I thought we controlled and dominated the game. Unfortunately we missed several chances but the goal we scored, the referee disallowed it for her own personal reasons… I don’t know. It was a good goal and video evidence will prove that.”
Fevrier, who gave credit to North East Stars, added, “I was quite pleased with our overall play. It was a final and both teams came well-prepared for it. It was a very calculated game. It was a game we definitely had much more possession control and all we needed was one goal, because North East never created one goal in the game.”
North East Stars, with ten men, buoyed by the thundering sounds of their supporters chanting “Let's go North East… lets go” held out till the end of 120 minutes to send the final into kicks from the penalty mark.
Eventual MVP, John, had some glove to Winchester’s kick in the first as it entered his netting at the bottom corner but Cummings levelled the kicks 1-1 soon after.
The North East Stars goalie then got in right on the second with a diving save to his right to deny substitute Jomal Williams before Jesus Perez pumped the Sangre Grande club ahead. Connection’s Britto, Aikim Andrews and Christian Viveros were all clinical just as North East Stars Aquil Selby and Neveal Hackshaw before Kion Joseph had the courtesy of sending the winning kick beyond the “Savonetta Boys” goalie Aquelius Sylvester.
“We have been working on penalty kicks in the past week and I didn’t expect anything different from the guys tonight,” Eve explained. “They have been very consistent and saw that tonight, the penalties were very high class.
“It’s great to win the title. We worked very hard. A lot of people and also in the media are saying that local players don’t have certain fitness but we played with 10 men and lasted for the 120 minutes. It was a great game of football. Although it was 0-0, both teams really went at it and I thought the crowd was well into it throughout the game. It was a good spectacle for local football.”
Following the match, W Connection owner/president David John-Williams said his club plans to lodge a protest to the TTFA against North East Stars for the use of forward Gorean Highley.
But Sharon O’Brian, of the TTFA informed ttproleague.com that Highley, although unable to play for the first team in the Digicel Pro League, was free to represent North East Stars at the FA Trophy competition, which doesn’t fall within the Pro League jurisdiction.
FA Trophy final
W Connection 0 vs North East Stars 0
Kicks from the penalty mark
W Connection 4 North East Stars 5
Shahdon Winchester (scored) Keron Cummings (scored)
Jomal Williams (saved) Jesus Perez (scored)
Jerrel Britto (scored) Aquil Selby (scored)
Aikim Andrews (scored) Neveal Hackshaw (scored)
Christian Viveros (scored) Kion Joseph (scored)
W Connection: 22.Aquelius Sylvester; 2.Kurt Frederick, 39.Alvin Jones (34.Jabari Mitchell 103rd), 25.Christian Viveros, 4.Bradley Beaumont, 10.Yefer Steven Lozano (Yellow Card) (40.Jomal Williams 46th), 9.Shahdon Winchester, 11.Tremain Shayn Paul (Yellow Card), 20.Christian Rodriguez, 30.Aaquil Campbell (12.Jerrel Britto 46th), 28.Aikim Andrews
Unused substitutes: 1.Terrence Lewis (GK), 16.Anselm Jackson, 36.Triston Hodge, 45.Kori Cupid
Coach: Stuart Charles Fevrier
North East Stars: 22.Cleon John; 4.Keithy Simpson, 8.Dwane Muckette (6.Jeromie Williams 63rd), 9.Gorean Highley, 15.Glenton Wolfe, 25.Keryn Navarro (12.Jayson Joseph 24th), 38.Jesus Perez, 41.Neveal Hackshaw, 44.Kion Joseph, 14.Dwane James (5.Aquil Selby 83rd), 10.Keron Cummings
Unused substitutes: 1.Stefan Berkeley (GK), 18.Kaashif Thomas, 26.Zavion Navarro, 7.Stephon Prescott
Coach: Angus Eve.