Nine. You can count as many as nine players who are currently in the national senior squad who began their careers at Under-13 level under the watchful eyes of former Trinidad and Tobago World Youth Cup coach, Anton Corneal.
And if National Youth Football Coordinator Jamaal Shabazz has his way, Under-13 football may well be where national football finds its salvation in the not-too-distant future.
“In Trinidad, we’ve grown accustomed to: Batman solved the problem, Superman solved the problem, Lone Ranger solved the problem,” Shabazz told Wired868, “so we look at the coach and not the program.”
“But when you have a program with a cadre of good players,” he continued, “once you have a decent coach, you can progress. From that team Corneal started at U-13 level, you [are] now seeing Daneil Cyrus, Curtis Gonsalves, Khaleem Hyland, Kevin Molino, Aubrey David, Sean De Silva, Leston Paul, Joevin Jones; all in the senior national squad.”
The plan that Shabazz has come up with for producing the next generation of national footballers, the NCLB-sponsored TTFA-run National Elite Youth Development Program, owes a lot to the ideas of the former National Under-20 coach.
“We’ve got to show respect to the work that Corneal did back in the day when he came back to Trinidad and started a similar U-13 program and that team qualified for the U-17 and U-20 World Cups,” Shabazz said.
Starting from scratch, he argues, would be to waste the available resources. So his idea is to build on the foundation that is already in place. Add training programs for selected coaches and the use of an established tournament system to scout talent and you have a youth football program that he is certain can work.
It all sounds fine in theory; after all, using the age-group system to spot budding footballers has been a part of the local game plan for years. However, not everyone on the ground is absolutely convinced that the tried-and-tested route is the way to go. And some simply don’t know what to think, so little do they know about what is proposed.
“I am clueless,” admits Trinity College East coach Michael Grayson, who was named among the all-time top Secondary School Football League (SSFL) coaches earlier this year. “I don’t know what’s going on, I’m not part and parcel of anything. I don’t know if the secondary school league is involved because, since I’ve been at Trinity, I haven’t been at meetings. […] I don’t know if they have involved them in it. But the bottom line is I haven’t been contacted.”
Asked whom the TTFA has in mind to coach in the different regional FA’s, TTFA Technical Director Muhammad Isa said that official word on the direction the program will be taking will be revealed to the football-loving public at the end of this month.
He said that he could not yet give any names of coaches but he did name a handful of scouts who are already active in the Program. They include Dexter Cyrus and Dexter Francis in the south, Shurland David and Marlon Charles in the east and Atiba McKnight in the Central Zone.
But like Grayson, Central FA general secretary Clynt Taylor does not have a lot to say about the Program that is complimentary. He complains, for instance, about the lack of information coming from the TTFA.
“Since they told us about this youth program last year,” he told Wired868, “we sent out a representative to one of the meetings. They just came and told us: This is what we’re having, we’ve got x amount of money to have this program and we’ll send you information shortly on what we’re going to do.’”
Taylor made no attempt to disguise his extreme disappointment with what has happened so far.
“They called us to another meeting,” he continued, “and that meeting too was very disappointing because nobody is taking minutes or notes of what members are saying and you have the chairman practically sleeping on himself!”
According to Taylor, almost everyone present at the December meeting strongly objected to the proposal to have a zonal tournament in the long school vacation.
“We’re at the stage where we have called some scouts for the [youth] Pro League matches,” Shabazz had explained, “and the Republic Youth [mid-April] matches that are going to come up in each zone, that’s going to be run by All Sports Promotions.”
But this scouting process is only the first step towards establishing an U-13 national team next year. High on the menu is a national zonal competition in the coming July/August vacation that will involve players from the six regional zones who competed in the Youth Pro League and the Republic Bank Youth Tournament.
“After the zonal competitions, we hope by the end of the year to put together a national pool,” Shabazz went on. “And from next year, the staff for national teams can develop a program which will include friendly internationals for a younger age group.”
The friendlies are a part of the package the TTFA promised last October when the program was launched with a gala event at the Trinidad Hilton. TTFA President David John-Williams said at the launch that as many as four to six local friendly matches and one international friendly will be played each year.
“I don’t envision that as a grassroots elite program at all,” Taylor responded. “Running a tournament is not a grassroots program. […] The Elite Program in my opinion should deal with the development of players. That Youth Pro League and Republic Youth Cup is (sic) just a tournament; that’s just young children going out there and kicking some ball.
“How does that help them develop a skill, develop a talent, identify the areas they need assistance in and get someone working with them?”
He went on to echo Grayson.
“We’re yet to see what they’re doing, so that’s why it’s difficult to know,” said Taylor, “and to really comment as much until you know where they’re really going. They’re saying they’re going in that direction but there’s nothing to back it up.
“We thought the idea behind it was to develop youth players throughout Trinidad and Tobago [and] not scouting for players to bring them into a team [to] develop a few players but it was an overall development of youth players throughout the regions where you can now go out and scout for adequate talent because we have been developing these players on a program.
“Not that we’re going to look for players and scout for players and work with them exclusively. If that is the intention, then I think we misread what we were hearing from them initially.”
Angus Eve, who coaches Pro League team Club Sando and led Naparima to the 2016 SSFL Big Four title, hinted that Shabazz might be giving Corneal too much credit. According to him, he would not have been able to do what he did without the help of a developmental system.
“I have an old article with Anton Corneal thanking Jabloteh for developing Kevin Molino,” he said, “and all of these boys who played for that U-17 [World Cup team].”
Eve believes that looking for talent within the current local set-up is the most effective way to develop players. But he’s not at all certain that what Shabazz proposes is the way to go.
“Our society is not built up like England where there is a natural path to professionalism,” he said. “We have to put better coaches in the primary schools.”
Elaborating, he says that the Elite Program should have appointed “area coaches so you have six qualified proper coaches. They go to the schools like they used to do long time when I was a child and develop the boys in those schools.”
Pointing to “a whole cadre of Pro League coaches,” he wondered aloud about the criteria being used to assess and select them and the role they will be expected to play.
“Look,” he said, “they took Stern [John] who was an assistant coach at Central, [to assist with the National Senior Men’s team] but Dale Saunders, who won [two] Pro League titles in a row [as Central head coach], what does he have to do to be in the Elite Program?”
Finally, calling for the TTFA to give these coaches “their respect [because] they can do the job,” he declared in a clear reference to the arrangements in place for the coaching staff of the National Women’s Team, that “the systems are already there. Pay the coaches so that they can be full-time like the Italians and them.”
At the launch, John-Williams insisted that the football academies across the country would be staffed with qualified coaches. Shabazz clued Wired868 in on the plans to make this a reality by looking across the pond for the required help.
“Right now, we’re in talks with UEFA in terms of setting up a coach education program where we could standardise coach education,” he said. “We went backwards because, back when [Jack] Warner was in charge, we had an arrangement with the Dutch Federation. With the coming of Mr [Raymond] Tim Kee, that was knocked out.
“So now we’re in talks with UEFA to set up a licence—like a “B” and “A” licence—that would be our own licence to mirror standards in UEFA.”
Eve insisted that there already are a lot of already qualified candidates operating in the local game.
“There are a lot of coaches,” he said. “If they do a database they will see there are a lot of coaches who have their UEFA “B” and “C” licences. You have Hutson Charles, Derek King, Anthony Rougier…”
“If I were running the Elite Program, I would get qualified coaches, put them in secondary schools and primary schools and then from that you pull your [U-13] national team. Then you have the national team coach and that is now your elite program.”
The fact is that neither Grayson nor Eve nor Taylor is running the Elite Program. Shabazz remains, for the moment, the one saddled with that responsibility. And he is confident—insistent both that the umbrella body is already on the right track and that the ambitious program will hit its proposed targets.
“The feedback of the people who started scouting has been very good in terms of the individual ability of the players,” said Shabazz. “From here, we need to really harness that talent.”
The questions that Shabazz and his principals will have to ask themselves are this: Is harnessing “that talent” enough to get T&T football where the TTFA wants it to go? And can they really do without the talent of coaches like Eve, Grayson, Saunders, King and co?