THE demise of humour at Dens Park has been greatly exaggerated. For a kick-off, Dundee manager Jim Duffy is in playful mood. Having been asked for some time with his defender Brent Sancho, he informs that there are a number of ladies harbouring such a desire. Except, he laughs, he’s sure they are after more than an interview. The reasons may not be instantly recognisable to all but that’s because, while the packaging may be to some tastes, it’s what’s on the inside that’s really attractive.
There’s a depth to Sancho that is lacking in the stereotypical footballer. Intelligent and warm, his stimulating views on the meaty issues of life and death, education, philosophy, psychology, racism, the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and their legacy on life in his adopted hometown of New York, are captivating and tackled with openness and integrity. But on the more frivolous topics of sport, his dream of opening a Caribbean restaurant or his favourite books, he is equally engaging. The serious issues provoke well-thought-out views and arguments, while an infectious 110-watt smile embraces light-hearted moments.
It’s that grin and the accompanying laughter, which, combined with Duffy’s teasing, make a mockery of the headlines declaring a sense of humour bypass on Sandeman Street. "Of course we are in a serious situation," he says of their drop into the relegation dangerzone. "But it’s not the first time we’ve had to pull together. I’ve been here almost two years now but there’s times when that feels like a lifetime. The events that have taken place on and off the field, it seems never-ending at times. But I think adversity sometimes brings out the best in people and in the situations where you need inner strength, you learn more and you cherish life, football, your profession that bit more. If you want the rainbow you need to weather the rain."
It’s an admirably-positive philosophy considering the hand which life has dealt him. Experiencing a series of ups and downs in the past few years, the Trinidad international, who emigrated to New York as a 15-year-old, lost two friends in the Twin Towers tragedy, then suffered more heartache when his international room-mate and boyhood friend, Mickey Trotman, and then, one month later, his cousin, died in separate car crashes. He arrived at Dundee shortly before the club was plunged into administration, and, as he and his team-mates drowned their sorrows, he was submitted to racial abuse and subsequently forced to clear his name after being charged with assault.
In between it all he also graduated from university with majors in psychology and sports science, and carved out a football career which has taken him across the USA, on to Finland, home to Trinidad and now to Tayside, where today he faces friends and former colleagues, Nacho Novo and Marvin Andrews.
"It sometimes just feels like I’ve been there, done that! I’ve seen a lot and I’ve been through a lot of life-learning experiences and they have helped me as a person, on and off the pitch," says the defender, who will celebrate his 28th birthday tonight by having dinner with his team-mates and friends, including the Rangers duo. "It’s made me a more well-rounded individual. You can sit and weep and wonder ‘why me?’ but if life gives you a silver spoon then I think you don’t really get to understand or enjoy the meaning of life. I think some of the things I’ve been through, although they were tough on me at the time, have helped me a lot in terms of being a better human being."
His study of psychology did not end the day he graduated. The part played by the mind, in sport and in everyday life, is of constant intrigue. In his spare time, he only turns to his Playstation if his brain is about to overload on the latest information he has garnered from the internet, or from books, and his long-term plans revolve around the psychology of sport.
"Footballers have a lot of spare time and I like to think I use it wisely. I look at life after football and think, ‘yeah, I’ve got things I can do after football because of I have an educational background.’ I like the challenge of learning and love reading about psychology and it has helped me put things that have happened in my life into perspective."
But it does have its pitfalls. He laughs as he recalls his first day at university. "In my first day in psychology class, the first thing I did was start questioning whether or not I was crazy because the professor started laying out traits of schizophrenics and for other types of psychological disorders and I started thinking, wait a minute that kind of sounds like me but it was the same for everyone and when you question things, you get a better hold of who you are. Once you understand your mind off the pitch, it helps you gear your mind for things on the pitch and that helps you become a better player."
An amalgam of laid-back Carribean beach bum and win-at-all costs New Yorker, his recognition of both traits means he has managed to channel them both positively.
"That’s the funny thing with me. I’m such extremes. On the pitch you wouldn’t think I am the same easygoing person I am off the pitch when I tend to be very relaxed and easygoing but on the pitch I’m the other side of that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and I kinda just go to the other extreme and battle, to prove people wrong and to win.
"Off it I’m just relaxed and a very laid-back, cool guy and very quiet - you don’t hear me much but on the pitch it’s a different story because when I go out there I want to win. If you look back on the life of Brent Sancho, you’d see me living in Trinidad and then spending nine years in New York and I think both places are reflected in the kind of person I am.
"New York is fast-paced and there’s an attitude where you have to succeed in life. There’s no failures over there - no ribbons or medals for second-placed and I’ve learned that attitude all the way through university and living there but there’s also my Carribean side, my West Indian side, being from Trinidad, where it’s all coconut trees and lying back on the beach, so the way I live my life is a mix of both. But I love challenges. Even when I decided to go professional, I started late. I was 21 and I’d finished university and a lot of people didn’t give me much of a chance but for me that helped. I like when the odds are stacked up against me. I like being the underdog. I like that mental fight and I think I’ve become a better human being and a better football player because of the challenges I’ve had to face."
The battle with racism has been a virtual constant in his life. A guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, he also wears it on his wrist, which is adorned with a "Stand Up, Speak Up" anti-racism charity wristband.
It was a racist slur directed at him on a night out in Dundee which led to the player and team-mate Stephen McNally facing assault charges. Although he was ultimately cleared, the court case still took its toll on Sancho and his parents. His dad was besieged by the media in Trinidad, and family, drip-fed inaccurate information in a perverse game of Chinese whispers, required daily updates from a reassuring Sancho, who deep down needed reassurance of his own.
"Again, I’ve been through a lot in my life but that was one of the toughest, sitting in court, knowing you are innocent but feeling guilty because you are sitting in a dock. It was a surreal world. I kept thinking this can’t be happening but it was and all because someone had too much to drink and started saying things they shouldn’t have. But I try to find the silver lining in every cloud and I’d say I learned a lot about myself and, though, initially, I might have been angry, I can’t say I hate the person who put me through that. I sympathise with them and hope they get to learn about black people and the pain and suffering that something like that brings to someone. I hope that in retrospect they have learned from that and other people have learned too."
He looks to New York for inspiration. A city of diverse culture, there was very little integration before the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. "But since then, people have realised life is too short. Now you go out in The Village and there are black and white people sitting together and it seems normal. And it’s a generation thing. Hopefully the next generation will see that and realise that’s the way it should be."
Informed, his thinking and attitude to life make him a far from stereotypical footballer. He looks bashful but grins. "I’ve been told that before," he says. It’s easy to see why.