Arguably T&T's most exciting and relentless football league, the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL), kicks off this afternoon with a doubleheader at the Marvin Lee Stadium in Macoyea. The SSFL, formerly known as the Colleges Football League, is not only anticipated by players, coaches, teachers and parents, but also by a wide cross-section of past pupils of the various schools.
Bragging rights become the norm as many of these past students suddenly remember their playing days, and can recall when they scored with a shot from 35 yards out some 35 years ago.
Many also join the ride in support of their alma mater through thick and thin.
The league has gone through many different formats from zonal winners playing each other to decide the eventual winners to the big 7 formats, to the now more accepted 15 top schools from all zones competing in 15 rounds of play to eventually decide the champions.
It is always difficult to assess a new season and to decide which school can come out on top. One has to remember the schools' top priority is ensuring the boys have a proper education and hopefully most of them do well enough to go on from Form 5 to Sixth Form. This gives them an additional two years in school and a further opportunity to represent their school of choice. They also endeavour to make a good name for themselves in the football arena, simultaneously securing their passes for further education.
Over the last few years, the schools from South Zone seem to have strengthened their claims that the best school footballers hail from the south as Presentation College San Fernando, Naparima College and Shiva Boys' Hindu College have each waltzed away with the Championship title. Shiva Boys won the National Intercol in 2017 in some style after they were relegated from the Premier division due to some incompetent paperwork handed over to the SSFL. This was tough on their players as they were an extremely talented bunch.
I would expect both Presentation and Naparima to again be fighting for top honours as they both seem to have a very good developmental plan in place, so when the older boys leave school, the youngsters taking their place are already aware of what is expected of them.
St. Anthony's College finished 3rd in 2017 after speculation they would falter having lost their coach of umpteen years, but they have repeatedly proved to be the top team from the North. I expect them to be somewhere near the top again as they have produced good young players over the years. The 3 perennial colleges - Fatima, St Mary's (CIC) and Queens Royal College (QRC) have not done well lately in the league. Fatima was the best of the trio finishing 4th just 2 points behind St Anthony's. However, they never really looked as if they would cop the title and in the end to finish where they did was good. They need some dynamic players to improve their position. CIC and QRC were disappointing even though they finished mid-table - 6th and 7th respectively. They were far too inconsistent. In 2018, if they don't win games away from home more regularly, I expect them to finish mid table again.
San Juan North did well again last year finishing 5th and losing out on the National Intercol final. They need to show more fight in the league as they do in the Intercol. They seem to throw in the towel when things are not going their way; let's hope in 2018 their attitude will be spot on from their opening game.
St. Benedict's and St. Augustine - two schools that once dominated secondary schools football - have fallen on difficult times and it was no surprise they ended on the same number of points in the bottom half of the standings. They both possess good individual talent but lack proper team cohesion and unless both schools can play as a team this year, they may struggle yet again.
Of the two Trinity Schools - the East team was far more talented than their Moka counterparts. They had some gifted players but missed too many chances and games they should have won, they either drew or lost. Moka plodded along for results and their main weapon is their home advantage; they must use it. Even when I played and coached a few years ago for Fatima, I loathed going up there. It is an extremely difficult ground for away teams and they must make it a fortress.
Carapichaima East Secondary was the surprise package last year and would have been disappointed with their 11th placing. They had some good results against the better teams but faltered against schools they ought to have beaten. They need to learn to win ugly by grinding out results.
The 3 promoted schools - East Mucurapo, Valencia Secondary and Bishop's High of Tobago should give a good account of themselves. Historically, East Mucurapo has produced exciting players so we will have to wait and see just how good they are. Valencia did well in the Interpol last year and can surprise us while I hope the Tobago school will come good in 2018.
I trust that the coaches will ensure the players do the simple basics well - passing, shooting, trapping etc. Sounds easy, right? Let's wait and see.
Good luck to all schools!