It was a homecoming long overdue.
The COVID-19 pandemic and visa restrictions kept HFX Wanderers midfielder and captain Andre Rampersad in his adoptive home of Halifax for the past three years, far from friends and family and the warm climes of his native Trinidad and Tobago.
Instead of riding out another cold Canadian winter, Rampersad was able to return home in December, much to the surprise of one family member.
“I got in late at night and Granny’s in bed, you know she’s my support system,” Rampersad recalled. “She heard my voice, and she was up right away. There was so much emotion, seeing each other after so much time away, the last three years with the pandemic and everything.
“I stayed in Halifax the whole time, just being in the gym trying to keep myself occupied. For the most part, it was tough but that’s one side of the sport.
“I’m just so thankful that God gave me the chance to go home and see them again. It was brilliant. It was something I actually needed. It has inspired me.”
It would end up being Rampersad’s first of two trips back to the Caribbean island nation off the coast of Venezuela.
NATIONAL TEAM DEBUT
Earlier this month, Rampersad was called up to the Trinidad and Tobago national team, ahead of a pair of crucial Concacaf Nations League matches against the Bahamas in Nassau and at home versus Nicaragua. It was the first time the 28-year-old has played for his home country at any level.
The Soca Warriors blanked the Bahamas 3-0 last Friday and played to a 1-1 draw with Nicaragua on Monday.
Enjoying the comforts of home has reinvigorated Rampersad following a difficult 2022 Canadian Premier League season which saw the Wanderers miss the playoffs for a second straight year and forced management to clean house during the off-season.
“It would’ve been too easy to get too comfortable,” said Rampersad, speaking during a recent interview following a training camp session in Halifax.
“After four years of being the captain, I could’ve easily come back and be like, ‘OK, I’m the man.’ But no, it’s back to square one now. We’re just gonna keep pushing for the best for the team and for the city of Halifax.”
Mere days following their season-ending loss to Forge FC, the Wanderers fired Stephen Hart, the club’s inaugural head coach, replacing him with Patrice Gheisar.
It also meant the club had to bid farewell to several players, including those who had been with Rampersad since the Wanderers’ first season in 2019, like keeper Christian Oxner, defender Peter Schaale and forward Alex Marshall. Fellow Trinidadian Akeem Garcia – the Wanderers’ all-time leading scorer – retired in October to pursue coaching opportunities.
Last season’s leading scorer Samuel Salter was dealt to Atletico Ottawa and 2021 Golden Boot winner and player of the year Joao Morelli will miss at least the first half of the 2023 season recovering from major knee surgery.
“I’ve been here from the beginning, I was part of the foundation and I lost a lot of friends,” Rampersad said of the off-season upheaval. “But this is the business side of soccer. You make friends, they become family and then in a moment it can disappear.
“I go back to year one where I had my friends like Christian Oxner or Peter Schaale and then all of sudden, you probably don’t see them ever again. Stephen Hart gave me my shot and every day I thank him for it. And now he’s not at the top anymore. It’s really tough.
“But you just have to move on and try to do what’s best for the club and for the city of Halifax. We made it to the finals in only one year (2020). After that, we were just stagnant. Last year we didn’t really do much. I think, honestly, it was just a matter of time for big changes to be made.”
'A GOOD STEP FOR US'
Rampersad, the Wanderers’ all-time leader in appearances (97), likes what he sees in his new teammates and coach.
“The quality is definitely a lot higher,” Rampersad said. “I think the playing style definitely suits the players that we have. I see a lot of leaders within this group right now and our new goalkeeper has already stepped in.
“If we want to try and play exciting football, then we’ve got to bring in certain pieces to do that. It starts from the top and coach has definitely brought his up-tempo style of play. It just suits everyone.
NEW LOOK WANDERERS
Gheisar has put his stamp on the team, bringing in a boatload of talent like young Brazilian forward Tiago Coimbra, former Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Lorenzo Callegari, defender Daniel Nimick, a Vancouver Whitecaps selection in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft, and ex-Finnish pro keeper Yann Fillion, among others.
“When he (Gheisar) first signed, he called me right away and he has talked to me every day. He talked about his philosophy and how he would like to play and how much he believes in me. And when you hear that from a new coach coming in, it’s always a delight to hear. It’s definitely a good step for us.”
Gheisar also speaks highly of his team captain.
“You can immediately see what he brings to the team,” Gheisar said of Rampersad. “In training, he sets the standards. You can see what he means to our culture and morale being extremely high. We want amazing people and very good soccer players, rather than amazing soccer players that are not very good people.”
The Wanderers returned to Nova Scotia earlier this week after spending two weeks of training in Florida. They will host the Nepean Hotspurs for their final pre-season match next Friday.
They open the 2023 CPL season on April 15 at Ottawa.