Wed, Oct


ANYONE WHO thinks that Port Vale do not have a prayer in tomorrow's third-round tie at Leeds United has reckoned without Tony Rougier. The Trinidadian striker, a proud and passionate Christian, has been on his knees to seek divine assistance in forcing the Premiership leaders to theirs.

Rougier, who is Dwight Yorke's close friend and his captain in the Trinidad and Tobago national side, views Vale's visit to Elland Road as "a magnificent occasion". He is convinced that the hand of God was instrumental in setting it up, and he does not mean Diego Maradona.

Now 28 and the First Division club's top scorer, Rougier grew up in a cricketing hotbed; Gus Logie lived next door. For him, though, it was always football. After a year in New York, where he worked at the airport and learned about cold weather, he decided to try to earn a living in the English game.

Leeds' neighbours, Bradford City, offered him a contract during Lennie Lawrence's time as manager but Rougier could not secure a work permit. Encouraged by his compatriot Jerren Nixon, who was then with Dundee United, he went to try his luck in Scotland.

Raith Rovers took him on. He recalls with amusement (and in perfect English) how he had struggled to understand the accent in Yorkshire, where puzzled natives used to ask him what language he spoke. Fife, which he describes as "a culture shock", presented an even stiffer challenge.

"But it was brilliant for me playing for Raith and I thank God for that," he says. "My God is perfect in every way and does things to perfection. He has made my career a ladder. I started at the bottom and now I'm moving up to the top."

The year he arrived, 1995, Rougier was in the Rovers team who led Bayern Munich 1-0 at half-time in the Olympic Stadium. He has a picture of the scoreboard to prove it, although the Germans recovered to win.

Hibernian took him to Edinburgh, where Rougier added derbies with Hearts to the big-match atmosphere he had already sampled against those clubs where religious fervour takes on a different complexion, Celtic and Rangers.

He was also flying out regularly to the Caribbean and other exotic locations. "I always take pride in playing for Trinidad and Tobago because my country has done a lot for me. It means a 14-hour journey each way but that's the price you have to pay to be where you want to be.

"Many times I've played with jet-lag. Your mind gets accustomed to it but the physical tiredness doesn't hit you until afterwards. Last month I flew via Miami to Honduras for a match in fierce heat. I rushed back, then played and scored for Port Vale against Crystal Palace."

Rougier had moved to the Potteries for £175,000 in January as John Rudge's penultimate recruit for Vale before his controversial sacking. Seven goals this term beats his total from four previous seasons in Britain, while his pace and power have prompted local comparisons with Jonah Lomu.

Rudge's successor, Brian Horton, must take some credit for his form, having switched him from the wing to centre-forward. While acknowledging the help of his manager and colleagues, Rougier has another explanation. "I put it down to the fact that I've learned to pray more. I'm spending more time with my God. He has rewarded me with the results I need."

In an age of ever more contrived goal celebrations Rougier simply puts his palms together, looks towards the sky and offers thanks out loud. "I'm not ashamed to glorify in my Lord and I'm not self-conscious or embarrassed about who might be watching or standing next to me.

"My team-mates found it funny at first. But now that they know me, they understand and respect it. My christian life comes first, my football second. Without Him I couldn't do what I'm doing. I can get strength to achieve anything I want, because with God all things are possible."

The words are spoken with such feeling that the most hardened atheist would find it hard not to warm to him. Yorke does not quite share his compatriot's moral code, if even half the tabloid tales of his love life are true, but Rougier talks about him with admiration, affection and a respect befitting "one of the best strikers in the world".

He also reveals that they have struck a friendly bet. "Dwight is very keen for me to play in the Premiership and thinks I'm capable of doing it. But he's concerned that playing too many positions is holding me back. I've played right-back and centre-half for Trinidad, and now I'm in midfield. He feels I should specialise.

"I'm always talking to him, because of my religion, and I've told him: 'You need to calm down a bit with the ladies. I don't think it's healthy for you'. Anyway, Dwight suggested a deal: as soon as I settled in one position, he'd settle down and get married."

The Manchester United man could doubtless offer a few tips about Leeds, of whom Rougier generously opines: "There's been no greater team this season." Yet Vale are on a roll themselves. Their six-match unbeaten run includes a draw with a Blackburn side Leeds put out of the Worthington Cup only in stoppage time and a draw at Charlton, where David O'Leary's fledglings were held last spring.

As a Catholic, the Leeds manager will trust that God is on his side. Rougier, who pulled out of a friendly with Paraguay to be available, plans a direct appeal to his maker. "I pray for victories and goals," he admits, "and for no injuries for our players.

"But I also pray for the better team to win. You have to be honest, and if you don't play well, you don't deserve it."

Faith, hope and charity, too. Perhaps Port Vale really can anticipate some favours from on high.