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‘It’s part-time footballers vs professionals!’ Lawrence talks Gold Cup, Pro League… and Peltier.

Trinidad and Tobago Men’s National Senior Team head coach Dennis Lawrence pointed to the issues plaguing the Pro League as one possible cause for the Soca Warriors’ woeful form during his tenure.

Lawrence, whose team finished bottom of Group D at the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup between the United States, Panama and Guyana, identified 2016 as the beginning of a downturn in Trinidad and Tobago’s football fortunes.

(Results tabulated as won-draw-lost-goals for-goals against)

Warriors in 2014 (9 int’nal 5-2-2 16 [F]-10 [A]):
Warriors in 2015 (12 int’nal 4-4-4 18 [F]-15 [A]):
Warriors in 2016 (15 int’nal 4-2-9 25 [F]-31 [A]):
Warriors in 2017 (16 int’nal 3-3-10 19 [F]-30 [A]):
Warriors in 2018 (6 int’nal 2-1-3 3 [F]-3 [A]):
Warriors in 2019 (6 int’nal 0-2-4 1 [F]-12 [A]):

He suggested that the reason was not so much the head coach as it was the start of the local game.

“We go to the year 2016 and I think that is when the government subvention was pulled and we start to look at the clubs starting to struggle [and] the league period getting shorter,” said Lawrence, at a press conference at the Cycling Velodrome this morning. “[…] In 2017, late subvention, then we go to 2018 and we got the same situation. Then we go to 2019, there is no league at the moment [and] I can’t even tell you when the league is going to start…

“Is it coincidence that our Pro League is suffering and our national teams’ results have started to suffer because of this? My opinion is 100 percent.”

Incidentally, the issues affecting the Pro League was not the only change to the local football ecosystem in 2016. Current Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) president David John-Williams was elected on 30 November 2015 and 2016 was his first full year at the helm.

Notably, Trinidad and Tobago’s football results have significantly worsened at the youth and women’s level too and neither are connected in any way to the government’s Pro League subvention.

Today, Lawrence—and not John-Williams—was the man in the hot seat and, unlike the football president, he at least faced the media.

During his two and a half years in charge of the Warriors, Lawrence has played 11 competitive matches and returned two wins, one draw and eight defeats with seven goals scored and 23 conceded. His national team set a record for longest losing streak (7), most games without scoring (7) and largest loss at a Gold Cup (6-0 against USA).

How could he defend such results?

Lawrence pointed to the scarce resources available to Trinidad and Tobago when compared to other Concacaf nations. He noted that domestic players in United States play for nine or 10 months in the year while the Pro League now runs for roughly four.

“Our players are not playing enough football,” said Lawrence. “Basically you are talking about part-time footballers versus professional footballers. If we are all being honest and realistic with ourselves, we know what is going to be the outcome in the majority of the cases.

“So what you find happens in the majority of cases is we may be able to put in a performance but what we suffer with is putting consistent performances together.”

In fact, Lawrence did not use a single Pro League player against the United States. All 13 of the Warriors used in that fixture play abroad with eight actually earning a living in the US leagues.

Ironically, Lawrence had only three Warriors in the US top flight competition, the Major League Soccer (MLS). All three, Kevin Molino, Joevin Jones and Greg Ranjitsingh, were on the bench that day.

By the end of the competition, Jones, a two-time MLS champion, had not started a single match while Ranjitsingh never got on to the field. Jones has failed to start in any of his last five competitive matches for the Warriors—a run which dates as far back as October 2017.

“At the end of the day as the head coach, I work with the players and I ask certain things of them,” said Lawrence, when pressed on his use of Jones, “and I then have to make a decision based on what I think is best for the team. And at that moment in time, I felt the players who started the games were the ones who deserved to start.”

The Pro League’s woes aside, Lawrence admitted that the team’s results were below his own expectations.

“If we had managed to put in the performances we did against Thailand, Iran, Japan, Wales, then maybe we would have gotten further,” said Lawrence, notwithstanding the fact that the Warriors lost three of the games he referenced and drew the other. “[…] I didn’t think that we were going to perform in that manner in the Gold Cup. I genuinely had a good feeling […] that we would have done better as a group.

“But obviously we went into the Gold Cup facing several challenges, which I think some of them took a toll on the group.”

Lawrence complained about their failure to secure US visas, which he said denied him the chance to take playmaker Ataulla Guerra and forward Marcus Joseph to the Gold Cup.

He denied that it was a shortcoming on the part of his own technical staff or the TTFA.

“It can’t be a lack of planning [on our side] when you have Aubrey David and Ataulla Guerra, for example, who applied for their US visas since March,” he said. “For us to get to June and they still hadn’t gotten hold of it—I don’t think Ataulla has even gotten his visa at the moment. So it definitely wasn’t a lack of planning.”

Then there was a friendly against Canada, a week before their opener against Panama, in which Lawrence hoped to use all 23 players but was eventually restricted to six substitutes.

He even pointed to the social media furore around a player he did not name—but would certainly be Saudi Arabia-based attacker Lester Peltier—which also caused a stir in the camp.

A person who appeared to be Peltier was photographed holding a male genitalia belonging to someone not shown in the image. And the image went viral just before Trinidad and Tobago’s opening Gold Cup game.

“Was it a distraction?” asked Lawrence. “For those of you who saw what I saw, it was definitely a distraction… You don’t go in a football camp and expect to be dealing with things like that; but at the end of the day […] my concern was more for the player.

“I was looking to see how it would affect the individual and by extension the group… The player obviously expressed his disappointment about what was taking place and how it affected him and we had to try and put some energy and life into the boy and let him know we are here supporting [him].”

Peltier, Lawrence said, insisted that he was misrepresented and has vowed to take legal action.

Was there anything Lawrence felt he could have done better as head coach at the Gold Cup?

“Of course! You always look at yourself and you find things that you could have done better,” said Lawrence. “[You ask yourself] did I do too much the day before, was it the right game plan tactically, was it the right starting eleven.

“Against USA, I told the players that I take responsibility for the first goal scored because Kevin Molino should not have been caught in a position on the back stick having to defend a six foot plus defender… But in football that is what happens and sometimes a player has to take responsibility.”

Lawrence did not give any more concrete examples of things he might have done differently or why he was culpable for Molino’s placement at that vital moment.

He accepted that the team had struggled creatively and lamented the fact that, while trying to address their offensive shortcomings, they began to leak goals as well.

“When you try to correct one, then something else goes wrong,” he said.

Lawrence said he took the criticism from supporters on the chin, as part of his job.

“When you get negative results you expect to be criticised, you expect to be analysed, you expect to be questioned,” said Lawrence. “You as an individual have to believe in yourself… I felt like I’ve lost a battle but I have definitely not lost a war because I’ve got a lot in my tank still—trust me.”

He rounded on at least one critic, though. Trinidad and Tobago Super League (TTSL) president and TTFA board member Keith Look Loy could not find room for Lawrence on his all-conquering Malick Secondary football team, almost 30 years ago, and was apparently unconvinced at the potential of the gangly player.

Lawrence, who went on to score the goal that took Trinidad and Tobago to the 2006 World Cup, still has not forgiven Look Loy for the slight; and there is clearly no love lost between them.

“If I took his advice I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today,” said Lawrence. “Why? When I was 15 years old, that’s the same guy who said I wouldn’t make it in football. I didn’t take his advice then. I continued to keep going.

“Look at 1998, he got beaten 8-0 [with Joe Public] against DC United. He didn’t resign. You know what he did? He got promoted. He then went on to manage our national junior team.

“In 1999, in three consecutive games he got beat by six goals. He didn’t resign. You know what he did? He got promoted again as the National Senior Team assistant. He didn’t resign then.

“He got appointed as the national technical director and he then appointed a german coach [Otto Pfister] and paid him US$50,000 a month and when questioned he said it was chump change. We all knew what happened then. He didn’t even get to the Hex. He didn’t resign…”

It was, of course, selectively picking from Look Loy’s career as a coach and an administrator. In the massive losses with Joe Public and the National Under-17 Team, Look Loy had one week on the job in the first case and two in the second after Muhammad Isa was sacked by then Public owner and TTFF special advisor Jack Warner on both occasions.

Look Loy did resign as National Senior Team assistant after one game under head coach Zoran Vranes, who was sacked after a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica. And he was one member of a selection committee that hired not only Otto Pfister but Even Pellerud, Angus Eve and Shawn Cooper, who were certainly more successful than the German.

Bertille St Clair, Trinidad and Tobago’s most successful coach, had not always been convinced by Lawrence either and the former soldier appeared to have been a late bloomer. Look Loy, for his part, claimed he told Lawrence that he could not make the Malick first team—not that he could not make it as a footballer.

The main point that Lawrence wanted to impart, though, is he believes he is the right person to fix the problem.

“When I assess the games, we have to manage the football better,” he said, as he pointed to goals conceded based on squandering possession against Panama and Guyana. “We have to improve in that aspect of the game.”

Lawrence is looking forward to the Nations League in September and, although he stopped short of promising a revamp, he said talented young players like Keston Julien and Noah Powder are on his radar.

He is hopeful that the Ascension Invitational Tournament, which is due to start on 12 July, will help the match fitness of the local-based players, who he feels should be the core of the national team.

“I would like to be able to select from a bigger pool of players in regards to our local players,” said Lawrence. “[…] If we can get our league in Trinidad to be up and running for nine months like it used to be, it would help.

“[…] In my opinion, your national programme is as strong as your leagues; and right at this moment we don’t have an existing league. We are the only country to take part [in the Gold Cup] that doesn’t have an existing league.”

There is still no start date in sight for the T-League, which is chaired by Lindsay Gillette and an amalgam of the Pro League and TTSL and falls under the direct supervision of the TTFA.

The Ascension competition, which is the brainchild of Terminix director Richard Ferguson, will feature two divisions with six Pro League teams and as many TTSL teams in the top flight.

W Connection, North East Stars, Central FC and Point Fortin Civic are not involved.

Lawrence insisted that he was not using domestic football issues as an excuse for his own stewardship. But it was a point that he returned to often today.

“We went to the Gold Cup and I have lost a battle and it was hurtful,” said Lawrence, “but then I definitely haven’t lost a war. I am not saying I have all the answers but I am definitely seeing how things can improve.

“2016, please, do your research. Look at the [link between] when the Pro League started to suffer and then ask yourself the question: is there any connection between why football in Trinidad and Tobago, at this moment in time, is finding difficulty?

“I will leave you to come up with your own answer.”