Wed, Jun

Football fans and cultural groups in Stoke on Trent, England , last weekend heaped effusive accolades on “Soca Warrior” hero Chris Birchall and forward Hector Sam, both members of English club Port Vale FC as the countdown continued towards Trinidad and Tobago’s participation at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

On Friday night, livewire Member of the British Parliament for North Stoke on Trent, Joan Walley, in collaboration with the Union of African and African-Caribbean Organizations (UAACO) convened a gathering at Yorke House to celebrate the contribution of Sam and Birchall to the Burslem City community. Both players have been constantly congratulated on T&T’s achievement of qualifying as the smallest ever nation at a World Cup Finals. The interest shown in Birchall, particulary since his stunning goal in the 1-1 draw with Bahrain in the first leg of the World Cup playoff in November, has brought much attention towards the Port Vale team as well.

TT/Germany Local Organizing Committee (LOC) executive member, Terry Joseph, represented Chairman Jack Warner and brought greetings from Trinidad and Tobago's football fraternity, while press attaché at the TT High Commission to London, Ashton Forde similarly hailed the achievements of the Soca Warriors on behalf of Her Excellency Glenda Morean-Phillips.

In welcoming the Trini representatives, Walley expressed hope that the connection established by contributions of Birchall and Sam would lead to another level of cooperation between Port Vale's host city and Port of Spain, pledging to pursue the concept through football and diplomatic avenues. "We are sending you guys out onto the world stage as ambassadors for both Trinidad and Tobago and Stoke on Trent and we have every confidence you will do us all proud," Walley said.

Also speaking at the event was City Councillor Neil Lawson and Birchall's mother, Jennifer who, along with husband Phillip were also on hand Saturday at the Port Vale FC ground to watch their son line up against Swansea FC for a crucial match, that determined his team's survival in League One and in which he played a pivotal role in securing against relegation to the lower Division.

With Saturday's afternoon temperature already perilously close to zero degrees, the rains came to add chill as teams took their places on the field for the decider. In a brief pre-game ceremony, MP Walley introduced representatives of TT/Germany 2006 and the High Commission to the more than 5,000 fans who braved the unkind weather to witness the encounter, eliciting lusty applause that – for all its warmth – did little to alter the ambient temperature.

Musical tributes to T&T's Soca Warriors, blasting from the public address system, dominated pre-match and half-time spaces, with songs by Destra, Chris Garcia, De Fosto and Maximus Dan and the music of London-based BWIA Ebony Steel Orchestra moving fans to join in the rhythm, persuaded by both the infectious jams and a need to stay as warm as possible in the near-freezing circumstances.

Coming in as odds-on favourite against the 230 year-old Port Vale FC, the Swans took far too long to get a grip on the game, remaining subjected to heavy pressure on the slippery field as the match-clocked ticked on.

The Valiants caused first major excitement with only seven minutes elapsed, when a conspiracy between Michael Cummings and Leon Constantine, led to the latter's powerfully-struck attempt from 16 yards, but it was properly secured by Swans goalie, Willy Gueret.

Birchall's first major moment came three minutes later, when a Craig James cross from left was headed by Constantine, finding Birchall at an awkward angle but nonetheless able to regain balance and inflict a 12-yard scorcher on Gueret, who again redeemed his team's deficiencies in defense.

In the 43rd minute, Birchall was a critical distributor again, receiving Danny Sonner's sizzling pass from the right side, cooling it and beating a Swansea defender before selecting Sam Togwell for receipt, the latter converting the work to give Port Vale its first goal.

Swansea would level the scores just two minutes into the second half, cashing in on a Port Vale blunder but then Cummins pushed the home-team ahead again on the 58 th minute marker, after Birchall freed Togwell, allowing for a pass back to the striker that hit home from some 25 yards out. The Valiants entrenched their lead, a third registration coming from Constantine in the 63rd minute.

When Port Vale fans thought they had it covered, the Swans got a second wind and presented some glorious moments but were unable to do better than finish still trailing the Valiants, even after Rory Fallon brought the home-team grief just one minute before the final whistle and created another nervous moment mere seconds before the end as a power-shot from Lee Trundle was denied by the crossbar.

After the match, the teams gathered in the dining hall for another round of ceremony that also included tributes to Birchall and Sam and heard brief remarks from Walley, Ford, Joseph and Port Vale manager Bill Bratt; BWIA Ebony Steel Orchestra continuing to provide pan music as evening (and a colder version of Saturday) set in.