Thu, Dec


First to arrive is a white transit van, its sides and back devoid of markings or identification, an anonymous shell. When the doors are opened, the inside is stacked with large heavy sports bags and netting sacks filled with footballs. On the passenger seat sits an old man, a fragility in his thin frame and sloping shoulders that the wrapping of his official blazer cannot hide. As the kit is unloaded, he remains in his seat, smiling widely.

“That’s Bertille St Clair,” reveals the van driver when he enters the hotel lobby.

“What, the Trinidad & Tobago manager?” says the SFA’s representative, slightly taken aback.

“Yeh,” the driver grins. “He decided to come up the road with me rather than travel with the team. He put a music tape on, reggae or something, and just sat there bouncing away.”

It is four months since St Clair was reappointed manager of the Trinidad & Tobago national team, a post he was sacked from three years ago to be replaced by Ian Porterfield, the former Aberdeen manager. The intervening period has been a time of flux, other managers coming and going, players coming and going, consistency found only in the presence of a sense of impermanence. During his previous time in charge, St Clair won two Caribbean championships, guided the team to the semi-finals of the 2000 Gold Cup and lifted them to No25 in the Fifa rankings. Now they are 75th in the world, 12 places behind Scotland and about to embark on their 11th attempt to qualify for the World Cup.

After a brief foray to the hotel reception desk, St Clair wanders across to the lounge of the hotel bar and eases himself onto a leather settee. A cup of tea, with a slice of lemon on the saucer, is brought to the manager, who missed Trinidad & Tobago’s 2-0 victory over Iraq last Sunday after being admitted to hospital for three days with stomach pains.

“I was at the FA Cup final and I was talking to (Sven- Göran) Eriksson, then somebody brought me a glass of something, it was pineapple juice. I drank that and then, driving back later, I was a bit . . .” he stretches out his hand, palm down, and twists it from side to side. St Clair’s head is completely shaved and there is a scattering of grey hairs on his top lip, a hint of a moustache. He continually casts his eyes across the room, as though his enthusiasm is an uncontrollable inner force.

Despite being sacked before, hesitancy was a stranger when he was offered the job again. A committed football coach — he set up the St Clair Coaching School in Trinidad 25 years ago — he seems almost gripped by a shuddering belief that he can steer Trinidad & Tobago to their first World Cup finals. His pedigree certainly made him a popular choice; he is the only Caribbean coach to have managed a Caribbean side to the finals of a World Cup tournament, having taken Trinidad & Tobago to the 1991 World Youth Championship in Portugal, and he was the man acknowledged as discovering Dwight Yorke. The World Cup qualifying draw is also widely considered to have offered them a realistic opportunity of reaching the finals in Germany in 2006.

“It’s my goal to take the team to the World Cup,” he stresses. “That’s the reason I came back and I’m not going to leave any stone unturned. Some people think that in soccer you can just jump, but the reality is that you’ve got to do things step by step. This is why I chose these tough games, so that we can see what level we are at.”

A coach has now pulled up outside the hotel and the Trinidad & Tobago players, clad in red tracksuits, amble into the foyer. There is a murmur of noise, a background rustle of soft voices and shuffling feet, as they mill around, unsure what the rest of the day will bring after a six-hour journey up from Telford. Trinidad & Tobago are in the midst of trying to blend a new team, with seasoned players such as Marvin Andrews, Shaka Hislop and Stern John joined by the likes of Cornell Glen, of the New York/New Jersey Metro-stars, Kenwynne Jones, a defender who has just joined Southampton, and Andre Boucaud, a London-born striker who plays for Peterborough. There is also speculation that Yorke, recently released by Blackburn Rovers, might return from retirement. “I am his mentor. That answers the question,” says St Clair mysteriously.

With as many as 11 members of the national squad playing abroad, the feeling is that the team is now better organised than it has ever been. Flair is a natural characteristic, but an inability to efficiently applicate it has often rendered such exuberant talent as effective as a glass sun shade.

“The players that play abroad have the professional attitude, so the younger guys can learn from them,” says Jerren Nixon, the former Dundee United winger. “I hope with this bunch of players, and the coach, that nothing much will change, the guys have a good thing going here and everyone’s in it for each other.”

Nixon has recently returned to Trinidad to join North East Stars, who currently top the Professional League, but the trip to Scotland has rekindled old memories. He is “disappointed” that Christian Dailly, a former Tannadice teammate, is missing today’s game due to West Ham’s First Division playoff final yesterday and he has been trying, unsuccessfully, to contact Alex Cleland. A reminder of Ivan Golac’s assertion that he would one day be worth “£10m” brings a wry response. “Sometimes people say things that are out of proportion,” he says “But that’s life.”

And the chances of reaching the World Cup finals? “The coach is always saying that he has a dream and that dream is to go to Germany,” he replies. “He says that all the players should have the same dream, and we do because playing in the World Cup would open a lot of doors.”

Time is not an ally as Trinidad & Tobago attempt to construct a new era, with their first two qualifying games coming next month against the Dominican Republic. After today’s meeting with Scotland at Easter Road, they fly home to face Northern Ireland at the Dwight Yorke Stadium next Sunday.

Yet St Clair seems untroubled by any sense of being under pressure to achieve his goals. “You can walk into a stadium and 50,000 people love you and 90 minutes (later) your house could be on fire,” he says. “That’s the way of it.”

‘Mas’ is a term for people expressing themselves freely, a word normally associated with the dancers taking part in the carnival parades. It is said to be showing who you really are. The national team’s footballers must marry their mas to the professionalism and organisation they encounter abroad if they are to reach Germany in 2006.