When Trinidad and Tobago lifted the 2014 Under-20 Caribbean Cup trophy on October 19, head coach Derek King requested just one thing from his players. It was a message he delivered during the competition as well.
“As I told the players, if they can play at Pro League level it will be much better,” said King. “I am hoping to get Levi (Garcia) to play with (his present club) Central FC.”
Trinidad and Tobago’s toughest opponents at CONCACAF level would consist solely of players attached to professional teams and, without the funding for international tours, King stressed the importance of his players seeking out the most competitive arena possible.
But, within 24 hours of his warning, seven of the eight Warriors eligible to represent their schools were back on the field in the SSFL Premier Division. Team captain Shannon Gomez quit St Augustine Secondary for DIRECTV W Connection but Levi Garcia (Shiva Boys HC), Matthew Woo Ling (St Anthony’s College), Josiah Trimmingham (San Juan North), Jabari Mitchell, Martieon Watson and Nicholas Dillon (all Naparima College) all lined up in the SSFL.
“I spoke to Levi right after the tournament finished but I don’t know if they are being pressured by their coaches or school teams or what,” King told Wired868. “When you watch the likes of Mexico or the USA and so on, their players are not playing for school teams…
“We said we don’t have a concern with them going back to school but the clubs would be lenient in allowing them time off to do that; and all of them agreed. But the next day we saw all of them playing school football.
“It is a major concern.”
But why would the players turn their backs on financial incentives and the advice of their national coach to play in an inferior league?
North East Stars coach Angus Eve, who also coaches Naparima College, put some of the blame on the Pro League for scrapping its under-20 competition, which means that players who did not make their first teams would have no competitive football.
And he suggested that, Garcia apart, most of the others would struggle to win a spot on the bench for their clubs let alone make it into the first team.
“Out of all the Pro League teams, North East Stars was the only one to actually play its national under-20 players last season,” said Eve, in reference to defender Jesus Perez and midfielder Neveal Hackshaw. “So I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Most of them would not have played anyway.”
Central FC managing director Brent Sancho, a former World Cup 2006 player, disagreed. He lost 16-year-old Garcia and 17-year-old Dillon to the SSFL and was adamant that the two had taken backward steps.
“The training that we do at the club level alongside players like (Ataullah) Guerra and (Marvin) Oliver, they can never find that in the Colleges’ league,” said Sancho. “We have seven players who can potentially be on the national team right now. It is training and testing yourself with these guys that will push them to the next level.”
Garcia is due to leave for Europe this week for a trial although, thus far, Central and the player’s new Dutch agent, Humphry Nijman, are on a collision course for the schoolboy’s services.
Sancho was unhappy with Eve too for supposedly failing to support his fellow Pro League counterpart on the club versus school issue.
“I must express my disappointment with Angus Eve as a head coach,” said Sancho. “As a Pro League coach, he should know better and should not be advising contracted players to play in school.”
Eve, whose “Naps” team is on top of the SSFL Premier Division at the moment, countered that he is not involved in his school’s recruitment drive and chided Central for signing minors.
“When I coach North East that is separate from Naparima and I have never tried to entice anyone to go to North East because that is unethical as they are all attached to schools,” said Eve. “Central should say why they signed a boy at 16 who is still in school and wants to finish school. I don’t think your mother would have let you sign a professional contract at 16…
“I do not approve of players who are 18 and over playing in the colleges’ league; that is my personal view on that. But Dillon is 17 years. Only (Martieon) Watson and (Amritt) Gildharry are 18 but they are in form six and academically inclined, whereas you have (St Anthony’s College player Matthew) Woo Ling jumping in and out of school…”
But are the players genuinely returning to school for their education?
Sancho was sceptical and claimed that Dillon was on Central’s training ground for much of the year but is suddenly being considered a student again.
“It is sickening that eight months out of the year these players are nowhere near school and suddenly, when the schoolboy season comes around, they just walk back into school,” said Sancho. “The school clearly has no care for the player except for when school football starts. School football is failing these kids.
“There should be some sort of scholastic average of attendance minimum or something.”
Sancho said Central was prepared to compromise to allow its players to continue school while representing the club. But, as Pro League clubs generally train at morning when it is cooler, missing classes seems inevitable.
San Juan Jabloteh’s 17-year-old pair of striker Brent Sam and defender Josiah Trimmingham are representing San Juan North this season. And Jabloteh coach Keith Jeffrey must reluctantly wait until November to get them back.
Jeffrey explained how Jabloteh tries to minimise the disruptions for its schoolboys.
“Last season, I made to arrangement so that Sam could train with us on some mornings and I would drop him to school straight after,” said the Jabloteh coach. “Instead of 8 to 10 am, we would train from 7 to 9 am once Sam was going to be involved. He would come with his uniform and I would drop him to school straight after as we train 15 minutes away in Barataria.
“Sometimes we have evening sessions too and the club board has discussed having more evening sessions this season once the school league’s finished.”
But does that alternative give Sam enough of an opportunity to succeed at school?
St Augustine coach and teacher Michael Grayson was unimpressed when national under-20 captain Gomez, a lower six student, quit school altogether to join W Connection. In the process, he apparently turned his back on potential scholarships from Temple University and Virginia Tech.
“I told him he should do his SAT exams and go to university,” said Grayson, “because there is always the MLS and the other stepping stone leagues who scout college players… But he listened to other people instead.
“For me, it makes no sense for a player to go and work for $2,000 or $3,000 a month and hope to get a trial when you have the academic ability to get three, four or five passes. You can’t deny the kids their education because, in professional sport, anything can happen and it might not work out for you.”
Grayson, a former national player and coach, helped develop the likes of Dwayne Demmin, Brent Bennett, Sherwin Siefert and the late Mickey Trotman, who all graduated from the SSFL to study in the United States. And he challenged the Pro League to either adjust their sessions to allow teenagers to continue at school or fall in line with FIFA’s guidelines for the coaching of minors, which means tutors or private schooling.
However, he admitted exceptions may be permissible when a gifted player seems unlikely succeed at his CXC exams.
“When you look at a guy’s SEA score and his school records over the years and so on, “ said Grayson, “you can tell if he is going to pass or not at 15 or 16. And then you might say ‘alright go ahead and do it and see if you can make it out there.’
“But, even then, you should have a Plan B, which, here in Trinidad, might mean a job opportunity in the army or with prisons, police and so on…
“Realistically, the pool isn’t deep with players who can make it outside. Yes, there are leagues like Vietnam and Thailand and so on; but, when you do your research, there are so many Africans on the streets in those countries who thought they could make it but didn’t.”
Naparima College assistant coach Travis Mulraine, who made his international senior debut at 18 and played professionally with MLS clubs San Jose Earthquakes and DC United, said he would do it differently if he had a second chance.
“As an ex-player who, at 37, has to go back to school to get a degree,” said Mulraine, “it is only right for me to advise these youngsters about a Plan B in case football doesn’t work like it did in my case.”
However, Mulraine agreed with Sancho that the SSFL should take more responsibility for educating its players.
“It’s time schools make it compulsory that student athletes have either a minimum level of academic competence or a skill/trade in order to play football after form five,” said Mulraine, “so as to ensure that, perchance they don’t make it to the professional level, they can make a living for themselves and their families and not have to depend on LifeSport and the likes.
“Of the hundreds of players that play school football, it’s only about 10 to 25 percent that go on to make a living off football.”
For several reasons, it appears that it will be some time yet before there can be harmony between the SSFL and Pro League entities.