Mon, Jul

Ma Pau poser: How Pro League application led to Police probe in Sport Ministry

The Ma Pau Morvant Sports Club, almost certainly, will not participate in the 2015/16 Pro League competition, after an about-turn by the Ministry of Sport left the organisation without its registration fee.

And it is possible that the Ma Pau outfit, which participated in the Pro League between 2008 and 2011, may not have another shot at entrance in the local top flight until 2018.

There is nothing unusual about a local football club attempting and failing to secure admittance into the Pro League. It happens almost every season.

But it is not every year that a Pro League application leads to a passive aggressive media battle between the Sport Minister and a football coach, suggestions of a pliant Permanent Secretary, a police investigation for fraud and a frustrated community.

The most appealing aspect of Ma Pau’s proposed return to the Pro League is a promised TT$8.5 million refurbishment of a sport ground in Morvant, which the club will share with fellow top flight neighbours, Caledonia AIA, and the community.

And outgoing Laventille East/Morvant MP Donna Cox had hoped her last act as the area’s Parliamentary representative would have been to announce the massive infrastructural work on the sporting ground in the humble community.

Cox said that, over the last five years, she had filed questions in Parliament and written the Ministry of Sport, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Planning for help to fix the uneven ground, which is unbearably dusty one minute and flooded the next.

“It just needed refurbishing and some work done,” Cox told Wired868. “A lot of people use it because they don’t have a proper alternative but there is a lot of flooding and it is uneven and so on…

“We talk about crime but, if we are really serious about crime, this is one of the areas that is at risk. But no work has been done in Laventille East/Morvant by the Ministry of Sport. No netball or basketball court, nothing.

“Malick Senior Comprehensive has to go outside its community to train because there is no proper ground here for them… And I also made a plug for it to be the home ground for Caledonia AIA.”

Cox claimed she got nowhere with her pleas for State resources to fix the community ground.

Last month, former Central FC coach Terry Fenwick approached the MP with a promise to completely renovate the ground and she jumped at the offer. There was one caveat.

Ma Pau wanted the Ministry of Sport to support its bid to return to the Pro League.

“If the Ministry of Sport is not doing what it is supposed to do and a private company wants to come in and assist, then of course I support it,” said Cox. “I feel they should be allowed to get the job done. Why is it being stopped?

“Why didn’t the Ministry decide to partner with them and get it done?”

The catch was that Ma Pau wanted the Ministry of Sport to foot the bill for its Pro League return, which meant a TT$400,000 payment. The Ma Pau application, though, asked the Government for TT$450,000.

But why did Ma Pau, after promising to spend just over TT$3 million on a football ground before the end of year, not simply pay the Pro League’s comparatively paltry registration fee in the first place?

The Pro League gave Ma Pau chairman John Wallis an assurance that, should he choose to return to the competition, he would not have to pay a registration fee for a second time. But Wallis was not aware—or properly advised by his own staff—that this amnesty carried a deadline. And the club missed it two years ago.

When Wallis and Fenwick sat down in June to discuss Ma Pau’s return to top flight football, there were, according to the coach, two conditions: the club must have a home ground—Wallis was frustrated by Ma Pau being asked to play home games all over the country during his previous Pro League stint—and he would not pay to regain his club’s Pro League status.

From mid-June, Fenwick went into overdrive, as he met and wooed counsellors and regional corporation representatives with Ma Pau’s vision for the Morvant ground.

Inevitably, Fenwick ended up at the Ministry of Sport and in front of his former employer and current Sport Minister, Brent Sancho.

Almost a decade earlier, Fenwick sacked Sancho at San Juan Jabloteh after he grew frustrated with the World Cup 2006 defender’s supposed fondness for night life. But they worked together twice at Central and, earlier this year, the English coach was at the helm when the “Couva Sharks” lifted the Caribbean Club Championship and Digicel Pro League and Pro Bowl titles.

Sancho was already Sport Minister when Fenwick returned to the Sharks and the UNC Senator claimed he had nothing to do with it. But an email between Fenwick, Sancho and his advisor Kevin Harrison suggested otherwise.

At 8.30 am on Monday 23 March 2015, Fenwick asked Harrison, via email, to round his salary off at TT$30,000 per month and confirm his bonus for title success with the Sharks. But Sancho was the person who replied.

“We never agreed to rounding off to 30,” stated Sancho, from his Hotmail address. “It’s 28 and 10%. Please (do) not complicate this as time is of the essence.”

On March 24, Central confirmed that Fenwick would replace Serbian Zoran Vranes as head coach. Harrison claimed then that he made the decision and not Sancho.

Although Central won every available title under Fenwick, the relationship between the trio quickly soured.

At 10.52 am on 25 June 2015, Fenwick wrote a 515-word email to Sancho, Harrison and Central director Daren Mohamdally, in which the former England World Cup player ranted at the club’s supposed mismanagement and warned that the Sharks faced a thrashing from MLS club, LA Galaxy, at the CONCACAF Champions League.

“Maybe, in my moment of weakness, I expected CFC (Central FC) to recognise the huge opportunity we have been presented to provide T&T football with a much needed ‘positive’ shot in the arm from the visit of LA Galaxy to Trinidad,” stated Fenwick, as he raged about the club’s failure to sort out players’ contracts and pre-season plans. “… It is unethical to have potential employees waiting on Management and the Board to have an epiphany regarding renewal of contracts! Do you have any regard for people’s lives and families noting that they all have responsibilities to their loved ones!

“I find it not only unprofessional but disingenuous to run your club with people/players’ welfare at your disposal and not communicate with them…

“For me and my players, it is demoralising and quite startling how individuals of self proclaimed pillars of society treat with such disregard their own work force.”

Exactly 31 minutes later, Central manager Jamie Along-Charles emailed Fenwick with bad news: “Dear Terry. The Board and Management of Central FC met to discuss your proposed contractual requirement. Unfortunately at this time they will not be able to facilitate your request.

“As such, they wish to sincerely thank you for your services rendered to the club.”

Regardless, Fenwick took coach Keon Trim along to explain to Sancho and Harrison—in their official capacities at the Ministry of Sport—why the Government should support Ma Pau’s bid to enter the Pro League.

There had been a precedent as, just last year, the Government paid registration fees for Point Fortin Civic. But Sancho, despite his football background, did not support Ma Pau’s bid.

What neither Sancho nor Harrison knew is that Fenwick had already gotten the necessary approval from Ministry of Sport Permanent Secretary Gillian Macintyre, who, as the Ministry’s financial officer, does not need Cabinet or Ministerial oversight within a TT$1 million limit.

“We went to (Sancho) with the complete proposal for Ma Pau and he gave us every possible excuse why he could not do it,” said Fenwick. “I gave them six different ways they could back it because of the level of funding put out by corporate Trinidad.

“Everything they said was a contradiction because we already had an agreement from the PS and we knew that Point Fortin had already received money before us.”

The Sport Ministry contacted Pro League CEO Dexter Skeene and advised that it chose to support Ma Pau’s bid and foot its supposed $450,000 registration fee.

There was no consensus as to why the Government wrote a cheque for $450,000 and not $400,000 and, arguably, it showed a flaw in the internal process at the Ministry.

Fenwick and a Sport Minister official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed they were verbally told the fee for entry was $450,000 while the Pro League officials could not remember ever saying so.

Clearly, nobody got anything in writing from the Pro League about its registration fee, yet, despite that fact, a cheque was drawn up for Ma Pau. Furthermore, the cheque was made made out to Ma Pau Morvant Sports Club and not the Pro League.

Skeene, a former “Strike Squad” player, thought the incorrect figure was an error and not fraud.

“If I had any problems with Ma Pau’s application, I would not have put forward their application to the (Pro League board),” Skeene told Wired868. “Or I would have at least hinted (about the problem) to the board.”

Harrison, despite his role with the Sport Ministry, was present at the Pro League’s board meeting and was stunned to hear that Ma Pau’s application was supported by the Ministry of Sport.

“I went to the Pro League meeting to present info on the delays in their subventions and so on,” Harrison told Wired868. “The Chairman said there was an application to enter the Pro League when they opened up the meeting and presented a cheque (from the Sport Ministry). I said I knew nothing about it at all and neither does the Minister.”

The Pro League clubs did not support Ma Pau’s bid and, ironically, there was grumbling by club representatives that Fenwick had used his influence with Sancho and Harrison to gain an unfair advantage.

In truth, Harrison was fuming and he sped straight back to the Ministry’s PS, Macintyre, for answers. The English football administrator claimed that he and Sancho implemented a system in which Harrison reviewed any cheques issued by the Sport Ministry for over $20,000.

“Once a cheque is issued, I would review the file to ensure all the processes are followed,” said Harrison. “This is something we put in place when we came into the Ministry because of the Life Sport thing to make sure we don’t issue money to the wrong people.”

Was Fenwick the “wrong people?”

Harrison questioned Macintyre about the Ma Pau cheque and asked her to withdraw it.

“When I went back to the Ministry, I saw the PS and asked if she issued a cheque for $450,000 to Ma Pau and she said yes,” said Harrison. “And I said it was declined and you can get it back. When we then looked at the file, we realised there were a number of discrepancies… So the PS decided to take it to the police.”

One of the suggestions, raised in a subsequent Trinidad Guardian article, was that Fenwick sent photographs that fraudulently misrepresented the state of the Morvant ground by showing a spanking track around it.

The bemused Englishman countered that he had merely shown the ground in its current condition and then used photographs of a foreign track to show what it would like after work was completed.

Macintyre never questioned Fenwick, though. She ordered the coach to return the cheque, which he did, and, although the PS herself signed off on the application, the police began interviewing Sport Ministry officials on the matter.

However, the Pro League never formally rejected Ma Pau’s proposal and Skeene contradicted Harrison’s report to the PS.

“I don’t know where (Harrison) is getting this idea about the finality of the thing,” said Skeene. “The Pro League always continues to assist teams and we continue to try to help Ma Pau to get into the league… It is a continuing process.”

Had Harrison overstepped his boundaries by instructing the PS to withdraw the cheque for Ma Pau?

And had Macintyre erred by taking instructions from Harrison rather than the Pro League Chairman or CEO?

Wired868 failed to reach Macintyre for comment. Harrison denied he was working against Ma Pau’s bid.

“We said we can’t find a way and he went around (Sancho and I) and submitted an application and he got turned down by the Pro League,” said Harrison. “I certainly had no say in how they voted because I wasn’t a voting member. It had nothing to do with me.”

Was there any ill-feeling between Sancho, Harrison and Fenwick?

“I don’t know (but) I see there is a post on Facebook calling me a liar,” said Harrison, in reference to a comment made by Fenwick’s wife and local attorney, Reyna Kowlessar. “I was told by two independent sources that Terry said he got money from the Ministry of Sport without me or Brent knowing about it. And he was laughing…”

Caledonia AIA coach Jamaal Shabazz said he abstained from the vote when Ma Pau’s application was raised before the Pro League board. Since then, he met with Fenwick and has been rallying other clubs to support Ma Pau.

“I had heard rumours that the regional corporation had given the ground in our Morvant community to Ma Pau and I abstained at that point to get more clarity,” Shabazz told Wired868. “Now that I have information to the contrary, I feel it is necessary for Caledonia to support Ma Pau’s entry into the League…

“The Ma Pau franchise would be able to employ at least 35 of our grassroots people and, while politicians continue to promise, the young people have to (be able to) eat.”

Shabazz suggested that Ma Pau might win a second vote from Pro League clubs but claimed the team’s bid was being undermined by “senior officials at the Sport Ministry.”

“Each club owner has their say and their vote and, because we own the league, we can change our minds as we have done and amend rules according to the situations that we face,” said Shabazz. “I’m hearing that there are senior officials in the Ministry who are trying to put stumbling blocks. I have spoken to one or two clubs who said that senior officials have insinuated that Terry Fenwick did not use proper information to secure the Ministry’s help…

“I can understand if you stop a man from doing bad. So if Fenwick trying to do something bad, I can understand (that) they stop it. But he is trying to do something good, so I can’t see why they want to stop him.

“And I am saying this as no friend of Terry Fenwick and it angers me when people think for some reason I shouldn’t stand up for him.

“I am not standing up for him, I am standing up for fair play in football. This is our livelihood and we have to make this industry work.”

Shabazz suggested that the Pro League needs Fenwick at least as much as he needs the Pro League.

“I see Terry Fenwick as a warrior like us and he brings a certain amount of competitiveness and finesse as a coach in the league,” said Shabazz. “He is second only to Stuart Charles (Fevrier) in terms of winning titles in the Pro League and for that he has my respect… Caledonia would vote in favour of Ma Pau, despite the fact that on the field I am a fierce competitor against Terry Fenwick.

“We may never be friends but I think he has a place in Trinidad and Tobago’s football. And, as a Muslim, I have a command from Allah to stand up for justice.

“Allah says: ‘Oh ye who believe, stand up firmly for justice, even if it is against yourself.’ Despite my combative vibes with Mr Fenwick, I think in fairness to the work he has done, he should be in the league.”

However, Skeene said the time-consuming furore within the Ministry of Sport over Ma Pau’s application has probably killed the team’s chances of playing in the Pro League this season.

The Pro League is due to kick off with a Digicel Charity Shield fixture on September 11 while the official competition is scheduled to begin on September 25.

“I think there was a remote possibility for Ma Pau to come into the league last month,” said Skeene. “It was very tight. Right now, it would probably be next season.”

The new TTFA constitution, which was approved by its executive committee but must still make its way through the regional associations, calls for a promotion and relegation system between the Pro League and National Super League.

When that occurs, clubs will have to earn their entrance into the top flight by slogging it out in the Super League, which now has two divisions.

It would mean that Ma Pau and other ambitious clubs must spend at least two years battling their way past over 30 community teams before they can even apply to the Pro League.

“The Pro League board still has to finalise the matter of promotion and relegation,” said Skeene. “We are looking to have a discussion with the TTFA. I would like it to (have promotion) but we have to have discussions… It will place a totally different dimension on things.”

It means that local football fans might have a long wait before they see Fenwick coaching in the top flight again.

Shabazz would miss the combative Englishman, although there may be just as many rivals who would say ‘good riddance.’ Fenwick, outspoken, combative and provocative, has always split opinions in the local game, even though his titles speak for themselves.

Cox suggested that Morvant/Laventille would be the biggest losers, though.

“I am really disappointed with all the foolishness that is going on,” said Cox. “Anybody who wants to do something to uplift the grounds, I am very grateful for it… If someone is willing to pump money into sport, then shouldn’t (the Ministry of Sport) be happy?

“There must be some underlying confusion going on that we do not know about. I don’t think any right-thinking person will not want that to happen.”