Pride & Industry: Introduction Blog: HERE
- Part 1: HERE
- Part 2: HERE
- Part 3: HERE
- Part 4: HERE
- Part 5: HERE
- Part 6: HERE
- Part 7: HERE
- Part 8: HERE
- Part 9: HERE
As you might have read in the introduction to the blog series, and previous parts (the links of which are above), I have decided to create a challenge on Football Manager 2020 by taking charge of Barbados and trying to enhance their reputation in the world of football. The aim of the series is to try and develop football on the Caribbean island, and hopefully get the team qualified for some major tournaments and improve their FIFA world ranking. In this blog, we finally compete in the long-awaited 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Barbados’ first-ever major international football tournament.
NOTE: I would highly recommend you look at FMOverload‘s excellent Coaching Cuba series, as it was the inspiration for my series. Please check out the series here:
After months of planning and anticipation amongst the islanders and members of the Football Association, it was finally that time which every member of the Barbadian FA and the Trident Tribe had looked forward to, it was finally Gold Cup time! Barbados’ first ever major international football tournament, to be played in the good ol’ US of A!! Time to adopt those ten-gallon stetsons troops, we’re off to wrangle some victories! YEE-HAA!!
As part of the pre-tournament celebrations and preparations, the FA President had managed to convince famous Barbadian (and ambassador of the country’s tourism, education and investment) Rihanna to release a pre-Gold Cup song that would help boost excitement for the tournament (not that it was needed as the island was already buzzing with the upcoming continental football tournament) and encourage future football tourism to the island, not to mention act as a song the supporters could sing whilst in the stadiums. It was to be called ‘Bajan Blitz‘ (the song was essentially a rewrite of New Order’s ‘World In Motion’ although craftily changed just enough to avoid any song-writing infringements = naughty), after our famous quick starts to games, and naturally all the lads were keen to be involved and add some of their vocals to the track. Although I think the majority of them just wanted to meet Barbados’ favourite songstress as not many of them could string two decent notes between them.
[BTW, if anyone wants to make an single vinyl cover design for the song, you have my full backing haha]
Our young keeper, Akeem Holder fancied himself as the new John Barnes by putting down the lyrics during the rap part of the song. He revealed to me that his MC name was ‘Playce’ as apparently he is ‘always in the right place at the right time’ which is handy for a keeper, although the lads later revealed to me that it was jibe on him for merely being a ‘Place-Holder’ whilst playing cricket as he was so poor with the bat. Thankfully the youngster was handy with the ball that counts, and was seemingly pretty useful on the microphone by laying down a rap section that was comparable to Barnes’ efforts for World in Motion and leaving RiRi very impressed. Hell, even I was impressed as he put in a shift within the recording room, although I had empathy for how Sir Kenny Dalglish must have felt during the ‘Anfield Rap’ video! I must be getting old as I was just baffled by everything…
“We’re singin’ for Bajans…BAR-BAY-DOS!!”
The Gold Cup group draw had given us a rather formidable group for our first tournament, drawing us in Group A with favourites and defending Gold Cup champions, Mexico, the 2006 World Cup qualifiers and fierce southern Caribbean rivals, Trinidad & Tobago, and Central American side Belize. Considering the world rankings of all four sides, we were not considered to achieve one of the top two places with both El Tri and the Soca Warriors positioned ahead of us in the FIFA rankings, being in 13th and 84th respectively. Only Belize, who were making their second-ever Gold Cup appearance (their first in 2013), were below us in 143rd position and thus I was expecting to get something from the fixture. If we were to somehow progress into the quarter finals, we needed to beat the Jaguars and get something from the T&T game and potentially avoid a heavy defeat from Mexico. Weirdly all three of our group games would be based in Dallas also, so that’s very little travel between group games which was handy! Looked like Dallas would become New Bridgetown for a couple of weeks!
Alas coming into this huge event for Barbadian football, we would be missing a couple of our usual starting XI players, making the dream of progressing out of the group even more difficult. As mentioned in the previous blog (Part Nine), young midfielder Ramar Layne had suffered a hip injury that would keep him out of all of the summer international games. Unfortunately our luck never improved when our star striker and main outlet for goals, Nick Blackman, picked up an injury whilst training with his club Maccabi Tel-Aviv just before the squad was to be confirmed. A 5 week layoff meant he would miss the entirety of the Gold Cup! An absolute kick in the stomach for my chances and severely reduced my expectations for getting anything during the competition with our main creative outlet now on the physio’s bench.
With Blackman out of the 23-man squad, it meant a call-up for promising young winger Shakille Broome who had impressed with Weymouth Wales throughout the season, albeit he would be a significant downgrade to Blackman with just a Current Ability (CA) of 65. However there would be some good news in terms of increasing the national pool of players. AFC Wimbledon’s 21-year old left back Nesta Guinness-Walker had finally accepted our advances and agreed to play for Barbados, no doubt encouraged by playing in a Gold Cup. With a CA of 98, he would be slotting straight into that troublesome left-back position, and would provide a formidable full-back combination with Tafari Moore. Otherwise there would be no other real surprises in the 23-man squad in terms of personnel. The only surprise was the number of players who had become free agents prior to the tournament, although I supposed that they would be further encouraged to make a positive impression during the tournament to attract any future employers.
The opening game of our Gold Cup campaign, situated under the closed roof of the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, would be against our fellow southern Caribbean side and historic rivals, Trinidad & Tobago, a side placed 85th (at the time of the match) in the world rankings. The venue for Wrestlemania 32 would not be at full capacity for this game (the stadium holding a maximum attendance of 80,000 for football games) although there would be still 60,000 supporters turning up for this historical game for the Bajan Tridents. Certainly a large contingent of the Trident Tribe had made the journey from the island to Texas with about 12,000 travelling across the Caribbean Sea. Whilst they were supplemented by additional 10,000 supporters coming from the Barbadian diasporas situated within the USA, Canada and particularly the UK. Every one of them was eager to experience such a memorable occasion for Barbadian football.
There were even high-profile supporters for the first match with Prime Minister Mottley, Governor-General Mason, and Rihanna having turned up at the game in the VIP section of the Cowboys’ massive arena, alongside dignitaries from the Barbadian and T&T FAs. All three of them were wearing Barbados home shirts with Rihanna displaying ‘Vaughn 9’ on the back of her yellow home shirt. The young 17-year old striker had become the face of this team prior to Barbados’ debut tournament by doing a lot of media and advertisement work on the island, and being described in the media as the young hope for Barbadian football. Multiple domestic-based companies had been falling over themselves to sign him up for advertisements, making the youngster the most popular sportsman on the island – even ahead of the West Indian international cricketers from the island! Whilst I was proud the young lad was getting positive PR, I was a little concerned whether it would crank up the pressure on him to perform during this tournament…
1st Group Game: Barbados 1-0 Trinidad & Tobago
Of the three group matches, this was the game I had focused on the most as a good result against Trinidad & Tobago would set us up for a decent position for the next two games and potential progression to the knockout stage. There would be no major surprise selections for the starting XI with Elijah Downey moving over to the right side to replace the injured Blackman, Haden Holligan slotting back into the midfield three after missing the El Salvador games, whilst the more experienced Ackeel Applewhaite got the nod over Guinness-Walker at left-back. An experienced head was needed at keeping T&T’s formidable attacking and creative players at bay. Wingers Cordell Cato, and the impressive Levi Garcia (CAs of 104 and 115) would test our full-backs, whilst we needed to keep the creative outlet of attacking central-midfielder, Orlando City’s Kevin Molino (CA of 110), very quiet if we were to avoid defeat here.
Alas throughout the game, we were massively under the cosh with the vastly superior T&T side controlling the ball possession (57% to our 43%) and having the lion’s share of shots (22 in total compared to just our 3 shots), with Molino being especially impressive/annoying. Thankfully our defence was equal to the task by blocking shots or putting enough pressure on our opponents to strike their attempts off-target. If the Trinbagonians did manage to break through our defensive lines, our Caribbean Casillas Akeem Holder was more than equal to the task by pulling off a number of superb saves. Despite Vaughn getting the headlines, the wannabe MC is quickly becoming one of the best goalkeepers in the region and is producing performances to prove it!
Just when it was looking like we would go into the half-time break with a rather undeserved clean sheet, a rare counter-attack resulted in a fortunate penalty being awarded to us when Cato tripped Hallam Hope as he burst into the penalty box from the left wing. Mario Williams stepped up to give us the lead but his poor effort was easily palmed away by Javon Sample – damn it! Fortunately we would get another rare chance two minutes into first-half injury-time when a corner from Haden Holligan found the head of the unmarked Hope to head home to give us a slender lead at the break. Despite our traditional rivals continuing to pepper our goal in the second half, and some nervy, squeaky-bum times where Holder pulled off yet more amazing saves to keep the clean sheet intact, we just about managed to hold on to our slender lead complete a monumental historic win, made all the sweeter against our nearest rivals also! YEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!
Cue massive celebrations amongst the players and staff after the final whistle as we surprisingly achieved our first victory in a major tournament. I think I even noticed some tears of pride from our more famous supporters in the VIP box! In addition, it also gave us the advantage over T&T when it came to qualification – if we gained three points in our next two games, we would reach the quarter finals, something which no-one expected from us! However, I had the keep the lads’ feet on the ground – we had achieved an excellent victory, but we needed to stay focused as we would be going into the second group game against Belize as the favourties. No slip up needed after the heroics of tonight!!!
2nd Group Game: Belize 0 – 3 Barbados
The second game of the group, being played three days after our successful opener, would place us in a different circumstance to our first game with us now being in the position of “favourites” and not the more comfortable role as the “underdogs”. There was also added pressure upon the team and myself as a win against the Jaguars would near enough guarantee our progression to the knockout stage of the tournament. However a shock loss would seriously put our position to progress to the next stage in jeopardy, and ruin the decent result we had grafted against T&T.
A large number of changes had to be made to the personnel to rectify some levels of tiredness from the monumental effort they gave from the first game, and give them a slight rest to prepare them for the Mexico game in a few days time. Playing a high-pressing, high-tempo game can be very consuming when it comes to fitness levels with certain players. Perhaps most controversially to his supporters in the stands, I left Vaughn on the bench in place of Kemar Headley, but considering he was shattered from the first game, it made logical sense and I didn’t want to risk a long-term injury to my teenage prodigy. The other changes required were switching the players on the flanks, with the full-backs and wingers getting switched for more fresher players, whilst Krystian Pearce was switched for youngster Jaden Warner. Nesta Guinness-Walker would be making his first start for the Bajans after getting a brief cameo against the Soca Warriors in the previous game for his debut.
Once again all the local dignitaries and Barbados VIPs were in attendance again for this game, with RiRi wearing her Barbados home shirt appearing once more. The game would experience another 60,000+ attendance with the vast majority of the supporters supporting us this evening. The Trident Tribe were looking resplendent as over half the stadium was awash with yellow and blue colours, making it like a home game for us again. It’s fair to say, we were making the Texan city of Dallas the temporary capital of Barbados during this tournament!
As I expected from this game, we were the superior side against the 151st ranked side and took the lead in the 22nd minute through our influential central midfielder Mario Williams, who atoned for his penalty miss in the first game by striking low from outside of the area and finding the bottom left-hand corner of the net. The lad grabbed his brace just before half-time when he hit another long-range volleyed shot from outside of the area, meaning we were 2-0 up at the break. Conscious that I didn’t want to risk losing the lead we had accumulated, and aware of not wanting to tire out the players too much with one group game (and potential knockout games) remaining, I decided to lower the tempo and become more cautious in the second half and just see out the game. Despite further chances from both sides, it wouldn’t be until the 86th minute when forward Kemar Headley finally confirmed the result and eased my nerves by finishing off a superb Rashad Jules cross with a first-time low effort to secure our second consecutive clean sheet in this tournament, and most importantly, progression into the second round of the tournament.
With Mexico having defeated T&T 2-0 earlier in the same day, it meant that our rivals would be unable to catch us and we’d be in the quarter-finals! Therefore, the debutantes, whom all the “experts” had dismissed as “just making up the numbers” had stunned the CONCACAF world and confirmed their place in the knockout stage – unbelievable scenes!! It was bouncing in the dressing room post-game, whilst the supporters were going crazy in the stands and drinking the Dallas bars dry throughout the proceding night. Even the folks back home, watching in organised fan parks dotted around the island were going bonkers as the result was confirmed!! What a time to manage this team!!!
With a group game remaining, it meant that the hardest game of the group stage schedule, and the game I was most concerned about, could now be considered as a “free hit”. Yes, it would make a real statement to the football world if we were able to defeat the defending Gold Cup champions and finish the phase as group winners, as well as maintaining our excellent defence and not conceding a goal, but I wouldn’t be too concerned now if we lost the game. Plus, if I was being realistic, Mexico has a much superior talented team to ours! Therefore, just avoiding a heavy defeat and injuries to key players would be an acceptable performance at this point of the campaign, with one eye on the quarter-finals ahead.
Anyway the final game of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup group, and the quarter-final match will appear in the next part of this series. If you have any questions, comments or whatever, please put them in the comments box below, or tweet me on Twitter @The94thMin or even leave a comment on the Facebook page.