Football has been a huge part of my life and my identity for as long as I can remember. I was born in Dundonald Street, Port of Spain, on August 28, 1948, one of six children. It was a football crazy area and a real community back in those days; football was everything for us, we had nothing else.
It was the community which gave me the nickname “Galliento”, or “Gally” for short, after a foreign boxer of the time. They said I had the same skin tone and a bit of a stomach like him, so that was it, I’ve been “Gally” ever since.
I remember when I was about five years old how I would watch the schoolboys walking past the window of our house on the way to their matches in Queen’s Park Savannah. It was like hero worship, and I used to think to myself, “I’ll be like that one day.”
As a youngster I trained hard and everything I did was geared towards becoming a better footballer. Things went well and by the age of fourteen I was playing national league; at fifteen I represented T&T for the first time.
Everyone is raving about the Soca Warriors’ qualification for this year’s World Cup, and rightly so, but it’s not actually the first time. In the qualifying match against Haiti in 1973, we scored five goals but still lost 2-1. Each time we scored, the referee signaled “goal” and the ball was back on the centre-spot before the linesman would flag. Then they would have a discussion and say it was “offside” or “foul” or something. After the game we didn’t know what to do, we were all in tears.
By the time the qualifying for the 1990 World Cup came around, the national team was in a bad way, and we had been losing heavily for some time. They had a poll amongst the team and they decided they wanted me to coach them.
I wanted to bring a different style to the team, to play the Trinbagonian way. The way a country plays football says a lot about its sense of style and rhythm – take Brazil, for example. I wanted us to play the way I remembered football being played on the Savannah – with individuality and flair. That was what brought the crowds out to watch. There must be teamwork and good defence, of course, but football must also be entertaining.
We changed the uniform as well. I incorporated the colours of the national flag in the uniform in an abstract way. I wanted the players to have something nobody had had before, and to feel a sense of pride when they pulled on that shirt. I brought a professional outlook to the team.
The Strike Squad, as we became known, played some of the best football this region has ever seen during that campaign, and when the final game with the USA came around [in November 1989], we only needed one point to qualify. But things started to happen then which I couldn’t understand and that were out of my control.
Trinidad has always been a Carnival place, but this went beyond that. As a nation we were celebrating like we had already won the game, and that’s so dangerous in sport. I tried my best to keep the team away from it but it’s only a small island.
But there were also people, media people and others, insinuating that because of the politics – with the USA being the “big” nation and with them hosting the 1994 World Cup – we could never win.
When match day came [the authorities] lined the streets with people and everything was red. We never asked for all that. We had a church where we went to pray before games, but so many people had come out that we couldn’t get in, everywhere the bus went people would be stopping it. And then there was the ticketing scandal with the ground being oversold.
When we got to the Haseley Crawford Stadium, the people who had bought tickets and couldn’t get in surrounded the bus. We had to say we had nothing to do with the tickets but all of it must’ve affected the players’ minds.
Now that the present team has qualified, though, it’s a burden that has been lifted from me and from a lot of the past players.
The Soca Warriors’ success is truly wonderful, for the team and for the nation. I am so happy for them but they are not a side alone, they come from a tradition, a history of Trinbagonian football. That tradition started in 1965 with our first World Cup campaign, and has carried on through, through the 1973 team, through the Strike Squad of 1989 and on to the side today.
Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy, who both played in 1989, were able to take their experience into this campaign. Some of the things they were saying to the current team, reminded me a lot of what was happening with the Strike Squad. There’s a real sense of continuity about it.
Now we’re finally going to the World Cup though, we have to ensure we continue to get there. There are many things we can do. I feel we need to rebuild our football structure, going back to zonal football. We need to set up a players’ and a coaches’ association; appoint a national technical committee, play more consistent friendlies against quality opposition, establish a more professional football administration and set up a proper scouting structure.
There has never been a better time to push all these things through; I just hope it’s not missed.
On a personal note, my biggest goal in coaching is still to come. T&T has never qualified for a World Cup with a Trinidadian-born coach; I would love the chance to train up another team like the Strike Squad and take it all the way this time.