Thursday, January 18, 2018

Getting to the ‘roots’ of things



Mark Fraser

 These are not the best of times if you follow Manchester United. 

It was with an air of resignation that a work colleague and I briefly talked on Saturday about what would happen on Sunday when Man Utd met Chelsea in London. That game was the clash of the weekend, Man U being the defending champions and perennial winners of the Premier League since it was created in 1992-93, and Chelsea serious contenders, their status lifted into the elite category since Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003.

Three Premier League titles since then for the London side has made it a glamour team. On Sunday last, they played up to that status, claiming a 3-1 win thanks solely to Samuel Eto’o’s goals. The low expectations of my colleague and myself were justified. The early months post the Sir Alex Ferguson era have not been so smooth. And student of history as I try to be, I have already prepared myself for a rocky period at Old Trafford that could last a few years. 

One thing I feel certain of, is that I won’t see such a period of almost unbroken success again. Ferguson was unique in his time, working for the most part in an environment that allowed him to do his work, his way. Now however, new Manchester United manager David Moyes has the task of carrying on the winning traditions established by Ferguson and the late Sir Matt Busby before him. It is a huge job. Between Busby’s last league win in 1967 and Ferguson’s first Premier League success in 1993, were 26 barren years, lightened here and there by a cup title. It took time before a winning regime was built again. But the teams Fergie built still played the Manchester United way.

I bring up the Manchester thing to illustrate how challenging it can be to rebuild from a slump, even for sporting institutions as established as Man United FC, but how it is also possible to rebuild successfully. 

The years of struggle come principally because the playing personnel is no longer good enough. Often a winning team grows old together and the replacements are not of the same quality or lack the collective experience to take up the slack. 

Changes in how clubs and national programmes are run can also disrupt a winning system; or sometimes it is the lack of recognition until it is too late that the way of doing things that had worked well for so long, is no longer adequate that compounds the problem. Does this not describe West Indies cricket? But I’m not going quite there today. There are many examples even closer to home that need examination.

One can argue that local football has been on the slide for decades, notwithstanding the Soca Warriors’ historic qualification for the Germany World Cup in 2006. 

Doubt it? Well think about the last star of the Secondary Schools Football League who was a household name. How many names did you come up with? Kenwyne Jones? 

The paucity of quality youth talent is a sure sign of trouble for any sport. And for far too long, the Football Associations and Federations have paid lip service to the problem.

Monday’s launch of the community football programme by the Raymond Tim Kee administration is noteworthy.  The 16-week grassroots-based programme will feature 90-minute sessions and will target children aged 6-12. The clinics will be organised in a circuit-type format led by TTFA technical director Anton Corneal and community based coaches and by the end of it all, ten “indestructible balls” would have been distributed to each primary school in the country.

It is about time that another Russell Latapy or someone worthy of comparison emerged. Starting with the pre-teens is a good place to start. But Corneal, senior coach Stephen Hart and the director of football, Leo Beenhakker must also come up with a system that feeds from the grassroots to the senior team. It is the only way that the TTFA can be confident of producing another period in local football that can be considered “golden.”

Their counterparts at the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board may rightly feel they have been enjoying a golden era, beginning with victory in the then-called President’s Cup back in 2004. Senior sides have enjoyed a series of successes since then and the West Indies team, especially the world champion T20 side, is well-populated with players from the “Red Force.” However, sheer numbers do not always tell the full story.

It would be good for those who run local cricket to consider what is in place to ensure that T&T will be strong in regional cricket. To what is that strength owed now? President Azim Bassarath may well say a good youth programme. 

But isn’t the success of the T&T team and its individual players relative--in comparison with their Caribbean counterparts?

A glance at the international records of the T&T representatives on the West Indies team, does not indicate that the locals are matching  their better international colleagues. So how good really is the local system for developing players?

Track and field must also face this issue. 

It may seem a strange thing to say when T&T has produced separate Olympic and World champions in consecutive years—something that has never occurred in local track and field history. But it could well be argued that the success T&T has enjoyed since the 1990s has been as a result more of the work of individual coaches and individual talent than a concerted programme by the National Association of                     Athletics Administrations (NAAA).

“The NAAA has been as facilitative as they can in the circumstances,” reckons Roland Bynoe, himself a former PRO of the local track body. But he makes the point that, “the biggest hamper to athletics in this country is the Ministry of Education and the failure to produce a well-run, high profile secondary school sports. 

“The NAAA has probably about 2,000 registered athletes but you have in excess of 50,000 people entering the secondary school system every year. If the Ministry is not assisting the NAAA in capturing that great mass, the NAAA is doing it with one hand behind its back. And I know efforts have been made by NAAA over the years both formal and informal to reach out to the Ministry of Education.”

Bynoe worries too about the Ministry of Sports and its tense relationship of late with the NAAA. As always, he gave me food for thought, but I especially took his point about the vulnerability of the sport at youth level. 

Usain Bolt might be a freak of nature, but the Jamaican is also a well-coached “freak” who was discovered early out in Trelawney and developed through a highly competitive school system.

Even in the years when there was no Bolt or Yohan Blake, or Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica was still a respected track and field powerhouse. Their strength is in their system, unique to them. 

The sport planners here can learn from their cousins up north, and go back to their “roots.”