In this feature written by Garth Wattley and published in the Trinidad Express in 2000, three decades of Secondary Schools Football is recaptured.
Thirty-six years old, how does it feel? From Leroy De Leon to Arnold Dwarika, schoolboy football has experienced a world of change in its time. In three decades, the Colleges Football League has experienced more than a difference in its style of play.
The name is no longer the same. The CFL is now the SSFL -Secondary Schools Football League.
The change in designation has had wider implications for the league.
What began as a contest among six schools has become a truly nationwide series of competitions involving some 27 teams playing in the championship division. The gloried but very exclusive contests of the early 20th century are long gone.
In their place is a structure that allows tiny Toco the opportunity to topple once mighty QRC and the folks across the sea in Tobago to gain the type of national recognition not afforded them in other spheres.
But in 36 years, has all change been good change?
And as the 20th century begins to fade from memory, what will be the legacy of the SSFL in Trinidad and Tobago? Is expansion a significant part of that legacy?
Former Fatima College principal Clive Pantin answers in the affirmative.
“They brought a new perspective to the league,” he says of the secondary schools and senior comprehensives that arrived in the 1970s and 80s.
“The expansion,” he adds, “has given more young men the ability to shine, to do things. In a smaller league they would never have got the opportunity.”
And where indeed would national football have been in the last two decades had John Donaldson Technical Institute not introduced Clayton Morris, Tranquillity Secondary Russell Latapy, Mucurapo Senior Comprehensive Hutson Charles and Clint Marcelle, Signal Hill Dwight Yorke, Arima Senior Comprehensive Kerry Jamerson, St Augustine Senior Comprehensive Jerren Nixon and El Dorado Senior Comprehensive Stern John.
The CFL/SSFL is where they all got their start. It is from there they developed the competitive instincts. These were the type of players who gave the national youth teams of the 1980s and 1990s in particular such an exciting flavour.
But change has not come without a price.
Quantity has not, in many cases, improved quality.
Hear current SSFL president Roy Jagroopsingh.
“Now in south, apart from St Benedict’s, Naparima and Princes Town, the quality is sub-standard. That is why I favour six quality teams in the league.”
To reduce from 27 to six teams seems drastic.
But Jagroopsingh is not alone in believing that smaller is better.
“With a very narrow league of eight teams,” notes former national youth coach Keith LookLoy, “if you wanted to play Intercol, you had to get into one of those teams. Nowadays anybody can play.”
The lack of fire on the field has also cooled some of the fervour in the stands.
The 1999 Intercol semi-finals and finals held at Skinner Park reportedly grossed $.1 million. But those were isolated instances.
The crowds for the Intercol contests played in the North and East combined in 1999 would have been hard-pressed to match the 18,000 that the John Donaldson/Mucurapo North Intercol final of 1978 drew to the Queen’s Park Oval. The estimated 20,000 that saw San Fernando Technical and Arima play the 1985 Intercol final at the National Stadium would not have fitted into the Park.
There is no one answer for this. But a significant factor is star quality…rather the lack of it. “Skill does not come with commitment,” notes former national skipper turned commentator Sedley Joseph.
“In my opinion, it seems there were a lot more skilful individuals in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s than we see now.”
Joseph will get no argument from former Maple player Andy Ganteaume. Ganteaume watched and played his football in an era when a five-forward line-up – not five defenders – was the norm, when offence was the best defence.
“In every team,” he says, “you had at least two forwards who could lash the ball. There were not many dull moments. But it is so regimented now.
“When these different systems came in, players lost their individuality.”
The problem is not unique to these parts.
Argentina’s 1986 World Cup winning coach Carlos Bilardo and former heroes Pele and Johan Cruyff have also lamented the lack of emphasis on technique in the world game.
But in the T&T context, at youth level, the problem is more acute.
“Although we have more clinics, I don’t think people are spending as much time on the technical aspect of the game.”
This from a current SSFL coach, Malick’s Ken Franco.
LookLoy, himself once attached to Malick, is more pointed.
“Nobody,” he says, “wants to invest time in the unglamorous work of training Under-14 boys.”
Naparima coach and ex-St Benedict’s star Jan Steadman is even more blunt.
“The tail is wagging the dog in football and everything here,” he declares. “The people who are coaching the football don’t have a clue about the build-up. Everybody wants to be a star coach. Everybody wants to go into a system when the guys can’t even trap! They don’t know the game.”
The effect of such negligence is seen first hand by people like professional coach, Jamal Shabazz.
Many are the schoolboy stars that he has seen who have lost their way in the more technically demanding arena of club soccer.
“Coaches have gone overboard in wanting to win the Secondary Schools Football league and totally miss the point,” he says.
“A lot of times,” he adds, “coaches are hoodwinking themselves. We should be thinking about developing players.”
National coach Bertille St Clair is also concerned about the quality of coaching at the schools level. His counter has been to bring some of the youth squads – the national Under-23s in particular – under his direct supervision. He also suggests organizing a coaching network among the SSFL’s various zones.
But one thing St Clair cannot coach is spirit.
And that perhaps is the greatest indictment of the modern era, its lack of passion.
“Our game was not as much a self-centered game as now,” observes Ian Jeffers, QRC captain in 1966 and 1967.
“Players now focus on their game much more,” he adds.
With the several scholarship and professional opportunities now available, such a narrower focus is understandable, he concedes.
But Jeffers and his contemporaries played at a time when player power meant taking responsibility on the field.
“We were just more involved in the game as players,” he says.
“We used to pick our own teams. Now the coach seems to be the centre of the team.”
Taking charge also sometimes meant taking a hit.
“Take a hit for the team,” was a CIC slogan back in 1970 when Luciano Woodley played.
“People did not play for themselves, they played for their school. Every player gave 100 percent – plus!” he says.
“I don’t know if when they opened up the football to all the schools whether that Intercol rivalry started to die,” muses former CIC player of the ’64 vintage, Richard De Souza.
“But the whole meaning of wearing a blue and white jersey is not the same.”
Both Woodley and De Souza have worked with the players of he present time. And the latter recalled with amazement a case of one of his charges coming to an Intercol team meeting wearing the sky blue shirt of another school!
That would have been sacrilege in the time of the legendary Pa Aleong and Joffre Chambers. They were coaches who inculcated in their numerous pupils both technique and a love of the game.
The late Roderick Warner was another passionate man.
Ask Keith Weekes.
“I don’t think I have passed under a coach who could have motivated players like him,” says the man who played for Warner’s Tranquillity sides of eh early ’70s.
“He could psyche you up for a game.”
A taskmaster at times, Warner could also be the father figure.
“He was into your life,” says Weekes. “He would always give you money to go home, help you buy your boots and even come and talk to your parents to get you to play.”
Colourful Roderick is gone now, and so too are many of his breed.
But is it necessary to bring back the old days?
Perhaps the answer lies in learning new ways to suit the new age.
“We have depended on the Colleges League to develop our players ad it has got us nowhere,” declares Shabazz. “A whole new approach is needed.”
Harsh words perhaps, but in the cold light of the approaching new dawn, necessary ones.
Because once there are goalposts up, the schoolboys will be at play. And the fans will go to see them, confident that from beneath the muck, the highest class will rise again.