INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
Antigua and Barbuda have already progressed further than ever before in World Cup qualifying and, this week, face back-to-back fixtures against Guatemala to try and place themselves in a strong position in their group. We spoke to Tom Curtis, the English coach at the helm of the Benna Boys…
Tom, first of all just explain how you came to be technical director and head coach of the Antigua and Barbuda national team?
It was a friend of a friend thing. They were looking for somebody to come out and take on the technical director’s job and, at the time, I was head coach at Loughborough University, where I had been for four years.
I felt that I needed a new challenge and something different to do – this was an exciting opportunity, so I decided it would be a good idea to come out here.
You have taken Antigua and Barbuda to the highest point in their footballing history since arriving in March 2011. Just explain the significance of the back-to-back World Cup qualifiers with Guatemala over the next week…
Well, we are currently in the Last 12 of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and there are four places for the World Cup Finals. We are the smallest nation left in the World Cup, so already we are seeing results from our national programme because this is the first time ever that Antigua has reached this stage.
We’re playing in a group with United States, Jamaica and Guatemala, who all have a lot more resources than ourselves – we haven’t even got a football-specific facility on the island to train on, let alone to play. We play our games at the Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium and we train at the old Antigua Recreation Ground, which is another cricket stadium. So there isn’t a great deal of facilities, but there is a lot of vision, a lot of ideas.
What we really need to do, is to back up those ideas with some real infrastructure, in terms of facilities, coaching education and a real youth development project. We’re trying, we’re doing our best and, since I’ve got here, we’ve tried to get a number of age groups playing and training to a national programme, using a national syllabus and sharing a national philosophy. That’s something we’re working really hard on, although it’s difficult with the finances and the resources we’ve got to hand. Everyone involved is trying really hard to try and move football forward in Antigua.
What was the situation when you arrived?
The situation was unique here. A couple of years ago, the FA sat down and wanted to come up with a way of moving the national team forward. What they have done is created an organisation – a franchise – within the USL, which is the second-tier football league within the USA. So we now have a professional side, Antigua Barracuda FC, who play regularly in the USL and 19 of our players are Antiguan-born. It gives them an opportunity to play and train professionally, in order that they can develop themselves to be fit to play international football.
Last year was our first season in the USL and we’re halfway through our second season now. We are playing competitive games at a really high standard, a lot higher than the players were used to, and it gives them the opportunity to get used to the standard, the environment, the travel, staying in hotels as a team – basically, living a professional footballer’s life. They wouldn’t get that opportunity if it wasn’t for Barracuda FC.
It’s a really visionary concept and, while other countries have tried having their national team play club football, I think we’re the only country doing it right now. It’s a year-round national programme, which most countries have, but their players will only train together in the build up to a specific game or tournament.
So what was your motivation for taking this opportunity on the other side of the world?
I knew Bryan Hamilton, who has been heavily involved in setting things up out here over the past few years, and he made me aware of the opportunity to come and head up the national programme. He told me about the opportunity to coach a team in the USL and to coach a national team and all the possibilities to be successful.
I decided that I needed a change and a challenge at the time and I decided it would be a good idea for me to come out here and try something different. I’m looking to challenge myself as a person and it has certainly been challenging and difficult. I’m hoping the experience will help me to develop and move forward.
Forming Antigua Barracuda FC and laying down a youth training infrastructure are important steps but where did the ideas come from for the long-term vision to improve the standard of the national team?
When I first came, the first thing I did was assess where we were to give myself an idea of what needed to be done. I wanted to get a feel for Antiguan football for myself and to work out what the strengths of Antiguan football were.
We then came up with an Antiguan footballing philosophy – a way that we want all our teams playing. That is reflected in the syllabus and the practices we deliver in the age-group programmes and it runs all the way up from Under-12s to Barracuda FC and the national team.
That’s not to say we all play the same system, but we do all work to the same philosophy – we are physical, fast and aggressive. We always try to be organised and disciplined, to play fast, attacking football and to go into the game with a plan, in that everyone knows what their roles and responsibilities are.
We try to get all the kids and all the players at every level to understand that that’s the way Antigua play and then we try to build upon that.
In addition to those organisational and structural changes, you have also begun to look further afield for players eligible to represent Antigua and Barbuda. How have you managed to attract the likes of Reading’s Mikele Leigertwood and Nottingham Forest’s Dexter Blackstock and what impact have they had on the national team’s fortunes?
The answer is a combination of things. Justin Cochrane, a former QPR player and now Academy coach at Tottenham Hotspur, has been a big help in networking in the UK and helping us find British-based Antiguans.
I guess word of mouth has also played a big part. A number of years ago, our General Secretary and members of our executive visited a number of clubs in the UK looking for players. Justin and Mikele Leigertwood were some of the first to come over and represent us and we have done our best in terms of professionalism, organisation and looking after them off the pitch. This has helped us to convince players such as Dexter Blackstock and Zaine Francis-Angol, from Motherwell, to join us recently.
I have also been back to the UK on a number of occasions to speak personally with these players. We feel it is enormously important to maintain as good a relationship as possible with them as they sacrifice so much when coming over to represent their country. For the players lower down the leagues such as Kieran Murtagh, of Macclesfield Town, and Marvin McCoy, of Wycombe Wanderers, it’s an opportunity to showcase themselves on the international stage and benefit from an experience players at that level do not normally have.
Mikele and Dexter offer experience of the highest level and Mikele is now competing against the likes of Chelsea, which not only gives us the benefit of his experience but also publicises the programme, which in turn may attract more players.
We do compete against other islands for players. Dexter, for instance, had the chance to represent Jamaica but chose Antigua, and that, in my opinion, says a lot about the nature of our programme here. We are constantly looking to improve the squad and attract players, but we have always said that it is important to get the right characters and we have been fortunate to have players who are committed to their country and who are model professionals.
It is vital that the team dynamic is not affected when players come in. We certainly do our homework when bringing new players in so that they fit in with the backbone of the side – the Antiguan based players – socially, as well as tactically. The English based players we have at the moment have been key in convincing further players to join.
Having reached the Last 12 of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for the first time in Antiguan football history and risen, at one stage, to 83rd in the world, you have already achieved a lot. Now, a 1-3 defeat to the United States and a 0-0 draw with Jamaica mean these upcoming games against Guatemala are far from dead rubbers. Could you ever have predicted being in this position when you arrived in the Caribbean?
Well we’ve not been this far before at international level and, at club level, while we’re not doing particularly well in the USL, we are winning games and we’re competitive this season, which is already a big step forward. The national team are now going away to play at 70,000 all-seater stadiums in the United States in the latter stages of World Cup qualifying. It’s something that has never happened here before.
So everyone on the island is really excited but, at the same time, despite Antigua being the size it is, everyone now expects us to do well in this stage of qualifying as well. They expect us to beat America, to beat Jamaica and go all the way. I suppose that’s just football – sometimes you can become a victim of your own success in terms of expectations.
I think we have done fantastically well to come as far as we have. We now have a youth programme in place that is running consistently through the age groups – yes, it can still be improved and, yes, we need to train more coaches that are able to deliver it, but we have started something that wasn’t in place before we came here.