TIME brings perspective. Reflection brings clarity.
Such was the sentiment shared by former national women’s football coach, American Randy Waldrum, during his recent reminisce of what he considers “the golden year of women’s football in TT”.
The 63-year-old served at the helm of TT senior women’s football team for 18 months (July 2014 – January 2016) and took the squad on its most impressive run in local history – to the cusp of qualifying for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.
To many, this may seem a mediocre benchmark for acknowledgement. But for the Women Soca Warriors, it was the painful culmination of months of hard work and their ability to maintain a positive mindset amidst an array of financial shortcomings, administrative blunders and injuries, which rallied the national unit to the verge of its World Cup debut.
After just two months in charge, Waldrum led TT to the inaugural Caribbean Football Union (CFU) Women’s Caribbean Cup title with a 1-0 victory over regional rivals Jamaica. This crucial win qualified the Maylee Attin-Johnson-captained squad to the 2014 Concacaf Women’s Championship, which also served as a FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifier.
With only the top three nations guaranteed qualification, TT were grouped with behemoths and hosts the USA, Guatemala and Haiti while Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Martinique completed the other group.
One week prior (October 8) to the championships, the Women Warriors flew to the US for a pre-training camp. Upon their arrival at around midnight, striker Kenya “Yaya” Cordner telephoned Waldrum to inform him there was no catered transportation from the airport, no manager, no equipment and their total finances amounted to approximately US$500.
A bamboozled but concerned Waldrum, the very next day, tweeted, “I need HELP! TT sent a team here last night with $500 total. No equipment such as balls, no transportation from airport to hotel, nothing…I don’t know how I’m going to feed these players starting at lunch today! If you know (of) anyone in Dallas area that will help with food, etc.”
By the following morning, the team received over US$10,000 in an account set up by Waldrum and an overflow of donated food and drinks.
However, the coach’s open request was seen as an insult by many within the local football fraternity. Amidst the controversy, TT lost its opening match against USA 1-0, beat Haiti 1-0 and then advanced to the ‘semis’ after defeating Guatemala 2-1.
TT then held Costa Rica to a 0-0 result after regulation time but then lost 3-0 via kicks from the penalty spot and were forced to contest the third-place playoff against giants, Mexico, for the final automatic World Cup qualifier spot.
TT lost this meeting 4-2, missing out on immediate qualification, but was lucky enough to salvage a home-and-away playoff against Ecuador (third-placed team of the 2014 Copa Americana Feminina) for the region’s final World Cup place.
Under the guidance of Waldrum and his son, Ben, TT salvaged a worthy 0-0 result in the opening match at extreme altitude in Quito. For the second leg at a sold-out Hasely Crawford Stadium in Mucurapo, a crucial defensive error in the first minute of second-half stoppage-time resulted in a gut-wrenching 1-0 defeat (courtesy a header from Monica Quinteros) which ended the Warriors’ fairy tale run and hopes of a World Cup debut. A scene that was all too familiar of November 19, 1989!
Newsday recently made contact with coach Waldrum who expressed his willingness to relive the scenes before, during and after TT’s historic but unsettling competitive campaign. The new University of Pittsburgh women’s soccer team coach touched on several highlights and obstacles faced during his short but inspirational tenure.
“We did not have the entire team together until two days before we played the US in the opening qualification (Championships). People who don’t understand football, don’t understand how difficult that is. We were going up against a USA team that had been in training two years in advance,” he said.
Concerning the tweet and its unexpected repercussions, Waldrum explained, “I felt a responsibility to take care of these players. That’s why I reached out. I do apologise to anyone in TTFA that took it the wrong way. The intent was not to make them look bad. I didn’t think about the repercussions to the TTFA, the intent was to feed, transport and take care of them. That situation though brought togetherness within the team. It strengthened us.
“As a staff, we did really well scouting and putting presentations together to have the players prepare for the opponent. From what we gathered – and this was coming from the players – the wealth of information we were giving them was something they had never received before with any of their national team coaches,” the veteran coach revealed.
“One day, I put up an animation (of a team formation) in a scouting report of the opposition and player movements, you could actually see the animation and the movements, and they were blown away like they had not seen any technology in that way. It is crucial though, that teams have a clear understanding of what exactly is a game model and what role they possess in it.”
ECUADOR FIRST-LEG (NOVEMBER 8, 2014), QUITO
After the Concacaf Championships, the team travelled to Mexico to acclimatise playing at altitude. However, time spent there was nothing compared to competing at 2.782 metres above sea level in Quito.
“I remember when I got up to walk out to the side-line (Quito) to give an instruction I would get light-headed because the altitude was so bad. To see those players play 90 minutes at that altitude, survive and not give up is beyond commendable. Tasha St. Louis collapsed on the field while Rhea Belgrave collapsed in the locker room due to altitude poisoning. Luckily, we had Dr Tonya Welch with the team. By that time, everyone had already left the stadium and there was no one there to help us get an ambulance or medical attention. In the end, Dr Welch saved the day.”
D-DAY – SECOND LEG (DECEMBER 4), HASELY CRAWFORD STADIUM
“Months earlier, there was little support. To see a country rally around their team in a few short months, from a handful of supporters to over 20,000 plus in November. To see how that team captured the country and how they supported made me take my phone out before the match and videotape the atmosphere. It gave me goosebumps,” said the two-time National Collegiate Athletic Association title-winning coach.
Although TT dominated the match for most parts, they were unable to capitalise on their chances. In the 19th minute, Cordner headed wide St. Louis’ cross atop the six-yard box. Into the second period, Cordner seemed on course but struck the upright after latching on to a precise Ahkeela Mollon cross. The more TT pressed, the more Ecuador showed resistance.
Into injury time, however, the visitors were awarded a game-changing free-kick. As it was struck, Ecuador’s striker Quinteros’ timely touch directed the strike past TT custodian, Kimika Forbes, who was caught off her line chasing the ball. TT wept.
“It was a huge disappointment,” said Waldrum. “I can’t even describe it, the feeling at that moment because we were so close. I thought we were the better side and we even hit the post a couple times. We had our chances but also had to take the responsibility for missing some opportunities as well.”
He continued, “As the clock was winding down, our mind was really on preparing for penalties and the fluke free-kick, the way it went in!” Waldrum sighed, looked away from the video call camera and eyes seemed a bit more liquefied than previously.
“As soon as that goal scored, I don’t think I’ve ever had a more disappointing moment and empty feeling in all of the years I’ve been in football.”
POST WORLD CUP QUALIFIER ELIMINATION
In a strange turn of events one month later (January 2016), Waldrum was fired by then, newly-appointed (November 30, 2015) TTFA president David John-Williams due to the coach’s “failure to submit plans for his post.” The proposal was supposedly meant to encompass the team’s programme for the next four years.
John-Williams said he contacted Waldrum on January 2 and asked him for a proposal by January 4 on his plans as a coach and the list of players he wanted to use.
“We decided that he needed more time to check the schedules before he could be sure about the availability of the players. So I gave him until Wednesday (January 6) for that since it was the more difficult of the two. Neither deadline was met. The decision was based on his failure to submit documentation,” said John-Williams in a wired868.com report.
It must be known, however, that Waldrum endured this journey as a volunteer and was not paid as a coach. Two days later, the American coach penned an emotional departing letter to his now-former teammates.
“This was TT’s golden generation of women’s footballers,” he said in the recent interview. “What I’ve seen before (his tenure) and what I’ve seen after, to me, that to me was the peak of quality women’s football in TT. Looking back, maybe me being a coach who fought for what these young women deserved, cost me in the end. Unfortunately, it was just the state of where women’s football was with the federation and continues to be.”
He added, “That group of players really epitomised the Women Soca Warriors. They really are warriors because a lot of people don’t know the stories behind the scenes. Those players went through so much difficulty in just trying to prepare. You don’t know what would have happened. You would have hoped that if we qualified, it could have been a springboard for women’s football. But then I go back and look at where it is and what’s going on in the country now, I don’t know if it would have changed anything.”
DID YOU HAVE PLANS IN PLACE?
“Sheldon Phillips, Lincoln “Tiger” Phillips, Ben and myself had put together a ten-year plan based on this World Cup qualification for 2023. We realised our real future lay in the seven or eight-year-old players playing in TT back then. If you look at it now, five years later, those young kids could have now been TT’s Under-15 and Under-17s and we would have kept doing development.”
Waldrum believes if the TTFA had accepted his plan, women’s football would have been in a much better place in TT presently. “That was what was the most disappointing to me, that we weren’t able to implement a long-term plan going forward. We had all laid out to develop youth soccer in different zones and in Tobago. A well-planned out programme for the future, getting TT to the point where the programme automatically qualifies all the teams. Had we carried the plan out in 2015, women’s football would be in a good place today. Now it’s right back where it was.”
“I just watched the Under-20s still do quite well in their qualifiers (2019) even though they lacked preparation to get out of their group. Realistically, everybody involved would tell you the same thing. There was no preparation, the selection process was difficult, getting visas and other necessities were difficult; all those things that should be done in a professional way, those things need to change for the football to get better. There’s no progress made and it seems there’s no one with a willingness and vision. I am yet to see TT unveil any plans for 2023 World Cup qualification.”
LOOKING BACK…POSSIBLE RETURN???
“TT is my adopted country. I love it there, I love the people and still have the passion for it. I would come back in a heartbeat. There’s no lack of players not wanting to play but when they get let down and things get treated unprofessionally, they are hurt. I would want to come back with a longer-term plan in place. In 2015, I didn’t even have a contract and was volunteering. I don’t want to come in just to take a team through qualification or just before an event, where you have no chance of really succeeding.
“I think the TTFA has to go beyond waiting to two or three weeks before an event to now try and put a together to qualify for a major international event. Being part of a long term plan will give the girls a real chance, time to prepare and a real chance of making that World Cup dream come through. I would love to come back. We still have a legitimate amount of time to properly prepare the team. TT, however, needs to get its act together, especially with the current crisis facing the local administration with FIFA currently. I keep abreast of TT football because I want to return. The talent this country has is immense, but plans need to be put in place,” he concluded.
Waldrum also credited father and son football administrators, Lincoln and Sheldon, the late Raymond Tim Kee and every player, staff member and parent who were a part of his initiative to elevate women’s football in TT.