Pride & Industry: Introduction Blog: HERE
As you might have read in the introduction to the blog series, and previous parts (links above), I have decided to create a challenge on Football Manager 2020 by taking charge of Barbados and trying to enhance their reputation in the world of football. The aim of the series is to try and develop football on the Caribbean island, and hopefully get the team qualified for some major tournaments and improve their FIFA world ranking. In this blog, I managed to beat Saint Kitts and Nevis 4-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup Playoffs, to qualify for the final of the playoffs – could I win the playoff final?
NOTE: I would highly recommend you look at FMOverload‘s excellent Coaching Cuba series, as it was the inspiration for my series. Please check out the series here:
As you might have read in the previous blog (link HERE), my superb Barbados team managed to overcome Saint Kitts and Nevis in the 2021 Gold Cup playoff semi-finals, to set up this two-legged playoff final with Bermuda. Whoever won this tie after the two legs would qualify for next year’s continental competition, which was held in the USA. Obviously I was super desperate that it was going to be us qualifying for our first ever tournament, with Bermuda hoping to reach their second consecutive Gold Cup after debuting in 2019!
Sadly, just as the previous playoff game in March 2020 saw a key player obtain an injury, lightning struck again as another injury crisis played havoc on my squad selection. This time, my star forward Nick Blackman picked up a hip injury whilst playing for Maccabi Tel-Aviv at the start of May, which would see him miss the next four months, and thus the games against Bermuda in June. This was followed up with a 4 week injury to back-up attacking right-back, Nicoli Braithwaite, meaning another member of the squad would be missing for the playoffs. Certainly not the best of starts to (arguably) the country’s biggest football games in its long history!
However there was some good news prior to these playoff games, as the regens/newgens in the Barbados Premier League were starting to appear and make their first impact, and had immediately improved my squad choices. Already three 16 year-old players had made their way into the full squad for the Bermuda games, as they had ridiculously high Current Ability (CA) ranking values in comparison with other established players in the squad.
Notre Dame’s goalkeeper Akeem Holder (CA of 91) easily takes the spot vacated by the retiring Keasel Broome, and will probably be taking the number 1 spot sooner rather than later. Barbados Defense Force’s attacking-midfielder Ramar Layne (CA of 81) also makes the squad, and looks a superb prospect for the future in midfield. Finally, and most importantly, Rendezvous’ forward Mario Vaughn makes the squad, and is the most exciting of the lot with his CA of 103 already! He could potentially be the next King of Caribbean Football if he develops as expected!!
Gold Cup Playoff Final 1st Leg – Bermuda (h) – June 2020
None of the youngsters started for the first leg against Bermuda though, as I opted for experience over youthful exuberance. Kishmar Primus occupied the goalkeeping position, with Ackeel Applewhaite, Ranaldo Bailey, the returning Krystian Pearce, and Tafari Moore in the back four. Seb Hunte, Mario Williams and Jomo Harries took the central midfield berths, whilst Hallam Hope and Haden Holligan (replacing the injured Nick Blackman) were on the wings. Finally Kemar Headley was positioned at the front of the attack in his familiar false nine position.
The Waterford National Stadium was sold out once again for this important qualifier, with the home support eager for the Tridents to get a decent result in the first leg. In addition, Bermuda had brought across 3000 supporters, making for a colourful and vibrant atmosphere in the ground, with the Barbadian and Bermudan flags flying proudly. It would be another scorcher for this Friday game in early June, with temperatures rising to 27 degrees in the late evening Barbadian sunshine.
Both Vaughn and Layne made their debut appearances in the first leg at home against Bermuda, coming on as substitutes in the second half of the game. Mario Vaughn made history by becoming the youngest ever player to be capped by Barbados. However despite having the majority of chances throughout the game, it was an extremely nervy game with the visitors perhaps having the better goalscoring opportunities throughout the game. As such, the first leg ended goalless much to the frustration of the home support in the stadium. However we did have a slim advantage going into the second leg by keeping Nakhi Wells quiet and not conceding an away goal.
Nonetheless, I was still disappointed with the result as I felt Bermuda were there for the taking, and that we had let an opportunity to create a strong advantage slip at home. The lads got a bit of the ‘hairdryer treatment’ in the post match team talk, which was a little unfair in hindsight, however I hoped it would inspire them to do better for the second leg!! It would mean the second leg would become a ‘winner takes all’ match now!
There was some good news between the two playoff games though. Forward Kemar Headley won the CONCACAF Nations League MVP for his performances throughout the group stage, having scored four goals in three appearances for Barbados. I was really pleased for the lad, who has been a solid player for me playing the false nine role up front, and worked hard in every game. Hopefully the award will attract some overseas attention for him as he’s a decent player who deserves to be playing abroad in a higher reputation league (no disrespect to Weymouth Wales there).
Gold Cup Playoff Final 2nd Leg – Bermuda (a) – June 2020
For the second leg at the National Sports Centre at Hamilton, a couple of changes were made to the starting eleven. Young superstar Mario Vaughn coming in upfront and making his first start for the country, with Nations League’s MVP Headley moving into the mezzala role in midfield resulting in Seb Hunte dropping out of the team. In addition Teriq Highland switched for Ackeel Applewhaite in the left-back position, whilst I bravely (or stupidly) gave Akeem Holder his debut in his country’s biggest ever football match, becoming Barbados’ youngest ever capped player (at 16 years and 23 days) in the process – no pressure there then son!
The match in Bermuda’s capital would be a stark contrast to the game in Bridgetown, with the game played in a rather ‘chilly’ and gusty 19 degrees with breezes coming in directly from the Atlantic Ocean. Get the scarves on for this one folks! Nonetheless it was a 4000 sellout in the National Sports Centre, with the Gombey Army loudly cheering their boys on. Not to mention that their manager, the former Walsall and Stoke City player, Kyle Lightbourne, had tried to spice up the game by attempting some (rather poor) mind games in the press. Tut tut Kyle!
We started the second leg as we started the first by starting more attacking of the two sides but unable to find the breakthrough early on. But then, just as I was thinking of tactical tweaks, HALLELUJAH, we found the away goal!!! Great vision from Headley in midfield found Vaughn on the edge of the box, who then passed to Hadan Holligan cutting in to fire the ball past the keeper on his inside post! We’ve got one foot in the Gold Cup! Straight from the kick-off, it looks as if we could quickly double our lead, but…oh no, that’s not how FM works! Having lost possession in Bermuda’s penalty box, they hit us with a rapid counter-attack which saw that danger man Nakhi Wells hit the afterburners and slam the ball into the net to instantly level the score up. Bugger!!
The advantage was still with us with the away goal but now the game was becoming nervy, and I was getting increasingly tetchy. Any chances that appeared throughout the second half were unfinished, and the daunting feeling that Bermuda were going to steal this game late on became more and more real as the time ticked down nearer to 90 minutes. Just as the game went into injury time, Bermuda were on the attack and looking for a winner…”here we go, football is going to kick me in the arse again with a late Bermuda winner and Barbados miss out”, I thought pessimistically…
BUT NO NO NO! This time, we were on the counter-attack after Mario Williams superbly claimed possession of the ball and punted it downfield towards Mario Vaughn, who was now running in on goal and leaving his marker for dead. The home keeper came out to block the danger, but the young lad had the calmness and coolness to slot the ball past Quinaceo Hunt to score a 94th minute (how very apt) winner! What a prospect! What a player!! Super Mario!!! He’s going to be the toast of Barbados tonight!!!! WE ARE GOING TO THE 2021 GOLD CUP!! YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSS!!
Crack open the champagne (or the fizzy pop for the younger lads) in the changing rooms – it’s party time!! We have qualified for our first ever major tournament and it feels bloody brilliant!! Even better that my Barbados team has climbed further up the FIFA rankings to the heady heights of 140th in the world! That’s twenty places climbed since I took over the national team in September 2019!!
It’s absolutely manic back in Bridgetown as the players, staff and I are treated to a carnival atmosphere as we step off the plane back on the tarmac of Bridgetown Grantley Adams Airport. A massive crowd has congregated at the airport to celebrate our qualification to the Gold Cup, with Barbadian flags proudly being waved in the crowd, and everyone in various states of joy or ecstatic drunkenness! We’re all still in a bit of a daze and bleary-eyed after the previous night’s celebrations, and all of this attention becomes a bit of a shock, especially to the younglings. However what a fantastic surprise and reception to return to!
We are soon whisked away on an open-topped bus from the airport to meet up with the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, the Governor-General, Dame Sandra Mason, the President of the Barbadian FA Randolph Harris, and other national dignitaries who have set up a fancy stage at the rather aptly (if grandly) named “National Heroes Square” opposite the Parliament Building. The PM decreed to the massive gathered crowd that Wednesday 10th June would be declared a national holiday for the island, in celebration for our achievements, and that we had finally ‘brought football success to the island’. She shakes hands with all of the playing and coaching squad as music blares in the background, and then squeezes mine rather firmly and shouting “Bloody well done, lad! Bloody well done! Barbados embraces you!!” with a tear in her eye.
I’m choking up here with emotion folks…although that could be caused by the numerous drinks and lack of sleep throughout the night, I’m not sure…but it’s a damn emotional and proud moment all the same! Thank you Barbados, you are brilliant also!!
So my main goal of qualifying for a major tournament has been completed, somewhat quicker than I was expecting, but achieved all the same which I am super happy about. Somewhat anticlimactically, it won’t be until April next year until we find out which teams will be in the same group as us, but it’s looking likely we will have at least two top seeded teams in our group! We will be one of the bottom seeds in the group draw unsurprisingly.
However for the time being, that doesn’t need to be a concern…now it’s FIESTA TIME!!! Let’s get those Banks’ beers, 10 Saints’ beers, and BrewHouse craft ales drank…I’m just going to crowdsurf and then celebrate with our supporters on this national holiday…YEEAAAAHHHH!
Please follow my friend FMOverload on Twitter @FMOverload_, and check out their blog at https://fmoverload.home.blog/. It is an absolutely brilliant FM blog and I would highly recommend you check it out! The Coaching Cuba series looks fantastic and I am keen to see it develop!!!!