Football in the Savannah

Courtenay Bartholomew
Date Published: 
Trinidad Express

Last week we were totally shocked when Trinidad and Tobago's "Soca Warriors" were beaten by Grenada.

This was certainly impossible in days of yore.

And so, to reminisce. Indeed, just as the Savannah's greenery was studded with several hundreds of spectators for the cricket season on Saturdays and Sundays, so were the grounds and the Grand Stand filled with excited fans for the football season.

After work all roads led to the Savannah and the games started promptly at 4.30 p.m.

Today the national football team is almost exclusively Afro-Trinidadian but this was not so in days gone by.

It was quite a cosmopolitan team largely composed of upper, middle, and lower-middle class players — Maple, Colts, Malvern, Sporting Club, Casuals, Shamrock and Notre Dame.

As for the ethnic divide, it was a mini-world war when, say, Maple played against the white Casuals. "Parks," a popular town crier, always attended the matches when Casuals was playing and would walk around the grounds challengingly waving several one dollar notes in his hand while shouting: "Who's against the white boys?" Bets were always taken.

That was the tolerant atmosphere and portrait of Trinidad at the time.

In those days many of the first class cricketers were also great footballers, for example, Jeffery Stollmeyer (right wing), Gerry Gomez (inside left), Joey Gonsalves (goalkeeper), Prior Jones (centre half), Andy Ganteaume (right wing), etc.

Andy received a national award this year, which, in my opinion, was at least 20 years late, but better late than never. In fact, he was perhaps an even better footballer than a cricketer.

His best position was at right wing but he and I still joke about his "lethal left''.

Most interestingly, in those days "short pants" St Mary's and Queen's Royal Colleges played in the first division league against the "big boys" and indeed gave an extremely good account of themselves.

In fact, there were several occasions when a St Mary's player was selected to represent North versus South and even to represent Trinidad and Tobago while still in college.

For example, Joey Gonsalves (debatably a greater goalkeeper than Lincoln "Tiger" Phillips), Gene Thomas, Hilton Clarke and "Nip" Charles on the right wing, who sometimes scored directly into the far side of the goal from a corner.

Among the great players from South were Ahamad Charles, John "Bull" Sutherland, Ken Galt, etc, but the gifted exponent of that art was the legendary "Babsie" Daniel, who, when a corner was awarded for him to kick, the crowd would shout: "Penalty. Penalty."

But how could one ever forget that historic occasion when QRC whipped the senior club Maple. At halftime the score was already 3-0, and while coming out of the Grand Stand for the second half, Hugh Walke of QRC tauntingly said to the Maple team: "Maple, Maple! What's wrong? You boys are not giving us a fight at all."

QRC won that match 5-0. To this day, my friend Tim Joseph, Maple's goalkeeper at the time, is still getting "fatigue" about that.

In those days, a CIC/QRC intercol game, like a North-South game, attracted thousands of fans and was one of the most exciting events in the football calendar. CIC used to win most of the contests and after winning there was a mini-carnival and thousands of St Mary's boys would dance in the streets from the Grand Stand to the college singing repeatedly on the way: "St. Mary's playing football, QRC playing netball" and "Whole day (holiday) Monday, half day Tuesday."

How could one also forget that other historic occasion when Ken Laughlin, the popular sports commentator, announced on the radio the frontline team selected to represent T&T against Jamaica? It was the full Malvern forward line — "Putty" Lewis, Phil Douglin, "Squeakie" Hinds, Fedo Blake and Lio Lynch. Trinidad and Tobago won 6-0!

To add a personal touch, there was also at that time a Civil Service Football League in the Savannah, a contest among the many Civil Service departments. In fact, Customs had such a wide array of sportsmen that they fielded an A side and a lesser talented B side. The A side had at least six players, including "Squeakie" Hinds, who were national players.

Prior Jones, Trinidad's fast bowler, was the captain of Customs A and "Coach" Oxley for Customs B.

One year in a game between Customs A and Customs B, I was at right back for the B side and Ali Clarke, formerly of QRC, was left back.

The great Geoff Chambers of Maple, eventually the national coach, was at left wing for the A side.

Now, as a youngster I used to admire and study his footwork and he was therefore well-marked.

At halftime Customs B had already scored 2 goals against the great A side.

At the start of the second half, Prior Jones at centre-half, recognising his problem, shouted: "Geoff, move to right wing" whereupon "Coach" Oxley in the goal immediately shouted "Barts, move to left back."

There was an uproar from the small crowd and just as QRC once surprised Maple with a 5-0 victory, the relatively talentless Customs B beat the great Customs A 4-0 thanks to centre forward William Ince.

The recently retired comptroller of Customs Stanley Niles would remember.

He was on the B team.

J B Fernandez had great sales after the match.

But the point I wish to make is that in those days even Customs B could have beaten Grenada!

• Prof Courtenay Bartholomew is UWI's first Trinidadian professor of medicine and director of the Medical Research Centre