There must have been a moment during Tuesday’s game against Toronto FC, with 6,500 supporters around him and the sponge grass of the Wanderers Grounds below him, when Andre Rampersad took a breath, surveyed his surroundings, and asked himself a very simple question: how did I end up here?
And the ‘here’ in this case isn’t just Halifax, Nova Scotia. It’s also here as a professional footballer, and here as the captain of a professional football club, and here as a player going eyeball to eyeball with a midfielder formerly of Roma, Borussia Mönchengladbach, and Aston Villa.
But here he is, regardless. Only a continent north of where he grew up, but a world away.
Home for Andre Rampersad is La Horquetta, a small town in northern Trinidad. Pastel houses and palm trees punctuate long stretches of road, some leading further north to Arima, some west to Port of Spain. It was on these streets, twenty years ago, that Andre Rampersad first found himself with a ball at his feet.
“I started around 7 or 8” he remembers. “It was a lot of playing on concrete. On mud. We had two grass fields in my neighbourhood with goalposts, so sometimes we could maneuver over there to get a sweat on… but mainly it was concrete and mud”
It was also home. A small area, a good community (“nice, nice people”), and family members providing him with a football education.
“My uncle, my older brother, my cousin… they were all big into football. My uncle wasn’t playing for the national team or anything but he was a good player who played club football. We love the sport in Trinidad”
Nice memories then, of 2006 and Trinidad’s first appearance at a World Cup?
“For sure, for sure. I was 10 or 11 at time. I went crazy when we qualified, the whole country went crazy. I remember after, I think the day after, it was announced that everyone had a holiday so we could celebrate” he laughs. “So yeah, I remember it well. I had the magazines, the wall charts…”
I feel like I should apologise, I say. I’m English after all, and Trinidad were beaten by England at the tournament after a very contentious Peter Crouch goal in the 83rd minute.
“Peter Crouch, man” he says, shaking his head. “He pulled on the guy’s dreads!”
After a hazy, dreamy World Cup summer, the sport had Andre Rampersad in the palm of its hand. It has a way of doing that to people; once it gets you, it really gets you. He started playing every day with mates, with family, even with a wall if no-one was around. Pretty soon it became clear he had something that set him apart.
“As a kid in my neighbourhood there were always the older guys who you looked up to and knew were good. Like you’d see them kicking around and go ‘okay, yeah, he’s going to be something one day’, whether that was playing in Trinidad or achieving the dream, you know, of getting out and playing (abroad)”
Was he that player, the one people looked at?
“I think so, yeah. There were definitely guys who'd watch us kicking it about at the park who thought I had some potential and told me so”
Rampersad joined the academy at FC Santa Rosa shortly after turning 12. While the academy environment in Trinidad & Tobago can be unstable - a lot of clubs don’t have the money to survive long-term – FC Santa Rosa, led by president Keith Look Loy, have always managed to keep its head above water. It wasn’t only the clubs that had funding issues in those days though, Rampersad himself had to make some tough financial decisions.
“For me funds were very low, so I had to decide whether to spend money on football or save it for travel and whatnot” he remembers. “But after a while I gave in and registered, basically so I could start kicking the ball about with my mates”
After playing and thriving throughout the U14s, U16s, and U18s, Rampersad was invited to join the FC Santa Rosa men’s team towards the end of his teenage years. Those first days in an adult environment can be challenging for young players. The game, which before had been about fun with friends, suddenly becomes something altogether more serious. Every day is a scrap. It’s still a game of course, but suddenly it’s a game with livelihoods at stake.
“Man, you have to grow up really fast in that environment” remembers Rampersad. “You never know when it’s going to be your turn to step up. Maybe you’re on the bench and then someone gets injured and suddenly you have to step in and be strong. It’s a lot of pressure at a young age and you have to grow up more quickly than you’d like to. But that’s the kind of challenge I like. This is why you play. You live for this.”
By 2018, he had established himself in the FC Santa Rosa first-team, playing on weekends and midweek evenings while also working a steady job to keep the money coming in. One day, Derek King – future Halifax Wanderers assistant coach and, at the time, FC Santa Rosa head coach – approached Rampersad before a game with some news.
“Coach King came up to me in the dressing room that evening and said ‘Look, there are people out there today who are here to watch you’. He told me not to feel pressure and to just be myself, play my normal game, and perform well”
Rampersad did perform well, scoring a late goal in a Santa Rosa win. He wasn’t to know it at the time, but it was a sliding doors moment. He’d caught the eye of Stephen Hart, the former Trinidad coach who – unbeknownst to almost anyone at the time – had agreed to take charge of Halifax Wanderers of the fledgling Canadian Premier League.
Within a year of that day, Andre Rampersad found himself on a plane to Canada.
There’s a story you often hear in the back channels of the Halifax Wanderers supporter scene that goes something like this: it’s October 2019, the team is days from the final game of the season, and the mood in the Wanderers dressing room is grim.
There are cliques and divisions, two players in particular have barely spoken for months, and a large chunk of the others suspect they won’t be returning in 2020.
So the coaches decide, perhaps in an attempt to find common ground, that the squad will vote as a group on who the captain will be for the final game of the season.
Strips of pens and paper are handed out, answers are scribbled and handed back in. After a quick count, a unanimous winner is announced: Andre Rampersad.
And it’s a nice story, isn’t it? It functions well as a way of exemplifying some of the Trinidadian’s best qualities: the respect he commands from his peers, the way he can bridge a divide, his obvious leadership qualities. Unfortunately though, it isn’t actually true.
“Well there was a vote” laughs Andre Rampersad three years later, “but the winner wasn’t me… it was Elton (John)!”
But you were captain for that last game, weren’t you?
“Yeah, but that’s because Elton gave it to me. He was my roommate and he came to me – and I think by then I had made my stance with the team, the leadership qualities I had were being recognized and I was playing most games – anyway, he came to me and gave me the captain’s armband. He knew I was already giving advice to players, helping my teammates, and he said he wanted to leave the team in my hands. It was a really amazing moment for me”
A goal each from Guti and Kodai Iida (“what an absolute screamer from this guy!”) in York gave Andre Rampersad victory in his first game as Halifax Wanderers captain.
That first year was tough though, he admits. It was his first time away from home and his first time in a climate like Canada’s. Surely there was a moment, in those first few months, when he thought to himself what in the actual fuck is this place?
“Definitely, definitely” he laughs. “I mean, I hadn’t traveled before but obviously I knew it was going to be cold. But then I was like… ‘Damn! It really is cold!’ And it was challenging to be honest with you, especially those two weeks going into the first game. I try not to think too much about it now but it definitely was hard”
It didn’t take long for him to find his feet though. As the season progressed, Rampersad became a key cog in Stephen Hart’s team. By the end of the season he was deemed indispensable and his contract was been renewed.
And then, just as he was beginning to prepare for pre-season back in Trinidad, the global pandemic happened.
“Me and Akeem (Garcia) were just trying to keep each other going during the lockdowns.” he remembers. “We were trying to keep busy, to keep training every day. We would do stairwell runs, kick a ball about downstairs, anything to keep occupied.”
Were there ever any doubts about some kind of season happening in 2020?
“I think even for us players we were all thinking, like ‘what are they going to do? Are we still going to have something here?’ It was stressful, man. But then luckily PEI happened”
PEI. The Island Games. Halifax, the league's 7th placed team in 2019, making an unlikely run to the final of the competition before losing to Forge. The shortened nature of the tournament has led to Wanderers’ success being marked with an asterisk. It’s a caveat that Rampersad doesn’t believe is fair.
“It doesn’t matter if it was a tournament, all the teams had to go through the same thing. No matter what people say about it being 11 games or whatever, we still had to play and bring it, and we definitely did”
Hopes were high in 2021 with the group that made the final of the Island Games largely kept intact. Unfortunately, the play-offs were missed by a single point after Halifax failed to beat Atletico Ottawa on the final day of the season. It’s a game that still rankles at the Wanderers Captain.
“I think in any other situation, on any other day, we’d have beaten Ottawa, but I guess it wasn’t written. I can still feel positive about that season though. We came out the bubble in last place and ended up so close to the playoffs, but it just wasn’t meant to be”
It’s been a mixed start to 2022 in terms of results, but the Forge defeat aside, performances have arguably been the best in the club’s short history. The football, so often functional and direct, has been transformed, with Halifax now playing some of the most modern, progressive football in the league. It’s an improvement that the Wanderers captain puts down to a realignment of values.
“It’s a matter of everyone being clear on what we want to do and everyone giving into this way of playing. I think before maybe there was some separation between guys who wanted us to play this way and others who wanted to do what they wanted to do. But I think this year everyone is on board, so props to Coach Stephen (Hart) and Alejandro (Dorado) for that.”
A proper pre-season must have helped too?
“For sure. You can really work on the patterns, the structure, the timings. All the things that help with how we play now. So yeah, I think pre-season is probably the biggest reason you see us playing like this now”
Andre Rampersad’s position has changed, too. While still a midfielder, his primary function in 2022 has been as a lone #6. It’s a highly pressurised, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants role. One that requires an extremely high level of technical security from whoever finds themselves playing there. It’s a position he enjoys, even if he wouldn't mind being a bit closer to goal sometimes.
“I probably prefer playing as an #8, you know, just to see more of the ball in attacking positions, but then when you look at the stats like ball recoveries, challenges won, duals won… it makes more sense to put me there as a lone #6”
I like you in there, I tell him. I feel safe. Secure. It isn’t a knock on any player in the squad to say this, but Rampersad is the only one I truly trust to receive the ball in those tight, press-heavy areas and have the ability to escape unscathed.
“That’s the thing with being alone there, you need to feel that trust” he says. “Just one mistake, one breakdown, and it could be disastrous. But for me, I really think you should trust Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé and (Marcello) Polisi in there, too.”
They’re good players, aren’t they?
“Jérémy man, his technical level is just so, so high. Honestly, it’s crazy. I think the coach’s idea is to get him closer to the box so he can play the final ball. He’s got a good shot on him, too. All the midfielders we have though, they’re all so good. You’ve seen Daniels have some amazing games since he joined – like, what a player – and Lamothe is also really growing, the kid is really here to show himself. And then you have Polisi who’s still coming back from injury but is an excellent player”
The right combination of these players is, according to Rampersad, just about any combination of these players. He speaks about rotation, how they can all play together in any variation of a three. I ask him if he’d prefer to play in a double pivot, to maybe give him a bit more protection from that ‘disastrous’ possibility, but he doesn’t seem overly keen.
“When you have two of us there (as a double #6) the ball can sometimes just go back and forth, side to side. But now when I get the ball I usually have to play a forward pass. I’m happy that Coach Hart trusts me enough to give me the licence to play in there alone”
I ask him what it’s like in those moments, as a lone #6, when a pass from one of his centre-backs is rolling towards him and the opposition midfield is aggressively pressing him from all angles. What’s the thought process? How does he always seem to make the correct decision in such a stressful, incredibly fast-moving situation?
“Sometimes it’s instinctive, you know. Sometimes the brain and body just take over and you do something automatically that you can’t believe, like you think ‘why did I just do that?!’” he laughs. “But there is obviously a thought process going on, too.”
So there you are: you have a split second to decide what to do as the pass is played into your feet. What happens first?
“First is scanning. That’s super important. All game you need to be scanning - looking side to side, up and down. Where am I? Where is my opponent? Where’s the space? Are they pressing me? Then you need to figure out not just if you’re getting pressed but also how you’re getting pressed. Like, some guys aren’t really there to press-press, they just want to shadow you. But other guys, bam! They’re up your ass and trying to throw you off a lot more. So you’re considering these things in that split second”
“Well, next you need to think about the pass the defender has just played you. If it’s too hard, how am I going to control it in a way that takes the opposition out the game? Do I have enough time to turn? To pass it back? What if it’s a slower ball? Do I have time to take my eyes off it so I can scan one last time?”
That, I say, sounds like a lot.
“It is a lot, yeah. But that’s the stuff you need to do in there”
Despite thriving as a #6 this season, it’s worth noting how versatile Rampersad is across the entire midfield, and even in more advanced areas of the pitch as a #10.
“At the start of the Island Games in 2020, I think that Coach Hart saw me being able to do what Kante did for Chelsea under Lampard, you know winning the ball back high, pressing the defenders. I don’t know if you remember, but I started the tournament as our #10… not João (Morelli)!” he laughs. “But eventually come on, of course I could see that Morelli is a goal machine so he should be there. So I went back to my natural position”
And it’s here, in his natural position, that the Halifax Wanderers captain has become arguably the finest midfielder in the Canadian Premier League.
Spend enough time in the company of Andre Rampersad and you quickly realise how indebted he feels to this city and this club. But the life of a footballer – rare exceptions aside – is a nomadic one. Players at this level of the game tend to move frequently as peak-earning years come and go. I’m curious then, where he sees himself in ten years time.
“Ten years… well, firstly I definitely feel at home here. The people I work with – you know I’ve been here nearly four years now – and I can never be more grateful to Halifax. It’s been nothing but love right from the jump. This club has given me my break and chance to show the world what I can do. So in ten years I’d definitely like to come back, even just as a fan. Long-term too, I could even retire here in old age. Like I said, it’s been nothing but love from Halifax and I just want to give that love back”
There are short-term targets, too. For one, breaking into the Trinidad & Tobago national team. It’s a “big, big dream” for Rampersad to represent his country one day. A recent call-up had to be turned down due to visa constraints, but the hope is that he gets his chance before too long. He certainly deserves it.
Tuesday's performance versus Toronto FC also suggests that Rampersad's ceiling may be higher than the Canadian Premier League.
He was sensational on the night. Some of the flicks, the faints, the range of passes... it was a wonderful display from the Trinidadian, further magnified when you consider the names and reputations he was up against. Had he not been subbed off due to injury, then Halifax may well have reached the semi-final.
Instead, Rampersad and his teammates have a play-off push to focus on.
“That’s the goal” he says. “We want to get that plate. We want to be in the conversation. We want to be there at the end.
Imagine, I suggest, a CPL final at the Wanderers Grounds. He puffs out his cheeks.
“Man, that would be great”
Maybe it will happen one day, maybe it won’t. Either way, the ripple effect of that moment back in Trinidad, when Derek King approached Andre Rampersad to tell him that someone – Stephen Hart – was there to watch him perform continues to undulate.
“When I think back to that day, I think to myself that maybe Coach Hart just really wanted to give this kid a chance” Rampersad remembers. “I mean, with all the players he had worked with before and could’ve chosen from… he decided to give me a chance. I guess I just got lucky”
Gary is an Arsenal supporting, Halifax-based Brit who moved to Canada in 2016 unaware that he was about to fall in love with another football team. He can be found on on Twitter in the following places: @FromAwaysHFX and @GaryG86.