There was a suspicion among followers of the CanPL that Stephen Hart would utilize his knowledge of Trinidadian football once the international transfer window opened at the start of the month, so it was no surprise when the identities of the second, third, fourth and fifth signings in Wanderers’ history were announced this past Thursday. After a mid-morning teaser, confirmation came at 2 that Trinidadian quartet Jan-Michael Williams, Elton John, Andre Rampersad and Akeem Garcia had signed for the club, joining November's debut signing Zachary Sukunda.
The advantages and disadvantages of these signings will be touched on in much greater detail on this blog in the coming weeks, but my first instinct is cautious optimism. Hart referenced the benefits of signing a group of players who know each other well and who won’t have to learn to gel with one another. In the inaugural CanPL season, with seven squads that will be playing together for the first time, the speed in which a team manages to gel will be hugely important. With Williams and John having played together for Central FC, and Rampersad and Garcia being teammates at FC Santa Rosa, there are ready-made connections at Hart’s disposal.
Another potential upside to these signings is the effect they’ll have on the budget. The average TT-Pro League (the top tier of Trinidadian football) salary as of 2014 was TT$30,000 - TT$50,000 ($6,000 - $10,000 CAD) per-year, while the top players earned up to TT$90,000 ($17,000 CAD) per year. Clearly, these numbers don’t tell the whole story and must be judged against the cost of living and other factors that differ from country to country, but I think we can probably assume that these players won’t be putting too severe of a dent in the yearly budget.
To give a fair summary of the signings, we must also acknowledge the slight risk some of these players carry. One concern I’ve read over the past two days pertains to the level some of them are currently playing at. If we disregard Jan-Michael Williams, who has international pedigree and a wealth of experience, we have Elton John, who despite spending most of his career in the top tier of Trinidadian football has only one international cap, and Andre Rampersad and Akeem Garcia, both of whom were playing for FC Santa Rosa in the Super League One (Trinidad's second tier) before signing for the Wanderers. Without being too skeptical, because it’s far too early for that and I’m actually very happy with the business that has been done so far, it would be remiss to not be a little, shall we say, tentative about the level some of them have played at before. One big caveat to this would be that while playing for FC Santa Rosa, Rampersad and Garcia were both managed by Derek King, who was recently given a coaching role at the Wanderers. After spending the past year working with these players full-time, I think we can safely assume that he’ll know exactly what standard they're capable of playing at.
Mining the dark depths of the internet for footage and information about all-but unknown Trinidadian footballers is no easy task, particularly when one of those has a globally famous namesake (you try searching google for ‘Elton John Trinidad’ or ‘Elton John soccer’. It’s a nightmare, friends), but below you’ll find an assortment of clips, facts and general musings on each player which will help to provide a general overview of what they’ll bring to the club (to manage expectations, think of this as an infant’s hastily constructed drawing of four stick men as opposed to a painstakingly detailed oil-painting).
Today’s blog will focus on the two more experienced signings, Jan-Michael Williams and Elton John.
The word ‘journeyman’ is lazily banded around in football circles, but one man who appropriately wears that label is Jan-Michael Williams. The 6’1 goalkeeper has seen his career take him from Trinidad & Tobago to Belgium, Hungary, Honduras and Guatemala, as well as a trial for Rangers in Scotland. Such experience should hold the thirty-four-year-old in good stead when he arrives in Halifax next month and help him to win over the fans.
One person Williams won’t have to win over is Wanderers’ manager, Stephen Hart. While in charge of the Trinidad & Tobago national team, Hart made Williams his captain. Speaking at the time, the Cuava native said of Hart, ‘I think he is very professional and he is a perfectionist. He likes to get things done in the right way’. This familiarity with Hart and his coaching methods is something that will suit both parties. In Williams, Hart will have a mouthpiece in the dressing room and a tangible example of the standards he demands. In Hart, Williams will know what is expected of him and the benchmark he must meet to nail down a starting spot.
Williams’ experience abroad will make acclimatizing to Canada a relatively easy process. You don't live in such a varied group of countries without having a knack for being culturally and socially adept. Fitting into the dressing rooms in such a diverse group of countries must be challenging, but from everything I've read about him, he seems to be more than capable of meeting that challenge. These qualities will make him a more than worthy role-model for young goalkeeper Christian Oxner, who will be fighting for a place in the squad this February.
Big game experience is another thing we’re getting with Jan-Michael Williams. His pedigree as an international goalkeeper with 81 caps will surely make him a contender for the most experienced player in the league. Being a mainstay for his national team is a phenomenal achievement, and the fact that Wanderers have managed to secure the services of such an accomplished player must not be understated. This is a man who has captained his team in World Cup qualifiers, who has faced the likes of Mexico and the United States, who has, at club level, competed against teams such as LA Galaxy and who has a healthy amount of national titles to his name. For all the talk of the CanPL being a developmental league, Jan-Michael Williams walks into this fledgling HFX Wanderers team the finished article.
Take a look at his highlight reel below.
Let’s be honest, being named Elton John must be a nightmare. Do you think he’s ever, in his whole life, introduced himself to someone and not had them barely suppress their laughter before saying ‘Seriously, mate. Elton John?’. I doubt it. So here, in this blog, I hereby solemnly swear to never use his name in vain for the sake of a pun. Amen.
So, who is Elton John the footballer? Like Williams, he’s had a bit of a journeyman’s career. He has spent much of his career plying his trade in the top tier of Trinidadian football with clubs such as San Juan Jabloteh, North East Stars and Ma Pau Stars, mixed in with a season with Belgian club Vise before they went bankrupt. Despite being a mainstay in Trinidadian club football, the thirty-one-year-old has made only one appearance for the national team, which poses some questions we'll try to get answered when we speak to an expert in Trinidadian football next week.
John is known in Trinidadian football circles for his versatility. He is comfortable in defence and midfield, although he admits he prefers the latter. While we can expect Hart to use him in both roles as he negotiates the challenges of having a small squad, at 5’8, it’s tempting to conclude that he’d be far more suited to a midfield role (an opinion that is strengthened in light of Pacific FC signing 6’3 striker Marcus Haber). John, when describing his attributes, spoke of his ‘ability to adapt and work rate’. When these qualities are coupled with his aptitude at reading the game, you have a player seemingly suited to play in the spine of a team.
Despite being old enough to know better, I’m hopelessly, and willingly, impressionable when it comes to highlight videos. I know they only show the good and I know they are no basis to truthfully judge a player (and don't get me started on the awful music they tend to be set to), but I remain enamored with them. From the footage of John in his highlights video, he looks like a midfielder who likes to get his foot in, can disrupt play and can use the ball in a tidy and sensible way. There's also the odd sweeping cross-field pass and lofted assist, too. Consider me besotted.
The video below paints a picture of a player who views himself as a midfielder first and foremost (another video on his YouTube channel that sets out to showcase his defensive abilities is primarily made up of clips of him playing in midfield). Hearing Hart reference his versatility and work as a defender suggests he sees his position as being further back then John would perhaps like. Despite this positional uncertainty, John seems to have all the tools he’ll need to be a success in the CanPL. Now, if only the club could find him a defensive partner by the name of Bernie Taupin, we’d really be on to something…
As bonus footage, here are both Jan-Michael Williams and Elton John lining up for Central FC versus LA Galaxy. The result, a 5-1 defeat, wasn’t the best, but it’s interesting to see both players in action for ninety-minutes. It should also be noted that both were present in the first leg when Central FC held LA Galaxy to a 1-1 draw, so they’re clearly capable of operating at that level.
The first thing I thought while watching a video of Akeem Garcia in action was ‘Romario’. It’s the way he manipulates his body and the stocky force he seems to generate by having a low center of gravity. Of course, such a comparison is relative to the standard he’s playing in, but there’s a passing resemblance, nonetheless. Should he contribute even a fraction of Romario’s (self-purported, widely discredited) 1000 career goals, then Wanderer’s would’ve got themselves a bargain.
Garcia has enjoyed a career that up until now has threatened to take off, but hasn’t quite reached full speed yet. After a buzz-worthy youth career which included being a standout performer in the Trinidad & Tobago U17 and U20 sides, Garcia's progress was stalled by a knee injury. Now though, he seems to be starting to find his feet in adult football. There’s usually a slight teething period for players of his size (he’s just shy of 5’5) when they first start playing among men, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Coupled with the previously mentioned knee-injury suffered in his late teens, it’s easy to understand why the trajectory towards the limits of his ability haven’t gone as quickly as he’d probably have liked.
Of all signings, Garcia excites me the most though. There seems to be a lot of untapped potential in there judging from what I’ve seen and read. I’ve watched a few full matches that he has appeared in (one of which is linked below) and he’s the kind of player that will excite fans, which is exactly what will be needed in this inaugural season. Usually starting on the right of a front three, he’s quick, direct and has the ability to beat a defender with the drop of a shoulder or a trick, all of which are qualities that fledgling fans of the sport are drawn to. At 22, Garcia’s career is laid out in front of him and Wanderers fans can hope to be witness to the start of something special.
Due to the scarcity of information online, Andre Rampersad is the biggest mystery of the new HFX Wanderers signings. From what I’ve seen of him, he’s a big, dominant box-to-box midfielder. Surprisingly, given his size and profile, he’s also a very, very tidy footballer. Watch the match linked below featuring both Rampersad and his Wanderers teammate Garcia. Rampersad (playing in shirt no.24) rarely gives the ball away. He cleans up opposition attacks and usually uses the ball in simple, effective ways. He’s not an eye-catching player, but Hart and his coaching team won’t care one bit if he carries the same calming strength into his displays in a Wanderers shirt.
Just like Akeem Garcia, Rampersad worked with Wanderer’s coach Derek King this past season for FC Santa Rosa in the second tier of the Trinidadian football pyramid (in fact, the 23 year old has spent the past 8 years at the club). Their title winning side were promoted to the first tier, so I think we can assume that this is probably Rampersad’s true level. King described a player who has the respect of his teammates due to his work rate. Hopefully this is a quality that enamors him to his Wanderers colleagues and fans, too.
See him in action below (and watch out for a last-minute winner from him, too. It’s not the prettiest goal you’ll ever see, but it’s something.)