Wednesday, 14 March 2007

The Best Coach

Perhaps it's been the start of the cricket World Cup with its endless shots of the serene Caribbean sky, palm trees, coconuts, reggae music, calypso dancing and dark sweet rum. Maybe it's been the recent race rows that have engulfed the club these last few weeks. Whatever the reason my thoughts have been turning to Clyde Best, West Ham's very own Bermudian. I first read the following article several years ago and managed to salvage it from the original but now defunct pre-Soccernet ESPN site.

The Best coach sacked for winning

By Ian Chadband

This was the World Cup. But not as we know it. Jumpers for goalposts? Well, not quite, but we did have Portaloos for dressing rooms and a magnificently inept bunch of British Virgin Islanders masquerading as the Dog and Duck Sunday XI while being blown around and away in the gale sweeping off the Atlantic.

'What a good day to be Bermudian,' babbled the man on the public address as 2,000 of his shivering islanders, huddled for non-existent shelter in their apology for a national stadium, looked as if they might beg to differ on the sort of afternoon they don't tell you about in the tourist brochures.

'Now, here's a synopsis of the game so far...' continued our man, doubtless delighting the BVI lads who really needed to know the gory minutiae of their embarrassment. Now, 8-0 loomed as Bermuda's teenage striker Stephen Astwood rounded their keeper and prepared to walk the ball into the net.

Suddenly, though, Astwood stopped. Just before the goalline, he glanced behind him to check the coast was clear, got down on his knees and headed the ball along the ground into the net. The crowd went into hysterics about the naughtiest goal in World Cup history but, on the bench, Bermuda's general was shaking his head.

'Wait 'til I get hold of him,' growled Clyde Best. 'If I was one of their defenders, I'd want to kick him into the Atlantic after a stunt like that. Ridiculous.'

Of course, a gentleman like Best, still the same laid-back giant - if a wee bit more, er, roly-poly - who at West Ham blazed a trail for Britain's black footballers with such dash and dignity, would never have dreamed of adding insult to humiliation like this cocky kid. Yet Bermuda's most famous son has learned to acquire a keen sense of the ridiculous in his job as the island's technical director of football.

And what could be more ridiculous, he pondered, than the thought that he had just orchestrated his country's biggest-ever World Cup win - it finished 9-0 and 14-1 on aggregate - just a fortnight before he was going to get kicked out of his job without knowing what he'd done wrong. 'So I suppose I'll go down in history as the first international coach in history who got the sack for winning matches,' he mused.

He tried to laugh it off because that's his amiable way, but as he clambered out of the rain behind the wheel of the BFA minibus - nobody had told him the job description included being official team bus driver - he could not hide the weary disillusionment.

Three years ago, he and wife Alfreida had given up their cleaning business in California so he could return home as Bermuda's football saviour 'to put something back into the country which shaped me'. Now, though, he could only reflect poignantly: 'You know that Bible saying about being a prophet without honour in your own land. Now I understand.'

How did Bermuda's national sporting legend find himself caught in a tale of jealousy, intrigue and back-stabbing which, even on this elegant isle where it takes a lot to get the laid-back locals roused, has caused enough of a stir to even prompt government intervention?

Two days before Christmas, he was called in by the Bermuda FA president Neville Tyrrell and told his contract would not be renewed at the end of this month. Neither he nor the public were told why and they were astonished.

The island's daily, the Royal Gazette, demanded answers, asking why 'a man whose silky skills during his West Ham heyday did more to put this country on the map than any number of politicians' ambassadorial trips overseas' should have been treated so shabbily when he had so successfully restored the island's footballing credibility.

A source within the Bermuda FA was so disgusted with what he felt was a 'witchhunt' against Best that he leaked documents revealing how the FA's coaching committee had been making plans to replace him with a 'big-name consultant' because Best was supposedly not 'enlivening' the public.

'Yet Clyde Best's record has been great... this decision makes no sense to me or any rational thinking person,' complained the source. A national radio debate had 99 per cent of the callers agreeing with him.

Because they remembered how Best had answered Bermuda's call in 1997 when the sport was on its knees, still reeling from the scandal two years earlier when seven national team members were caught trying to smuggle drugs back into the country in the bottom of their shoes after a Pan-American Games qualifier. Sponsors had turned away in droves and the national team was effectively disbanded.

They needed a hero and there was only one - the prison warden's boy from rural Somerset on the western tip of the island, who had made them so proud when, at 17, he left for England with nothing but trepidation and a one-way ticket to Heathrow. Now the first adventurer would be coming home, having succeeded as a professional footballer from Holland to Canada to the US, but having achieved his greatest triumph as a man.

Best remembered it all as if it were yesterday. Watching grainy images of Spurs on the island's TV which fired a dream; waiting as a 12 year old for the British ships to dock so he could play against the men in the sailors' matches; getting his first cap at 15; being told Ron Greenwood wanted to see him on trial.

He remembered that Sunday in 1968. How nobody was there to meet him at Heathrow and he wished at that moment he'd never come. How he got off the Tube at West Ham, not realising he really needed Upton Park, and how some Hammers'-supporting samaritan took a lonely, confused kid and directed him to the home of Clive Charles, another black player with whom he was to lodge.

He remembered how they would scream 'nigger' at him on the terraces, but he would tell himself: 'You've got to be mentally strong. Ignore them. Carry yourself in the right manner. Show them the soccer ball doesn't care what colour you are. Give your answer by sticking one in the back of their net.'

AND he did. Forty seven times in 188 games. He was a lovely, graceful player and even if some felt he underachieved, of course he hadn't. His impact as the first black footballer to imprint himself on the national consciousness in British football's TV era could never be measured by goals alone.

'At the time, it was just a job to me,' he shrugged. 'But a couple of years ago I went to a dinner celebrating black players in England where I was introduced as 'the legend' and lads like Cyrille Regis and Luther Blissett shook my hand and told me how I'd been their inspiration. When I see black kids playing in England and think maybe I played a part in their emergence, that's my satisfaction.'

Back home, he thought he was going to be a pioneer again. Within months of his arrival, he'd organised Bermuda's first international on home soil in five years. The Premiership and US major league contacts of a man who could count on everyone from Pele to Harry Redknapp as friends opened doors.

The sponsors returned along with a talented coaching team but precious little financial back-up - the Bermuda FA used to ask him to travel to training sessions using the island's quaint public transport service - he moulded a motley crew of bankers, teachers and construction workers into a team good enough to beat Denmark's under-23s.

Yet he found his idyllic home much changed. More money-dominated, kids 'not so prepared to listen and learn', an affluent, well-travelled generation which dreamed more of basketball in the US than football in England, a generation to whom his name meant nothing.

Of course, everybody here knows Clyde now - you could glean that from the waves and smiles he received while driving the bus down every pastel-tinted avenue - and even his opponents find it hard to dislike a down-to-earth, humble figure who's never blown his own trumpet. Bermudians never get starstruck - they reckon David Bowie, who has a home here, can walk down Hamilton's Front St and nobody turns a hair - and that was fine by Clyde. 'Yet sometimes it can be a suffocating place,' he reflected.

He wondered if small-island jealousies had conspired against him. He had been voted out by a coaching committee of unpaid officials, including one woman, 'who have no concept of what's needed to produce an international football team' and Tyrrell barely ever spoke to him.

He was trying to bring professionalism but this was a day to appreciate that it's not easy in amateur hour. Before the game had even started, he seemed to be running around sorting out crises not so much as technical director but more as bus driver, nanny, housemaid, administrator and man-motivator.

One minute, a player had left behind his passport which the FIFA official wanted to see as proof he wasn't a ringer so Best had to organise someone to collect it from the hotel, the next, he was desperately scrabbling around to find a new jersey for his goalkeeper because the official was not happy about its colour.

'This stuff drives you batty,' Best muttered in the dressing room. By the time he had gone into the ritual huddle with his team for a collective recitation of the Lord's Prayer, he already felt all in. The game hadn't even started and now he was dreading the next ritual - a notoriously demanding crowd, including more than a few jealous coaches on the island who reckon they could do a better job, getting on his back.

'I tell you, I know how Kevin Keegan feels,' he sighed. 'If it were Brazil and not the Virgin Islands, this lot'd still expect us to win.' Sure enough, when the ninth goal went in, you could hear moans that it wasn't 15.

At least Bermuda's sports minister was happy. Afterwards, Dennis Lister, explaining how he grew up watching and admiring Best as a kid, conceded that 'there's a sentiment felt strongly in the community that the FA's decision needs to be reassessed'.

He was talking to both Best and the FA about working out some form of reprieve for Best, but you sensed any compromise might be too late to heal all the wounds. 'Funny, really,' pondered Best. 'In England, I'd never have been treated the way I have been by some of the football people here. We've a new government here which wants to 'Bermudianise' society, yet other Bermudians just want to kick one of their own in the pants.

'You know, this is my home and it will always be home. I've no regrets about coming back; it enabled me to spend some quality time with my dad before he died, but if I could, I'd probably go back to England tomorrow.'

For as he buttoned himself up under his baseball cap against the biting wind, perhaps there was something about this day which reminded him how, for all the racist poison he endured and ignored so manfully all those years ago, he was more appreciated in Upton Park's wintery mudbaths than he now is among the pink beaches of his paradise home. A hero deserved better.

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