Updated: Jul 8, 2020
by Stern John, Trinidad and Tobago's all-time leading goalscorer
There are certain times of the year you always think about playing with the Trinidad and Tobago Team. And these moments are reflected on based on certain matches and what it brought to us as players and the country on the whole.
One of the greatest memories I have playing at the Hasely Crawford Stadium is against Mexico. It's something you dream of as a kid, wanting to play professional football, wanting to play in a World Cup and then hey the dream came true . It was a great feeling. Against Mexico it was maybe one of the first times we were so focused as a team I think collectively as a team we knew we could get there. We just needed to get it right. I think the win in Panama set us up nicely for the Mexico outing. We came back home and we just knew we had to leave it all out on the pitch and get the result. From the get go we went at it. We got a penalty and the ‘keeper saved my penalty.I tried to put it just to his left but he guessed right and got his body behind it. There was not even a chance of a rebound. I couldn’t let that get to me and I just had to pick myself and go. I was shocked but of course at the time itself, in a split second you have to decide what’s next. The stadium was packed out and I knew people were looking for something to happen. We had started so well and yea I was thinking I’ve let the country down. But this was no time to go into a shell. I think my experience of playing over the years and playing at a high level helped me. The result in Panama and the fact we were doing well meant my confidence was on a high as well. So it was like ‘hey, forget this and just keep playing.” The pressure heading into the game was immense but we had to deal with it right in those moments.
We went 1-0 down with a blinder from the Mexican on the far side and now you’re thinking okay this can’t get any worse now can’t it. But the script was far from over. Fortunately we came back and what a comeback it was. I still get goosebumps when I'm on the field at the Hasely Crawford Stadium sometimes and I have flashbacks about the game.
Aurtis Whitley took it to them, driving towards goal and his shot came off the post and I was in motion running towards the goal. The ball came in my direction and I was able to control the rebound. It happened perfectly because the goalkeeper was still within the goal. I remember having a similar chance in the match against Guatemala but the ball bundled over and went out. All I could remember thinking was yes Sterny you got them this time but still a lot of football to play. After that we came out and it was the best second half of football I’d ever seen in my life and to be part of, especially by a Trinidad and Tobago team. I remember in the dressing room at half time there wasn’t much more being said other than just knowing what we had to come out and do in the second half.
Stern John in action during a 2010 World Cup qualifier versus the United States. I was able to score a blinder. What a fantastic finish if I could say so myself. One of those finishes you would never forget throughout your entire career. I remember it like yesterday. On the left side Latapy played one into Aurtis coming into the centre of the pitch. He tried to play one into me first time which was blocked out by the defender. Then he went with a tackle to try and win the ball back. It was a collision with him and the Mexican player and the ball ricocheted to me. At the time I was just thinking I needed an opportunity to make amends for the penalty the ‘keeper saved in the first half. I remember taking the ball on the inside of the foot. I got a sweet bounce and it was set up perfectly for me on my left foot. And I just smashed it into the back of the net. The feeling was amazing. I think the whole atmosphere in the stadium was amazing. The fans went mad. I remember running to the side of the pitch celebrating with my arms pumping. The Ex-Minister of Sport was on the sidelines and he was the first one to give me a high five. It was chaos at the time. There was still some time left in the game and I remember us saying to each other that we couldn’t let this slip. I think we got even better as the game progressed. We had a couple more great chances to score again. The game was really electric. We know we needed to win to get to the playoffs and once we did that we knew we could be just a couple steps away from qualifying for the World Cup. Our journey was continuing and we had to stay the course.
The Beenhakker Influence
For me Leo Beenhakker was one of the greatest managers I’ve ever played with. Some of the fans used to say he was my dad. He was relaxed at half time in that match. I mean, this is an international manager we’re speaking about who had coached some of the biggest teams in the world and some of the biggest players like Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and others. We came out of the blocks quickly in the second half and the fans were amazing. They were the 12th man in a big way that night.
Leo Beenhakker addressing the Trinidad and Tobago squad during a training session in Germany. As a striker you play on confidence. Most strikers are confident people. You always want to score goals and when you are not scoring it can get to you, it plays on your mind especially when the fans are on your back. That’s part of the game and that’s what you signed up for. You just need to keep your head down. I think as a striker you are going to miss more chances than you score. The important thing is to keep playing and staying focused. I told myself during the drought, hey don’t panic. Just keep doing what you know and it’s going to come. I know I am a natural goalscorer. I can score goals. Sometimes all you need is that one break, a ball ricochets and goes into the net and then you start banging them in. For young strikers you just have to keep doing things the right way and work hard. Don’t try to change it up too much. Of course you can try to improve your skill. I had a coach in Leo who was very supportive of me. He kept saying he believed in me and he kept urging me to keep at it. And when you score, celebrate and tell them what you have to tell them. Even my teammates around kept supporting me in the dressing room as they knew what I was capable of.Of course people give you a lot of stick and maybe I thought it was unfair at times but that’s part of the game. The fans pay their money. I think they were accustomed seeing me scoring goals and when they were seeing me not putting it in they had all the reason to ask ‘aye what’s going on with Stern.” My teammates and the staff kept supporting me throughout and I’ll never forget that part of what we’d been through.
Now that I am a manager or a coach I am looking at the game differently. I have tried to parcel my experiences to pass it on. I am a very passionate player and I’m bringing that into the coaching now. After my first two years I’m adjusting my approach now because it takes understanding the environment and the dressing room a lot more. The culture in Trinidad and Tobago is a bit different. You need to put your hands around some of the players and then some of them need a good extra push to get them going. There needs to be a balance because we’ve got to be careful also. I try to pass on my experiences of playing in the UK and in the MLS to the players now. Some of our players now never had a solid base so we have to got to start from scratch with them. As a coach in Trinidad we have to be a bit more patient. You don’t want to have too much of a strong go with some players and then you end up losing them and there are others you need to give a little extra in order to get a reaction from them. I enjoy coaching and I love doing it. I never thought I would enjoy it this much. When I stopped playing I stayed away from the game for a few years because I wasn’t sure. But then I said I could do this. I think just being in Trinidad and not giving back to the game was being a bit selfish. I tried doing other businesses and I just wasn’t enjoying it. I want to play my part and I enjoy the experience of trying to help create better players and giving them an opportunity to become better and go on to play at a higher level and represent the country. I can get up at any time in the morning to go to a training session. David Platt, Steve Bruce and Roy Keane Platty had a massive role in me going to the UK. He came to Columbus Crew and saw me. Actually he hijacked the deal because I was on my way to Watford. The deceased Graham Taylor was interested in me in a big way. I knew David came to Ohio and took me to Nottingham Forest. A lot of people didn’t know that I signed for Bayer Leverkusen. They were actually paying my salary to stay in the MLS and when my contract was over I was going to head to Germany. I had already signed the dotted line. Then Platty came in and met me in New York. It was then between Watford, Forest and Leverkusen. I went to Nottingham Forest which was a breach of contract because I had already signed with Leverkusen. The money they were paying for me for the last six or seven months we had to pay it back. Forest had to end up paying it back. I still have my Leverkusen jersey at home. My close friends asked me why I never went to Leverkusen but I had grown up watching English football every weekend. And of course a lot of the guys were in England like Yorkie and Shaka. Not that it wouldn’t haven been enjoyable in Germany but I just felt it was a better and more convenient fit at the time to go to England. It was the place to be and I have no regrets to this day.
When I first met David Platt I was starstruck. Wow this is David Platt. I was accustomed seeing him play for Sampdoria, seeing him play for Arsenal and scoring against Belgium in the 1990 World Cup. I signed the deal and when I got to Forest in November he picked me up personally in his big Mercedes and drove me to the hotel. He looked after me from day one and he was always like a mentor to me. We used to do a lot of extra stuff on the training ground. Even the bicycle goal he scored against Belgium is something he used to practice from what he told me. I was fortunate to play alongside him coming down to the end of his career because he was a player manager at Forest.
He always would say to me that when he played in Italy he would observe the players doing extra work after practice. He used to say this is something I want you to learn and get accustom to doing extra work and it is something I actually picked up from then, going out there and just doing the little extras to try and get better at it. Personally I wasn’t the quickest so my technical ability had to get better. And he made me a better player technically at that stage of my career. I remember after training, he would use the belly of the net, put the ball on it and bicycle it out from that spot. It was amazing just working with him on the training pitch. Going to a club like Nottingham Forest was massive. They were a big club winning the European Cup and having a lot of history. Ian Wright also played at Forest and of course he was one of the big strikers who was black and doing really big things.
I scored on my debut and Dwight and Shaka came down to the game and I was really buzzing. These guys are two legends who are playing in the Premiership and the fans were going crazy to see them there. There is no better feeling than to score on your debut at a new club. The pressure is so high playing in the UK, you have to keep producing and taking the opportunity when it comes because the competition for spots was also so intense. You couldn't be caught sleeping or straying for a second or else you could find yourself in the stands for weeks. Then tragedy struck with the injury. It was the most difficult time of my career doing my cruciate ligament. I had injuries before but this was by far the most serious. It was really bad keeping me out for six to eight months. I was finally on a big stage playing for Forest and then this happens. It was maybe the most difficult time of my life at that point. Luckily I didn’t have to do surgery and just had to do rehab for six months. But it was intense and I had rehab three times a day. It was a lot of work just to get me to be back on the training pitch. I remember going to Belgium to see a knee specialist and when I walked into the office I got to meet Gabriel Batistuta, an even bigger legend. He had a similar injury and was being treated at the time. Platty also gave me the chance to come to the US to be with the Gold Cup team in 2000. It was just to be part of the team and support the boys. After a while you get frustrated doing all this rehab. He used to call me Juice. So he said ‘Juice go and be with the boys and get some time away. Take a week and relax. They gave me a programme do to while I was away.
It set me back because when you have those type of injuries it takes you a while to come back and you don’t feel like yourself even when you are back to fitness. I think it did cost me something. It cost me the chance to move to a bigger Premiership club from Forest. But I had to make my mind up to work my socks off to get back into the game. I had two major cruciate ligament and cartilage injuries during my career. Maybe now I can motivate other players who have a down time like I did. I was asking why this happened to me. But I got an opportunity play in England and I wasn’t going to let that be taken away from me. This is where I wanted to be at the time, playing in England. I didn’t want to think about going back to Trinidad or the US. Steve Bruce and Roy Keane came from that Man United culture and that environment where every single time you go out to train you have to put in heavy work. There was no letting up. You have to put it all in on the training field and then take it into the game. Brucey was a good manager. I had some big moments under him, taking Birmingham to the playoffs and then moving up to the Premiership. Getting to the playoff finals was something the club was preparing for for number of years and then getting there and winning on penalties made it even more incredible. I remember scoring that goal in the last minute against Aston Villa to equalise in the Premiership. That’s the big derby and up to this day when I walk the streets in Birmingham whenever I am there the fans would sing “Stern in the last minute… in the last minute !!!” They always talk about it. That one goal gives you legendary status at a club.
Roy Keane the former Manchester United captain and Stern's manager at Sunderland and Ipswich Town
Roy Keane was top man. He gives you everything to get the job done. I remember if we went to a hotel for an away game and the player wasn’t happy with a bed, he would get it sorted because he would say I would do what I need to for you as a player now just go and me results on the pitch. Again, he is from the culture where they know what it takes to win. He used to join in the boxes to play with us and he demonstrated top skill and technical ability. He would be driving the ball into me to control in the box. I remember staying back with him and Yorkie sometimes and he would just be firing balls into me. He was so passionate and maybe over the top at times but he was all about the game. Like younger players had to put that work in. If a younger player was mouthing off a senior player in training he would never have it. He would tell the senior player to send him in. And he would fine him as well. You always had to have respect around him. He is a manager I will never forget. He signed me twice actually. I remember when I had to leave Sunderland to go Southampton he called me into this office and he was honest about it. He said I can’t promise you are going to play every week. He said you’re going to play but I can’t promise you’re going to start. If you want you can stay and fight for your place but I have an option for you to go and get first team football . I respect him for that. Some managers would maybe run you around for the season. I went to Southampton and Kenwyne came to Sunderland. I shook Roy’s hands and he was honest with me.
Stern and Dwight Yorke at Sunderland
Playing with Dwight and Russell I was always confident. Russell and Dwight were two of the bigger names in the team but I was banging in the goals in the net. I never felt threatened by them or being in their shadows. The team was playing for me because I was the striker. Those guys were also very encouraging. They weren’t coming to the Trinidad and Tobago team to be big players. They were already big players and didn’t need to come in and prove themselves. Even our teammates knew their role and functions and that is what was so special about our team. Okay, we were the three main guys in the team and the ones who most people spoke about in the country. But we were all about doing what was necessary in the interest of Trinidad and Tobago football.
I learnt a lot from Dwight and I believe he was one of the best players in the world at one time and definitely the biggest players to come out of Trinidad and Tobago. We never had a striker scoring goals at such a high level in the Premiership and the Champions League. That’s not going to change. I think a lot of people didn’t realise how good he was. His ability to get the ball into the goal and hold the ball up is second to
none. It’s something that you can’t teach. It’s either you are born with it or you don’t have it. You can work on certain things but you have to be born with a certain ability. I remember sometimes Leo would be frustrated in sessions because there were times we three would decide we were just going to use our left foot. My left foot developed more during this time. Up to now people think I am a left footer but I'm not.
Even up to this day I probably strike the ball better with my left foot and you can see Russell, wow, what a left foot he has and Dwight could pipe it with his left as well. The Bertille St Clair era
I have to give Bertille St Clair so much credit. I think most of my goals playing for Trinidad and Tobago was under him. I remember when I was younger he brought his BMW down from Tobago and I wanted extra finishing sessions I said ‘ coach you know what I will wash your car for you just to get some extra finishing.” He would say alright he didn’t like anything better. He would train whole day. I know he’s passionate about the game. There were some things he wouldn’t stand for because he was old school which people have to understand. He was an old school manager and they have to respect that. If you understand him and what he was trying to do then you would realise hey he is just trying to teach us the right way and have certain principles. He would always say man must have reasoning. He was a philosopher but he also taught us a lot. He taught me a lot on the pitch and also off it. It was harsh they way he treated a bit but that’s football. I’m not going to get too deep into it but he is one of the coaches who has done really well for Trinidad and Tobago football. I’ve spent a lot of time putting my thoughts together to try and give you a bit to take in. There’s a lot more to write or speak about. I’ll leave here things for now and come back with another column for the site at another time. Thanks for reading. Remember to always say true to yourself, keep supporting our football because we all want to see us rise again.
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent” - Calvin Coolidge