After honing his football coaching skills in Canada for a number of years, his last assignment as that country's national men's senior team coach, 54-year-old Stephen Hart has been in the unenviable role as T&T's Soca Warriors' newest national coach. It's a position he had longed for when he started thinking about plans to return to the land of his birth.Early years before, he headed off to Canada to further his studies in his late teens and to hopefully continue playing the sport he so loved.When the T&T Football Federation (TTFA) expressed an interest in his services in 2013, a position he keenly coveted, Hart jumped at the opportunity. Today, he is at the helm of a group of senior players, many of whom ply their skills around the world in various teams and leagues all with different styles of playing the game. Therein lies the unenviable challenge of coach Hart, that of bringing together as many as 20 selected players recently chosen to represent the T&T Soca Warriors.
Although San Fernando is where his roots lie, Hart also spent time in Tobago where his parents moved to when he was 17. Among his relatives are cousins Gregory and Richard "Dickie" Hart, who both cycled for T&T, as well as masman, uncle Edmond Hart. He is an avid Panorama fan and a keen supporter of the Fonclaire steelband. His first assignment came in July 2013 when he became the second coach, after Bertille St Clair, to take the Warriors into the knockout stage of the Gold Cup competition.Hart grew up in the era of late St Benedict's College principal Dom Basil Matthews and with people like Leroy De Leon, Warren Archibald, Steve David, Bobby Sookram, Wilfred Cave and Jan Steadman as some of his local heroes. He played for the under-14 junior and senior teams.
After Matthews retired, the college withdrew from the schools' competition to focus on its academics instead of football. At the age of 15, young Hart joined the popular Juniors and Hurricanes teams and played alongside Leroy Spann, Peter Mitchell, Bert Neptune and Michael Maurice in the Southern Football Association. He then played with Texaco before heading off to Halifax, Canada, to pursue studies in marine geography."I always liked the sea and thought I would one day return to Trinidad and do environmental resource management. In fact, in 1986 I applied for a job hoping to become involved in coral reef management and helping in the preservation of marine life, but that didn't pan out," he said.Hart's first coaching gig came in 1989 at semi-professional team Halifax King of Donair as player/coach. Ten years later, his career really took off when he was hired as a coach for Nova Scotia, an ice hockey country and province, taking the participation in soccer to an unprecedented level there."There were 3,000 players in the province when I started, and there were 30,000 when I left," Hart said.T&T's latest round of matches are currently taking place in the 2014 Caribbean Cup semi-final qualifying, and coach Hart has high hopes that his Soca Warrior charges will put their best feet forward as he strives to put T&T on the world football stage once again.
Q: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
A: Born in San Fernando, grew up in Marabella and La Romaine.
What schools/institutions did you attend?
San Fernando Boys' Government School, same school as Michael Maurice and Bert Neptune; St Benedicts College; St Mary's University Halifax graduate 1985.
What teams did you play for?
T&T First Division: San Fernando Hurricanes 1975-79; Texaco FC 1979-80; San Fernando Strikers 1982; T&T Premier League; Halifax Privateers 1981; Americas 1988-89; King of Donair 1983-1998; and T&T National team, where I was selected under Alvin Corneal in 1980 but departed soon after for university.
When and how did you get into coaching?
Just wanted to help youngsters enjoy the game, so I volunteered with children under 12 while still at university.
Who are the people who influenced and inspired you the most, in your career and in life in general?
So many touched your life in a special way as you grow: some encourage, some develop, some educate. It's hard to single out individuals. Obviously my family, father and mother, whom were always supportive but never interfered. My youth and senior coach Ken Headley, who was a deep thinker of the game and encouraged me to do the same, and many of my teammates, both locally and abroad. A gentleman who gave
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me my first real coaching job, George Athanasiou, he took a chance on me.
Coaching has taken you to many countries. As a coach, which countries have you been to?
Wow! I have been to over 50 countries and I always go to football. However, in studying football and coaching, I have been to Spain, France, Netherlands, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Portugal.
Who was your hero growing up and why? Your favourite footballers?
Locally, Leroy DeLeon, Peter Mitchell, Leroy Spann, Leon Carpette, Bert Neptune, Steve Khan. All had something different to observe and learn from. Not to mention they were entertaining.
Internationally, Pele, Beckenbauer, Overath, Cruyff and Maradona
What are some of your coaching achievements?
Taking Canada to a Gold Cup semi final (2007) and quarter final (2009). I lead Halifax King of Donair as a player/coach, and coach to four consecutive league titles and six cups. However, for me, that was not important. The young players who played under me and went on to represent their country and play professionally are way more important achievements. There were many and I was not the only influence, just happy to have contributed.
What is your coaching schedule for the next year, and what are your plans for the future?
My schedule is largely dependent upon the funding of the T&T football programme. At present, I cannot answer that question with any certainty. However, the CFU Tournaments of October and November are a priority. I will also assist if required with the Under-17 and Under-20 teams.
What is a typical practice like?
It depends...unlike a club, the national teams have limited preparation time, usually four days. Recovery and rest have to be measured. Physically, we keep the players sharp with speed and power exercises incorporating the ball.
Our training is usually very specific and tactical in nature, outside of the physical element. We also work very hard at creating working relationships between the playing lines.
What is your coaching philosophy?
I always get scared at the word coaching philosophy. The TEAM is the most important factor, no one person is more or less important. Play for each other, bring your quality to the game, be dynamic, and play for the result. I want us to control the tempo of the game when we are in possession. Situational awareness is important for this. We should recognise when we need to build versus counter. When we are not in possession, try to also exert control by forcing our opponent to play uncomfortably. If we don't have this balance in how we play, we will be weakened as a team.
What are some of the things that need improving in T&T's football?
Believe me, I do not have all the answers, we have some excellent minds here. Player development needs consistency and continuity across the board. It must be measurable and subject to evaluation without being seen as criticism.
Coaching development and education are two different things. It cannot be general, we need to identify the strengths of our coaches and place them where they can contribute and have the most impact. There are no secrets...compete on the field, work together off it. We need to work together to make an overall better product. By this, I mean both players and the game...administrators, managers, coaches, players, schools, clubs, referees, grounds men, media. Everybody working for the good...the betterment of the game.
I have not even touched on the other potential economic spin-offs of an efficient product. A better product with continuous development and progression means we all keep working within the game.
Do you foresee T&T making it to the World Cup again as we did in 2006?
Why not? But it needs careful planning and nurturing with realistic timelines. We have the talent. If we say right "Project 2022" and develop a macro/micro plan, with consistent financial support and varied international exposure, it is very possible.
What advice would you give to the young people of T&T?
Education comes in many forms, especially today, understand that learning has no roof. Develop yourself daily and pursue your dreams with dynamic enthusiasm and passion.
Of all your accolades, prizes and awards which do you rate as extremely special?
Nothing material! Coming from T&T and making it in a foreign country as a coach and technical director of Canada. This is a bit ironic, I recently had a young man who played for me, a quality player, now a doctor, contact me and said, "I always wanted to thank you for the influence you had in my life, especially those times when I wanted to quit medical school."
What goals and or ambitions do you still have?
To remain in football and coaching as long as possible. I would love to have a real positive impact on T&T football. Qualifying for the World Cup once again is the goal, pun intended.
What motto do you live by, and what is your recipe for success?
Simplicity is genius. Be compassionate with people but hard on problems.
Describe yourself in two words, one beginning with S, the other with H...your initials?
Simple and happy!