Former T&T Soca Warriors coach, Canada-based Stephen Hart is set for a return at the helm of the team, as a replacement for the outgoing Angus Eve.
The 51-year-old Eve, who replaced Englishman Terry Fenwick in 2021 after this country’s failed 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign, was initially handed the reigns of the team on an interim basis by the FIFA-appointed Normalisation Committee of the T&T Football Federation (T&TFA), before the CONCACAF Gold Cup 2021 preliminary round play-offs.
The 2021 playoffs started with a match against Montserrat which T&T won 6-1 and followed that up with an 8-7 penalty-kicks triumph after a 1-1 draw with French Guiana to secure a spot in the group stage.
During the Gold Cup, T&T drew goalless with Mexico, went under to El Salvador 0-2 and drew 1-1 with Guatemala to bow out at the round-robin stage.
Eve’s term as interim head coach began at the end of August 2021 and based on the display of the Soca Warriors under his charge, compared to the poor showing under the previous coach, Englishman Terry Fenwick, the NC decided to appoint the Carenage-born former national captain on September 7, 2021, ahead of the 2022 Concacaf Nations League 2022 on a full-time basis, until March 31, 2023, initially.
At the time, Eve, T&T’s most-capped player with 117 appearances was also a competent coach at top-flight TT football and at the youth level with Naparima College and Club Sando.
During his time in charge, Eve enjoyed a record of 12 wins, nine draws, and seven defeats, the last of which was a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of host and defending Concacaf Gold Cup champions USA at the Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, Carolina on Sunday night, that ended T&T’s chances of reaching the quarterfinals for the fourth time, and the first since 2015 when Hart was at the helm.
Ironically, Hart also led the team to the last eight in 2013 while T&T placed third with Bertille St Clair after a 1-0 loss to eventual champions Canada in the semifinals.
With the loss on Sunday night, which followed a 4-1 defeat against Jamaica last Wednesday, the Soca Warriors ended third in Group A with three points, after their 3-0 win against St Kitts/Nevis in their opener, while USA and Jamaica both advanced to the knockout stage.
Among Eve’s wins, was a 9-0 triumph over Barbados and a 1-0 triumph away to Jamaica earlier this year in Jamaica, while his team also played to a 0-0 draw with Jamaica in March and with powerhouse Mexico to open their 2021 Gold Cup campaign.
However, his impressive stint as coach was stained by the last two Gold Cup defeats, along with a 5-0 loss away to Bolivia, and similar 2-1 defeats against Tajikistan, Nicaragua, and Thailand.
Coincidentally, the Soca Warriors' entry into the Gold Cup came after an initial 2-1 loss to Nicaragua in June last year, which was overturned to a 3-0 win for Nicaragua's use of an ineligible player.
According to a source close to the TTFA, despite the vast improvement of the team under Eve, the national coach does not have the full backing of the T&TFA officials, who are in favour of a return of Hart, who was previously head coach from 2013 to 2016 before he was sacked by the then T&TFA President, now deceased, David John-Williams.
The source added that Hart, who was replaced by Belgian Tom Saintfiet, who lasted just over a month in charge, was first contacted in February, but the former St Benedict's College man told the T&TFFA he prefered to wait until the position was vacant before starting discussions over a return to the top job of the national team.
Back then Hart was sacked on November 24, 2016, after a 3-1 loss away to Honduras in the Hexagonal Concacaf Final Round 2018 World Cup qualifiers which followed a 2-0 loss at home to Costa Rica, and a loss in extra-time to Martinique 2–0 in the Caribbean Cup.
Among the members of Hart’s staff at the time were assistant coaches Hutson “Barber” Charles, Derek King, and goalkeeper coach Michael “Brow” Maurice, which, along with Hart, led the national team to a record of 16 wins, 12 draws, and 15 defeats in 43 matches, reaching the Gold Cup quarterfinals in 2013 and 2015.
As coach of the Canada national team, on an interim and full-time basis, Hart enjoyed a record of 20 wins, ten draws, and 15 defeats in 45 matches combined.
Off the field, Hart won a court battle with the T&TFA for wrongful dismissal by the John-William-led administration and was awarded TT $5 million, after the latter failed to defend the matter.
The decision to fire Hart came after a meeting between John-Williams, technical committee chairman and former T&T Pro League Chief Executive Officer and national midfielder Dexter Skeene, deceased technical director Muhammad Isa, Eastern Counties Football Union representative Sherwyn Dyer and vice-president Allan Warner.
Hart enjoyed a sabbatical from coaching duties before returning to his adopted homeland of Canada as coach of the HFX Wanderers on June 28, 2018, for the Canadian Premier League season, but at the end of the 2022 season, Wanderers and the San Fernando-born Hart parted ways.
During his time at Wanderers, Hart was in 2020, named the Canadian Premier League ‘Coach of the Year’ after leading Halifax to an appearance in the league final during The Island Games.
During that competition, Wanderers turned heads by finishing second in the league in both the first round and four-team group stage, falling narrowly to Forge FC in a hard-fought final.
Hart also led the team through a solid 2021 season that saw them fall just barely short of the playoffs, in a year where star forward João Morelli won the league’s Golden Boot and Player of the Year award.
In 2022, HFX finished seventh in the CPL with 29 points, posting a record of eight wins, five draws, and 15 defeats.
According to the source, the decision to appoint Hart is a possibility, while Kenwyne Jones, a former national men’s team captain, and senior women’s coach is expected to be a member of his technical staff.
Guardian Media also learned that Jones recently turned down the Women's coaching job to join Hart.
According to the source, “Angus (Eve) was a possible target for the job as coach for the national women’s team, but he is now expected to return to duties with T&T Premier Football League club, Tiger Tanks Club Sando”.
With no international FIFA dates between now and the start of the 2023/2024 Concacaf Nations League, once confirmed in the job, Hart's first assignments will be League A action against Group A opponents, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Martinique, and Curaçao while Group B comprises Haiti, Jamaica, Honduras, Cuba, Suriname, and Grenada.
For Group Stage play, the 12 lowest ranked League A national teams were drawn into two groups of six teams each and will play in a “Swiss style” league system. In total, each team will play four games (two at home and two away). The groups are as follows:
After Group Stage play, in the FIFA Match Windows of September and October 2023, each group’s first and second-place finishers will advance to the CNL Quarterfinals, where they will join the four top-ranked League A national teams.
The quarterfinal round will be played in a home-and-away format in the FIFA Match Window of November 2023, with the aggregate score winners in each Quarterfinal matchup advancing to the 2024 CNL Finals and qualifying for the 2024 Conmebol Copa America.
The four seeded nations in the Quarterfinals are (in alphabetical order): Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, and the USA.
The pairing for the quarterfinals will be determined based on the Concacaf Rankings of October 2023 (after the FIFA Window) and the 2023/24 CNL Group Stage results.
Quarterfinal 1: Fourth-ranked seeded team vs Best first place (1A/1B)
Quarterfinal 2: Third-ranked seeded team vs Next first place (1A/1B)
Quarterfinal 3: Second-ranked seeded team vs Best second place (2A/2B)
Quarterfinal 4: Best-ranked seeded team vs Next second place (2A/2B)
The remaining two Concacaf nations that will participate in the 2024 Conmebol Copa America will be determined via a single-match direct elimination Play-In between the four League A losing Quarterfinalists. This Play-In will also take place in March 2024.