Q & A: Stern John on losing 13- 0
The former Birmingham striker set records with Trinidad & Tobago – but now he’s in charge of the world’s worst team
Anguilla have just moved below San Marino to sit bottom of the men’s FIFA rankings. How and why did you become their manager last autumn?
Dennis Lawrence was the manager of the Trinidad & Tobago team and I was his assistant, but there were problems and he got the sack. I saw Anguilla needed a head coach, I applied, and a few weeks later I had an interview. I knew Anguilla were bottom of FIFA’S rankings, and there’d be challenges, but I’ve always started out from the bottom in my career and I wanted to see if I could make a difference. There are a lot of decent players, but they don’t play much football. It’s all about changing the culture.
How have you found the job?
It’s been great. When I came to the island, locals were asking me how I’d get players to come to training. A lot of the players work in the hotel industry or have a regular 9- to- 5 job. But they responded to the challenge: they used to get six or seven players to training, but now we have 15 or 16 at every session. I want to organise a structure – a defensive and an attacking shape.
How do you feel about the label of being the world’s worst team?
Well, the only way we can go is up. It’s something that can inspire the players – they want to get away from being the world’s worst team. It won’t happen overnight; it’s a process. The players are getting fitter. We have strength and conditioning programmes, GPS systems – stuff they’ve never had before.
How did the early games go?
I won’t lie to you: in my first match, against the Dominican Republic, we got battered. It was a new system and we lost 6- 0. Against Barbados in our second game, we were a little more organised. We held on to 0- 0 until the last 10 minutes, when they beat us on a set play. It was encouraging because that was the first time in 10 years that the players were disappointed about not getting a result.
In your final World Cup qualifier, in June, you suffered a very heavy loss against Panama...
After we played in Dominica [ ending in a 3- 0 defeat], five of our players tested positive for COVID- 19. Then we went to Panama and four more tested positive. We got battered 13- 0.
As a boss, what can you do during a game such as that?
You just look at the time and hope it goes even faster than normal! I was disappointed in the Panama coach, because they didn’t need to beat us by that much. You learn to respect your opponent, so you don’t want to humiliate them that badly. I guess he had a job to do, but I wouldn’t have done it that way. They were top of the table and had already qualified for the next round. If I was in his position, I’d have given some of the young players a chance, but he was probably under pressure, too. The guys took it to heart. It was a tough night for us.
Though the island has a population of 15,000, Anguilla has a considerable diaspora, especially in Britain. Have you used that?
We won’t bring players in just because they play in the UK – they have to be better than the players here – but we had a recruitment drive there a few months ago. We had trials and picked up a couple of good young players.
This is a very different experience to your time as a player, when your 70 goals for Trinidad & Tobago made you the all- time leading scorer for any CONCACAF nation.
Coming from a very small country like Trinidad, it was a dream to score so many. A lot of my friends in the UK and the US tell me that if I was born in a different country, I’d probably get
more recognition. But I’m happy with what I’ve done in the game, and the number of international goals I scored. To rub shoulders with guys like Pele, Ronaldo and Messi is unbelievable.
What did it mean to represent your country at the 2006 World Cup?
I don’t think it’s something you can explain. There you are: playing at a World Cup for your country, singing the national anthem. The first group game, against Sweden, was especially emotional for us. My mum went to Germany and could see me play at the World Cup before she passed away.
What are your highlights from more than a decade of playing in England?
Nottingham Forest, Birmingham and Sunderland have a special place in my heart. Forest was when I first went to the UK, under David Platt. I left MLS as a kid because I wanted to play in England, and it was like, ‘ Wow, I’m here’. And going to Birmingham was a good move for me. We managed to get promoted through the play- offs, and a lot of players never have the chance to play in the Premier League.
Which managers influenced you?
I worked under guys like Steve Bruce, Roy Keane and Micky Adams, who were very serious when it came to their jobs. My mentor in Trinidad was Anton Corneal, and his dad, Alvin Corneal. There’s also Leo Beenhakker, who took us to the World Cup. He had a different style, because he was a bit more laid- back. When he first came to Trinidad, he learned the culture of the people. That’s also my approach in Anguilla. I always tell them, “I’m here to change the culture of the football, not the culture of the people.”
What was Keane like to play for?
Amazing. I think a lot of players don’t understand Roy Keane. As a manager, he’ll do anything for you. He just wants you to go and perform on a Saturday – that’s all he’s asking. If you wanted your pillow changed at the hotel, he’d change it for you, as long as you went out and produced. One thing I learned about him is that working really hard in football is a given: you have to work your socks off. But he was a funny guy, too. I know a lot of players can’t handle him, but I had a lot of respect for him.