Graeme Rodriguez"I had a difficult relationship with Trinidad football"

By Veersen Bhoolai - May 2005

The following interview was conducted with Graeme Rodrigeuz for a Fatima College publication in 2005.

Graeme Rodriguez never really had a choice.

 He was destined to be a sportsman.

His father William Rodriguez was one of the finest all-round sportsmen TT ever produced. To this day Willie is the only man to have represented the West Indies in both cricket and football. However, along with the family genes would come a certain amount of “pressure,” due to his “perceived social background,” i.e., a white boy coming from a well to do bourgeoise family.

As a youngster and even with his playing days on the TT national team, he was criticized by the public and players alike as achieving success due to his social standing rather than on merit.

 

                            The infamous North Zone Final of ‘79

Rodriguez was part of a historic Fatima College team in 1979 that won the national Intercol title. However, it was the infamous North Zone Final vs. John Donaldson Technical Institute that will be forever remembered. Today – 26 odd years later, it is still discussed. The final had to be played three times before a clear winner could be found Fatima finally won the final game 2-0. However, it’s a result that to this day rankles John D players and supporters.

Fatima had lost the first game 2-1. However, the school’s Principal, the astute Clive Pantin, noticed that the first half had been overplayed by 10 minutes. A protest was made to the then College’s Football League. The Referee was banned and a replay was ordered.

“Some people were very angry because they thought John D had won, “explains Rodriguez. “…But it was the CFL’s decision. People said we only got the replay because we were a prestige school.”

However, as Pantin puts it, “We wanted to play under normal conditions. The Referee himself had admitted that he had lost control of the game. As it happens we turned out to be winners."

Rodriguez recounts, “The replay was at CIC’s ground and thousands of people showed up. There were too many people. There were people all around the ground and thousands more in the road.” He estimates that there were approximately 15 thousand people there.

“It was a bit intimidating because a lot of people were threatening us. However, we stuck together and we weren’t worried. I had the best College’s defender ever behind me – Garnet Craig. We played with three defenders and Garnet was like two.”

He admits that even though the atmosphere was intense, “it was more talk – picong – and we were friends at the end of game. I remember when I went to take a throw, people pelting used oranges at me. But we were used to it, we played like this all over TT, San Fernando, Chaguanas …”

In addition to the crowd pressure, Fatima had to contend with a star-studded John D outfit. “It was a tremendous team,” says Rodriguez. Peru Anderson, John Castillano, Errol Lovell and Curtis Riley. Clayton Morris, he was a little fella. Garfield DaSilva, he was a great, great player. Brian Haynes went on to play with Dallas in the NASL.

Today, Peru Anderson, is a very good friend of mine. I respect him because of the contributions he has made to football. Cumberbatch, is a tremendous friend of mine. He used to kick me up every opportunity he got when I was on the ball but we are good friends now.”

However, the Fatima team were a talented and tough bunch and they were determined to make use of a second bite at the Intercol cherry.

"The next day after the game, we heard there might be a replay. We had been underdogs in the first game, but we felt we could've played better. When we got the second opportunity we thought it was a great chance for us and John D were confident because they had the better players.

"We knew we had gotten a second opportunity so we weren't worried. John D had the stars, but we had some good players too, Kenwyn Nancoo; Anton Corneal; Craig; Lester Joseph, Gregory Govia and Brian Netto." And of course Rodriguez himself.

"We were very mature and disciplined for our age. We embraced the second chance, it was like a God send. John D had the reputation, however, we had a strong team spirit. We have to thank our Coach Kenny Roberts for that. He was an inspirational motivator. He was telling us we would beat John D for two reasons: (i) we were better looking fellas and (ii) we were more intelligent. Yes he was saying it tongue in cheek but he had confidence in us as a team. Alvin Corneal was our secondary support and he was a tremendous presence to have in the dressing room. And of course the Leader of all Leaders Mr. Clive Pantin; he had us proud to represent the team.

"We were leading 3-1 with about 10 minutes to go (thanks to a double by Anton Corneal and another by Rodriguez) and we thought we'd win easily. At that age we were cocky and Brigand (Gonsalves, the John D Coach) had his team raring to go.

"The game ended 3-3. John D equalized at the last minute. The crowd was so happy,  they thought it was justice because of what had happened in the first game. It helped Fatima too, because we would have got some good tap up if we had won."

Rodriguez says "by the time the third game came around, I believe John D were a little fed up. They couldn't do anything but lose and we couldn't do anything but win. We had been the underdogs in the first two games and we had something to prove. In the third game we were better and we won 2-0," in front of an estimated twenty thousand spectators.

In the national Intercol Final vs. St. Augustine at the Oval, Fatima edged the Eastern Champs 2-1. Tony Gray, a future WI pace bowler and the national Youth 'Keeper, would be in the uprights for St. Augustine. Rodriguez himself scored the winner late in the second half. "Scoring the winning goal in the national Intercol Final  the feeling was indescribable. They (the public) always wanted us to get beaten, which is what I love when we win." To this day Fatima has never won another national Intercol title.

 

                           A season of stress, pressure and intimidation

 

However, the entire season had been one of stress, pressure and intimidation for the national Champs. They took on the lightly regarded Barataria in their first Intercol encounter. "They weren't as experienced as us and after 15 minutes we were leading 3-0. However, they had a very skillful player, Maurice Alibey, (a future Strike Squad member) on the team. We had to hold on for dear life and won 3-2.

 

"We then played Mucurapo. They were confident because we had looked vulnerable against Barataria. We beat them 4-0."

 

Although the atmosphere vs. John D had been one of intimidation, Rodriguez says this had been going on throughout the season because of Fatima’s reputation as a prestige school. "I remember Anton Corneal and I had been training with the national team in 1979, so we were well known. We went to play a game down in Chaguanas, a man came up to us with a cutlass and asked, 'Who is Rodriguez and Corneal?’ It was intimidation but he was the nicest guy afterwards. Everywhere we went they threatened us but after the game they were very nice, which is what I love about TT. Some of my best friends are the people who gave me pressure."

 

                                               From St. Mary’s to Fatima

Although a Fatima boy, Graeme had actually gone to St. Mary’s before and only switched over to do Accounting in Form VI. However, he considers himself a Saints and Fatima Old Boy. “Both have very fond memories for me but Fatima is very special to me. Most of my friends were Fatima boys even while I was at Saint Mary’s. The Intercol success at Fatima and the support I received from the school starting with Mr. Pantin, I will cherish always.”

He admits however, that his worst Fatima memory was his first day at school. “The Fatima guys there not my prior friends. They made very harsh and derogatory comments that were surprising to both Geoffrey Lake and me. Most of the hecklers were in the Upper VI, Geoff and I were in Lower VI. However, in the end it worked out as these guys became our biggest supporters.”

How about playing against St. Mary’s for the first time? “It was very difficult but surprising rewarding. The support I received in Fatima from the players, Coaches  and school was unbelievable. In St. Mary’s the support had been different, maybe because I was the youngest and not established in  the First II as yet.

“I remember running out and being booed by many of my friends and ex classmates which I expected but we knew Fatima had a better team. Both Geoff Lake and I suffered the wrath of our ex schoolmates. I think the hardest part was playing against my brother Christian, a senior player on the CIC team. The game ended 1-1, although we played better and to this day, I know we scored the winner. I was right on the line and the Goalkeeper, Arnold Corneal pulled it back about a foot behind the line. Arnold was also getting some pressure as he had played the previous year with Fatima. The linesman was one of my teammates from the CIC team from the year before, however, he was then a teacher but I guess he didn’t see it.”

The following year was an anticlimactic one for Rodriguez. Injured, he had to watch Fatima go down 1-0 to Trinity in the North Zone Intercol Semis. However, they did play in the League undefeated.

Granted a scholarship to Erskine College in 1981, he was All American, All Star and All District for three years. He points out that in those days in the NAIA, there were no age restrictions. “So you found yourself as an 18-year-old playing against 28 and 30 year olds from Nigeria.”

 

                                 Discomfort but no sour grapes

Back in TT in 1985, he was offered a try out with the National Team. There was a rumour going around that he played in a trial and was never passed a ball because he “was a white boy.”

It was obvious that Graeme did not want to discuss the issue of colour. “I will say this, I never felt comfortable trying to represent TT. I had a difficult time with Trinidad football. It had nothing to do with the players or Coaches. You have to understand the circumstances at the time. I was first drafted into the national team in 1980 (because of his Intercol exploits). There was a lot of lobbying in South Africa because of the Apartheid System and white people were victimizing black people.”

However, he believes that the insularity was based on his “perceived social background.” He added that a lot of the players came from lower income families. “The looked upon  you as someone who already had something and now you were here to take (this) away from them.

“Look at Dexter Skeene. He wasn’t white, it had to do with prestige. He was from Valsayn and went to CIC and Columbia University. He was ostracized but he had great games.”

Five years later when recalled to the national trials, “I felt alienated in the dressing room. People were unfriendly. They didn’t reach out to you at all. There was never any talk about colour. But nobody knew me. I think it may be because I had come from America. The US was considered a shit side but we (TT) had never beaten them.

“However, Coaches and administrators continued to encourage me. I represented TT three time, against Harts (Scotland), Arsenal (which TT lost 3-0) and vs. a Tobago II.”

Rodriguez was recalled to the National Team in 1985 due to his exploits with POS club, Malvern. “I was asked to play for Malvern and that was an experience in itself.”. His old Fatima teammates, Brian Netto and Jeffery Lake insisted that he should play. Malvern was last in the League and they thought he could help out. “Jeffery left the team because they weren’t doing well and Brian also left because he had his Dental studies. However, when I start something, I like to see it through to the finish, that’s the way I am. We played hard football and it was a tough season. I don’t know how but I called for the national trials. I was playing for a team that was last in the League. But I guess they saw some potential in me.”

He pointed out that the National Team consisted of two main groups, players from Trintoc (now United Petrotrin) and the Defence Force. Thus those outside the clique would have felt some distance. “Do you know 18 men were selected, nine from Defence Force and seven from Trintoc, me and some other fella. I can’t even remember who he was.”

It’s important to note that former Strike Squad Captain, Clayton Morris, pointed out that both Dexter Skeene (ex CIC) and Anton Corneal (ex Fatima), were both ostracize a bit by these two groups during the Strike Squad’s training days. This was highlighted in his book, Trinidad & Tobago’s historic attempt to qualify for the 1990 World Cup.

“I trained with the TT Schoolboy’s team in 1980. I remember Roderick Warner bless his heart (Warner was murdered at his home in 1994), telling me, 'Rodriguez, you have it made yuh know. Is these other fellas need a chance.'” He explains that although Warner may have said it in a joking manner, there was an underlying element of seriousness in his tone.

“However, I don’t have any sour grapes. They were some of the best experiences I ever had in my life. A lot of those fellas who used to pressure me back then are my closest rivals today. It’s unbelievable. Every time I go to TT, if they see me on the street, the same men who used to kill me on the field are my friends. They hug me up – HUG ME UP!”

Willie Rodriguez - who Graeme describes as his hero in life – was at hand and witnessed some of the insults and trials his son had to endure. “He never really gave me any advice with respect to the insularity,” explains Rodriguez, “but he was at a couple of games where people were very disrespectful and nasty. He always had strong, positive, words for me mentioning that if I wasn’t good enough they wouldn’t be targeting me so to draw strength from that. He did tell me to place high expectations on myself, to do the best I possibly could under all circumstances and never ever give up or quite what you have started.”

After one season with Malvern, he moved on to Carib Peterborough. However, he decided to take a break from football in 1987. “The dream of every footballer is to represent the National Team. Being on the National team was not a very motivating experience for me.” Life at club level was no bowl of cherries either: “I was very tired of playing in places where I was being subjected to condescending remarks and subtle, hostile, environments. The comments didn’t really bother me. What did was the effort I was putting in to try to maintain a certain level of play. I trained seven days a week, two to four hours a day. For what? To play two game weekly and be subjected to (negative) remarks, train with the National Team and feel alienated when at sessions.” Offered a Management position at Associated Brands in 1987, Rodriguez, a Business Administration graduate from Erskine College, walked away from the game.

“Maybe if I was stronger mentally, I would have been able to deal with it better. So looking back, I must take some responsibility for not being stronger and more passionate in what I wanted to accomplish.

“The ironic thing about the whole deal is the mutual respect I believe I have with most of the players I played with and against during the eighties and nineties.”

He returned to the game playing for Queen’s Park in 1988. “I was made the Captain of QP. I thought it was a joke, me being the Captain, after not having played football but I got fit again. There was some talk about me being on the National Team but I didn’t think about it. When I played for QP, I was just having fun. I was told that Gally (Cummings) came to see me and that he told people I wasn’t that good. If I had known he had come to see me, maybe I would have tried but I was kicksing, I was having fun.”

However, Rodriguez holds Gally in high regard. “I think he’s one of the best players to ever pass through TT. As a Coach, I think he’s good not great but he has passion and experience. He went to America and he did very well as a professional. He represented his country with pride.”

 

                                    Clauze, the greatest College’s player ever

 

He went up against the cream of the country’s youth while at St. Mary’s and Fatima in the late seventies and early eighties: Peru Anderson, Lovell and Morris (John D), Garnet Craig, Ronnie Simmons, Garnet Craig and Anton Corneal (Fatima), all future members of the national team. However, his highest regard goes for the man the called “the Dread Dribbler,” former Mucurapo super star, Ian Clauzel, of the late seventies.

"I played against Ian Clauzel for St. Mary’s. I’ve been following the College’s League from 1973 up to last year when I saw Fatima play Mucurapo and Ian Clauzelle is the greatest player I’ve ever seen in my life. A distant second is Garnet Craig. But I’ve never seen a more skillful player than Clauzel."

                       

                    Anton Corneal, intelligent, skillful and knowledgeable

Rodriguez also had the opportunity to play with schoolboy prodigy, Anton Corneal. He made his national debut at 16, being the youngest player to ever represent the country until Clint Marcelle, came along in 1985.

“I was fortunate to play with Anton at Fatima and for three years at University. He was an intelligent footballer, tremendous skill, a great player who was a knowledgeable of the game. However,  he could be taken out of a game if you roughed him up. His reputation preceded him, as a result, he was a marked man and the methods of containment was usually rough and unsportsmanlike towards him. At his young age, with the harsh ways teams approached him, many times this caused him to justifiably lose his cool and as a result, lose the edge sometimes that he had ability wise. But it’s the only way he could have been stopped because he was that skillful with the ball. All you  had to do was get some insignificant player on your team to rough him up. Of course this is when he was younger. He ma have matured since then.

 

                                 Local players lack the proper intellect

Today working a Neal & Massey subsidiary (Shipping and Cargo) in Ft. Lauderdale, he continues to keep in touch with the local game. However, he believes TT is a long way from qualifying for a World Cup. “Trinidad players don’t have the intelligence to make it at the highest level. Not academically but from the manner in which they are brought up at home being taught right from wrong and a basic respect to others. They lack the proper motivation. They need to understand the concept that football is about 11 not one.” He emphasized that Dwight Yorke, Russel Latapy and Tony Rougier were glaring exceptions. As such, a foreign Coach may not have the patience to put up with the professional fallibilities of the others.

Rodriguez added, “When TT lose they need to feel the hurt that they let down their country. But they want to go to Smokey and Bunty’s to lime. They don’t’ have the pride of foundation to make  it at the highest level.”

He did not believe that would do well in qualifying other than a possible victory over Panama in the WC qualifiers. “But of course if TT get more and qualify for the WC, I can’t go home,” he laughs.

 

                                    Talking about Scotty

No Fatima interview with Graeme would be complete without mention of his younger brother Scott. A fine left arm medium pacer, Scotty played under Brian Lara for both Fatima College and the National U-19 team. He also represented the college at football. He was a Goalkeeper, “until one day Colin Rocke scored four goals on him and he swore he would never goalkeep again.”

He then played forward on a team that contained the likes of Keith Farihna; Sean Ramdoo, Sheldon Cipriani and Miguel “Mamba” Burnette of the 1986/87 period. His exploits earned him a scholarship to Francis Marian University, South Carolina.

Graeme points out that Scott, although quite talented, was extremely misunderstood. “He played under me at Queen’s Park. He was his harshest critic. He had size and was intimidating. But you must have thick skin, you must be strong.” He explains, when people saw Scotty shouting, “…he was very misunderstood by the Media, especially Ashford Jackman. He was angry with himself not others. Even today, when he plays, you see him shouting but it’s at himself, not others.”

 

            Time to say goodbye and an indelible mark in Fatima history

Captaining QP to the League Cup in 1994, he decided to retire from Club football. “I thought that was a good time to go. I was getting old. My wife was always angry because I was leaving to play football. I had two children to take care of.”

With two young daughters growing up in Florida, one doesn’t know if the family tradition in sports will be maintained. However, in 1979, Graeme Rodriguez and his teammates gave Fatima College and football fans an Intercol season that they will never forget.

It remains one of the finest moments in the sixty years of Fatima History.

Editor's note: Fatima did win the National Intercol title, just a few months after this interview.

1979: JOHN Donaldson's goalkeeper Errol Lovell (centre), leaps high to palm away a Fatima shot, during the second N. Zoen Intercol final replay at the Queen's Park Oval, which Fatima won 2-0. Fatima's Graeme Rodriguez is at left, while Christopher Pugh (No. 5) stands ready to assist his 'keeper.

Fatima College, National Intercol Champions, 1979:

Back row l-r: Robin DeSouza, Hayden Newallow, Andy Phillips, Garnet Craig, Anthony Commissiong.

Middle row l-r: Graeme Rodriguez, Brian Netto, Denzil King, Geoffrey Lake, Sean Roberts, Keith Fritz.

Front row l-r: Gregory Govia, Anton Corneal, Kenwyn Nancoo, Lester Joseph (capt), Brian Edwards, Neil Julien, David Marks, Rene De Gannes

RIDING PERU: Fatima Defender, Garnet Craig, takes no prisoners as he mounts Alan "Peru" Anderson in the third Fatima-John D Final, QPO, 1979.

"Everywhere we went they threatened us but after the game they were very nice. Which is what I love about TT. Some of my best friens are the people who gave me pressure."

Rodriguez scores vs Mucurapo in the North Zone semis, 1979. Anton Corneal (left) and some helpless Mucurapo Defenders look on.

"I never felt comfortable trying to represent TT. I had a difficult relationship with Trinidad football. ...They (the players) looked upon you as someone who already had something and now you were here to take away from them. Look at Dexter Skeene. He wasn't white, it had to do with prestige. He was from Valsayn and went to CIC and Columbia University. ..."

 National Intercol Final, 1979: Goalkeeper,Andy Phillips (Fatima), gets ready to thwart a St. Augustine attack at the QPO. 

Anton Corneal: "He was an intelligent footballer, tremendous skill, a great player who was a knowledgeable of the game."

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