"I was disenchanted with TT football"
Ronnie Simmons, Washington Diplomats (l) stalks Martin Hill of the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
by Veersen Bhoolai,
The 1981 CFL (College’s Football League) produced a handful of stars that many thought would go on to have a bright future for the rest of that decade.
In addition, to the already established Garh Pollonais, the Captain of St. Augustine SC, there were Dexter Skeene, David Nakhid and Barry Henderson (St. Mary’s College), Dexter Sandy and Lester Charles (Queen’s Royal College) and Ronald Simmons (Fatima).
Simmons captured the imagination of all who saw him; a sweeper who was strong in the air, could run from end to end, score goals and had a magnificent clearance, he was like a man amongst men. Only 17 years old, he was fast tracked on to the Senior team just a few months later.
Not surprisingly, the following year, he was Vice Captain of the National Youth Team under Pollonais and awarded a full scholarship to Howard University.
Post Howard, he won the US Cup with Club Espana and the Washington Diplomats giving him the chance to play in the Concacaf Club Championships.
In an era of no internet, many local fans were unaware of his accomplishments and even more confused at his continuous absence from national training sessions. However, whilst locals seemed ignorant of his efforts, US coaches and fans were reveling in his ability and success.
Part of a lost generation
Peter DeCoteau, was a member of the 1974 youth team that place third in the Concacaf tournament in Canada. He had a chance to see Simmons during his pro career and shakes his head: “Honestly Simmo is part of the lost generation of gifted footballers who never got the opportunity to express their talent for the national team. This guy had it all, height, strength, first touch, could kick the ball with ease. He could play central defender or roving center back something like Kompany for Man. City.
“Could you imagine Ronnie on the WC squad in Germany coming down the centre from centre back or midfield and shooting those plastic ball we have now? When football taking place in Washington and man mention Ronnie, we does just get vex.”
Ian Bain, a former TT international and winner of the NCAA Championship with Howard University in 1974, one of only five HU players to have ever made the All American First Team, describes Simmons, “I thought he was a fantastic player. He was not always one driven to reach his full potential. The game came very easily to him. He was not really challenged in his younger days. But against better players and better opposition, he raised his game.
Unusual tools for a big man
“He was critical to our process with the Diplomats. He played central defence. He was good with Free Kicks, he could run and tackle. He was smart and had the ability to shepherd players. He could close people down quickly. He had unusual tools for a big man. He was quick, whilst most players were comfortable kicking the ball 30-40 yards, He would kick it 50-60 yards. He would pass the ball on a line.
“He was a guy I thought could make it in Europe. But maybe he came a couple years too early. Today, Trinidad players are more easily scouted.”
Bain concluded by saying, not every player makes it on their first club trial, “sometimes it’s the second or third.”
So what ever did happen to Ronnie Simmons?
After his HU days and with the North American Soccer League defunct, there were limited possibilities for the talented mass of young players in the country, especially the African, European and Caribbean immigrants who had graduated University. Along came Club España. It was an amateur team that handpicked the cream of the Washington soccer community.
Simmmons explains that whilst playing against American University which had its own TT stars, Barry Henderson, Troy Regis and David Nakhid, “I was scouted by Ian Bain,” who was playing for and would later coach the club.
España won the Amateur Cup in 1985 and the US Cup in ´87. At this point they were the number one club in the US. They They were loaded with talent, along with Simmons was Phillip Gyau, the present Coach of HU. His father had played for Ghana, the younger Gyau later represented the US and today so does his son, who also plays professionally in Germany. Nigerian, Jean Harbour, also represented the US.
Bain says, “I really thought Ronnie and Harbour could make it in Europe.”
A lesson in humiliation
As winner of the US Cup, España played in the Concacaf Club Championship. They played against a Mexican team, “They taught us a lesson in soccer that we will never forget,” Simmons says with a laugh.
When pressed for details, he replies, “We were not as good as we thought we were. Let’s just say there were guys who thought they were good enough to be pro against guys who were actually pro. Bear in mind the Mexcians were a fully pro team and we just trained three times a week. Believe me it was a clinic. It was a lesson in humiliation”
The core of the España players would become part of the reformed Washington Diplomats in the American Soccer League and later the reformed American Professional Soccer League. Winning the ASL title, Simmons and company once again competed in the Concacaf Club Championships. On this occasion they lost both encounters against Monarcas Morelia (Mexico) by a 2-1 margin.
Despite his club success in the 80s he was still ignored by the national coaches. “I think they thought they didn’t need to reach out to me.
“But really I was playing my best football in the US and the Coaches there knew me better. They would ask me, ‘How come you’re not on the TT team?’”
“Because they didn’t ask me.”
“In true Trinidad style”
Simmons adds, “But in true Trinidad style they would call my father not me. And my dad is a no-nonsense type of guy and he would say, ‘if you want my son to play for you, contact my son not me.’
“There was a total lack of professionalism.”
He laments, “I do not know to this day why they would not call me. But I didn’t let it affect me. If they don’t want me, I not begging. But of course, I was eager to represent TT.”
He did actually receive an invitation to train with Gally Cummings’ Strike Squad in 1989 “…it was for an exhibition game vs Paraguay. I spent one week training with them but the match was cancelled due to rain and I had to go back.”
However, amazingly – no one on the team had been informed that he was coming. “They didn’t know I was training with them. They looked at me as if to say, ‘Why is he here?’”
With the folding of the Diplomats in 1990, Simmons took his chances and went to Spain. “It wasn’t official really. It was from a friend who knew a friend. I arrived in the middle of the season. I trained for a second div. team which belonged to Athletico Madrid. I was at the mercy of the team really. After six months I left.”
Back in the fold
Returning to TT in 1990, he played for Trintoc and later Queen’s Park. “I also worked for the Royal Bank and coached their football team.”
It was at this time that TT finally got to see what they had been missing. With the nation trying to recuperate from the heartbreak of their beloved Strike Squad failing to qualify for the 1990 World Cup by one point, Alivn Corneal was placed as Coach. He had no qualms about bringing former College standouts into the fold and immediately Simmons and Dexter Skeene were invited for a friendly against East Germany. The Media and fans were impressed as both members of the 1982 youth team handled themselves with distinction.
For the next two years, Simmons, now based in TT, became a regular member of the National Team. “I was watching the Gold Cup the other day. And I told the fellas in the room that I had played in the first ever GC. They just looked at me!”
Coached by Edgar Vidale and with talents like Leonson Lewis, Marvin Faustin, Michael Maurice and Hutson Charles but missing Dwight Yorke and Russel Latapy (due to professional commitments), TT had a competitive but albeit anticlimactic experience. Playing the US, Lewis scored in the second half only for the Americans to score two goals in two minutes and walk away 2-1 winners.
Ironically, the reverse happened against Cost Rica. Conceding a goal in the sixth minute, TT scored on either half of the interval, pipping Los Ticos, 2-1.
They only had to draw with Guatemala, who had already lost to both CR and the USA. Many thought that TT had the game in the bag but deadlocked at 0-0, the Guatemalans scored in the 89th minute forcing them to settle for third place in the group and exiting the tournament.
Simmons has bitter memories of this, “I got subbed with five minutes to go and Guatemala scored off a corner in the 89th minute. I was angry because I thought I could have made a difference. I was playing well and when I came off even Dexter Skeene who was on the bench said ‘I don’t know why you got subbed.’”
At the age of 28 and perhaps at his peak years as a Defender, Simmons left TT and returned to the US in 1992.
Final years of professionalism
“When I returned, I played indoor soccer. When I first saw an indoor game, I said I would never play it. However, it became a challenge and I was strongly encouraged by Richard Chinapoo. He was instrumental in getting me to play.”
He played for the Washington Warthogs and the following year moved on to the Baltimore Blast and was with them for three years.
“Then I totally retired. I coached kids for a while.”
The early days
However, before Club España, the Diplomats and the Baltimore Blast, Ronnie Simmons was a legend in the Eddie Hart League and the CFL.
“My earliest football memories are of playing in the Eddie Hart Football League. I lived just about 50 yards away from the ground on Easter Main Rd. I played with them from U-9-U19. From there I played with Tunapuna Upstarts which was an Eddie Hart team. I then played for Tacarigua United which was made up of players from the Hart League as well as Tunapuna, Arouca and Tacarigua.”
At this time he would have rubbed shoulders with the who´s who of football along the East West Corridor: Garnet Craig; Garth Pollonais, Hyron Best (today known as Jamaal Shabazz) and Earl “Spiderman” Carter. All of them donned national colours, with Carter playing for the New York Cosmos alongside Pele and with the famed 1989 Strike Squad that came within a point of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup.
I hear the league has now evolved and they have night lights. I never thought I would see that in my lifetime.”
Fatima and Intercol
Simmons started off his College life in the not so hotbed of football St. George’s College. “I was on the U-14 team and they soon put me on the U-16 and U-19 teams at the same time,” he says with a laugh.
He confesses he did not know much about College football and only read a few articles in the newspapers. The Netto brothers played for Fatima and in the Eddie Hart League, their father recommended to his parents that it would be in his interest to go to Fatima which had won the National Intercol title in 1979.
The rest was history.
Unbeaten in the League season of 1980, Fatima was edged 1-0 in the North Zone Intercol Semis vs. Trinity College. The season was then aborted due to a nation wide teachers’ strike.
As the ’81 season commenced, after just a few games it was obvious that long time rivals, QRC, CIC and Fatima had very competitive teams. It had been years since all three arch rivals were simultaneously competitive in the same season.
Unbeaten (in league football) for two years, Fatima started off as the odds on favourite for the League and Intercol titles.
Within a week Fatima had lost twice. Against QRC, a Lester Charles bullet of a Free Kick into the right sided roof of the net, left custodian Sean Roberts, rooted to the spot. He simply looked at it in bewilderment. And he was not a ‘keeper to be easily bewildered.
Later in the game, Roberts broke his leg, his season was over. The match finished off with a 10 man Fatima losing by 1-0.
A week later, further humiliation, as St. Mary’s spearheaded by Skeene humbled the Mucurapo Rd. Boys.
The Fatima aura of invincibility had been lifted. It was now considered a two team race for North Zone honours. However, Fatima hadn’t quite given up on themselves.
Meeting St. Mary’s on Fatima grounds (strange as Intercol matches are usually played on neutral territory), Fatima took the lead and despite the usual Skeene heroics, managed a 2-1 victory thanks to a goal late in the second half. Fatima had three pairs of brothers that year, the Nettos, the Fritzs and late additions the Downies. Mark Jeremy, only in Form IV,would go on to Captain the National Youth team in less than two years. The younger Downie had taken over in goal and it was the younger Fritz that scored the winner, a curling effort from about 20 metres out.
Simmons admits, “I didn’t see the goal, I saw the build up but not the goal. I was already thinking overtime or a replay.”
The North Zone final saw a confident Royalian outfit expecting to repeat their result from earlier in the season. Marshalled by the late Shirvan Pragg, a top cricketer who many expected to Captain the WI youth team but sadly died in a car accident the following year and Charles in defence, QRC arrived brimming with confidence.
“Neal Phillips who played for QRC lived just a few minutes from me in Tacarigua. We would see each other often. But for a week before that match we didn’t visit each other at all.”
As spectators poured through the gates at the Saints’ grounds, you could hear a chant coming from the Fatima dressingroom, “We going to give them cut ass!”
QRC scored early and it was a tit for tat first half until a Simmons equalizer just before half time. Fatima scored early in the second, kept QRC on the backfoot and then nailed a third for good measure.
“People didn’t give us the respect after we had lost the first two games. The public had counted us out. But it was like something just clicked. We had a belief in ourselves. Even against Signal Hill (in the National Semis) they had already counted us out."
Simmons acknowledges that when discussing games that took place three decades or more ago his memory of scores or certain names is wanting. However, after beating Tobago Champs Signall Hill in the National Semifinals, it was on to the big one, the National Final vs. Eastern Champs, St. Augustine at Skinner Park.
A matter of race?
The Green Machine was captained by the very skillful Garth Pollonais.
“I was originally born in Curepe. Our families knew each other way back then and were very tight so I knew him well.”
Fatima lost 1-0 in a rather anticlimactic affair with many thinking they were simply good enough to make the final. It was curious to see them using short passes on a very wet and muddy surface with St. Augustine doing the opposite with great success.
Simmons disagrees somewhat, “I don’t’ think we lost because St. Augustine was better or bad tactics by the Coach. I think it was nerves, we were a young team and they had veterans. It was an intimidating crowd. TT wanted us to lose. And if I had to be honest it was racial.
“It was like Fatima was the white and privileged vs the black and underprivileged from the East. I remember a fella telling me at the National final, ‘A black fella like you playing for Fatima.’
“And me in the middle and I’m from the East. People were telling my father 'your son is a traitor.'”
He adds “It was the worst field I have ever played on. The outfield was wet, not too much grass. It had rained a lot that day. I remember on corner kicks telling the players to head the ball up not down because it would stick in the mud. Brian Netto was a good kicker of the ball but he took a shot and it just fizzled out. Perhaps we had been spoilt playing on better grounds at Fatima and CIC.”
The Coach “Mr. Roberts,” made some curious selections in the second round of the League, leaving major players on the bench and even having Simmons play midfield. They lost key encounters and even conceded five and six goals in some games. He believes that the Coach simply bowed to politics and pressure from the teachers.
With Barbados coming for an international later that year, Coach Alvin Corneal surprised many by including some of the College stars in the Senior side, Simmons, Barry Henderson and Lester Charles. TT was on a high having won the Caribbean Championship with a 7-0 drubbing of hosts, Puerto Rico.
Simmons explains someone showed him an article where the inclusion of the highschoolers was looked upon dimly. He distinctly remembers them saying how well the National Team was doing “‘…and you bring these little boys to play.’”
He adds, “the Press criticized us like it was our fault.”
He explains that despite the article, no one had actually contacted him to play.
“I didn’t know I was on the team until that day. My Mum heard it on the radio. I had to run home, grab my gear and run to the stadium. I didn’t even train.
“When we got there, nobody would talk to us. We had to stand in a corner and wait for someone to give us our uniforms. Even on the bench we had to sit on the Valedrome track because there was no room for us. We didn’t even get a seat.”
Brought on in the second half with TT in the lead, he admits, “The game wasn’t that hard.”
He was supported on the field by Reynold George as well as Wayne Joseph “who talked me through the game.” Also he was quite familiar with the Arima Valedrome having played there before.
Regarding the curious manner in which he was selected, he explains,” Sadly, this is not strange by TT standards. I once was selected to play for the President’s II vs TT. I got a call on the same day of the match.”
His scholarship to Howard also happened in a rather indirect manner. He had been offered a half a scholarship to Columbia. However, a player from John Donaldson had had his offer rescinded from Howard due to his lack of academic qualifications.
“I was at youth practice and saw a guy talking to Alvin. I had no idea it was the Howard Coach. He saw me playing and thought I looked good. He asked Alvin, ‘Can he tackle?’ Alvin said, ‘Just wait five minutes you’ll see if he can tackle.’
“I was the last to know about the schol. I read about it in the newspaper. Alvin didn’t recommend me. The Howard Coach saw me and offered me a full ride. I didn’t receive an offer from Howard. He went directly to my parents. I came home and they had documents waiting for me to sign.”
Black and White
Although Simmons’ career seemed to be an effort in frustration, he was not alone in this regard. Vernon Skinner (Trinity), Graeme Rodriguez, Garnet Craig (Fatima) and Colin Rocke (St. Mary’s) were ultra talented youths who went abroad on scholarships and seemed to be forgotten. In Rocke’s case, not even winning a national Collegiate title, a contract with the MLS and an offer from Santos ofBrazil could get him a trial with the national team.
Both Rock and Rodriguez believe that there was definitely some bias involved. As Rocke put it,"You have to understand that some of these guys came from schools like San Fernando Technical Institute, or Arima Senior Comprehensive...this was their ticket out. You could tell that they and the Coaches knew this. When you come from a school like CIC, your vernacular, your sentence structure is different from theirs.”
Rodriguez explains that regarding himself, “There was a perceived idea of me coming from a certain social and economic background.”
Simmons was more direct on the matter, “Those other fellas like Graeme and Rocke may not want to say it so I will. It’s Black and White. I was a black guy playing for Queen’s Park so I saw both sides of the coin.
“People in TT don’t like to talk about it but it was because of Black and White.”
Simmons adds, “…there were no scouts abroad people were discovered by word of mouth.
“I was disenchanted with TT football. It had a long way to go. I had seen both ends of the spectrum. I had played at the pro level and experienced organized football. There was a misconception that we were as talented as the US. Not anymore. We can’t match them skillwise or economically. People might disagree.”
Former national player, Dexter Skeene, agrees that Simmons was not used well. “As a player he (Simmons) was very intelligent and imposing in terms of height and build. For his size he was technically sound. He could play out of the back, advance and score goals. He was an all round player with feet and head. He was also strong defending corner kicks.
“Ronnie could’ve been used more after college. TT needed to be more involved with its college based players. He would have been an asset along with other players of the time.
“In TT as in any society people identify with certain groups. Hidden or not hidden there is an attitude in Trinidad that people with a certain education didn’t need football. It wasn’t for them.
“At national training they used to call me white boy. It may have been in jest. But I have said this on various forums, we need to include everyone. We are too small not to utilize all resources. We need to be inclusive of all races because they bring different strengths. This was and is an issue to consider. We have to pay attention to it. We need to have the best possible team and people should not be sidelined due to race, creed or class. Not just in football but all areas of society.”
Having played with some of the finest players that TT had to offer in the 80s and early 90s, I asked him for his opinion on the following:
Dwight Yorke, “The total player. The perfect soccer player."
Russel Latapy, “The most skillful player I’ve ever seen.”
Garth Pollonais, “A very skillful player ahead of his time.”
Dexter Skeene, “A classy person and player.”
Clint Marcelle, “I saw Marcelle only in exhibition games. Peter Stone was an avid football fan. We had a side called the Red Devils. People called us a fete match side but we weren’t really a fete match side. It’s only later I realized he was a serious Manchester United fan and that’s why we had that name.”
Leonson Lewis, “Super fast and a very good player.”
Richard Chinapoo, “The ultimate professional on and off the field.”
Garnet Craig, “leadership and consistency.”
Graeme Rodriguez, “Skill and grace.”
Dexter Sandy, “Naïve. He thought he was anointed. He didn’t prove himself to be half as good as people said he was. Overrated. However, he was still young.”
As we finished our interview, I asked Simmons if there was anything we had not touched on that he would like the footballing public to know. He thought for a moment and said, “Yes. You asked me about players but there is one player I would like to mention, Earl “Spiderman” Carter. He was a player I thought could fit on the world stage if given the right opportunity. As a kid in Tacarigua, I used to watch him train after practice for hours, working on corner kicks and throws. He was one of those if he had been given a chance abroad he could have shown what he could do.
Life after football
Today, Ronald Simmons works as a housing inspector for the City of Baltimore. His football days far behind him, “… the only outlet I have with the game is the EPL on TV.” He followed his daughter when she played volleyball and today his six year old son “is an aspiring baseball player.”
However, he is not the only sports star in the Simmons family. His younger brother Sean, ran the 400 metres for TT and Seaton Hall. The youngest, Sherron, played football for TT at U-16 and U-18 and claims to be “the best footballer in the Simmons family.”
As Simmons enjoys his post football life, fans of the 80s can only wonder what it would have been like to see one of the country’s finest defenders in action. The fans in Washington and Baltimore won’t.
In the words of Ian Bain, “Ronnie was a player that we missed out on. He had unique qualities. He could have been a household name in the football community but it did not come to fruition."
Ronnie Simmons, during his Baltmore Blast days.
"He played central defence. He was good with Free Kicks, he could run and tackle. He was smart and had the ability to shepherd players. He could close people down quickly."
Ian Bain describing Ronnie Simmons.
Dexter Skeene: "He was an all round player with feet and head. He was also strong defending corner kicks."
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"It was like Fatima was the white and privileged vs the black and underprivileged from the East. I remember a fella telling me at the National final, ‘A black fella like you playing for Fatima.’
“And me in the middle and I’m from the East. People were telling my father 'your son is a traitor.'”
“I didn’t know I was on the team until that day. ... I had to run home, grab my gear and run to the stadium. I didn’t even train.
“When we got there, nobody would talk to us. ... Even on the bench we had to sit on the Valedrome track because there was no room for us. We didn’t even get a seat.”
Ronnie Simmons describing his first game for TT
Earl "Spiderman" Carter."
Club España, US Amateur Champs (1985). Ronnie Simmons is in the back row, third from left.
I would like to thank Peter DeCoteau, Ian Bain and Dexter Skeene for speaking to me without much notice. I would also like to thank Ronnie Simmons for doing the interview and patiently asking my reasks over the last few days. VB