Tuesday, April 26, 2011
By NICHOLAS MURRAY
When you go to the website of the Antigua and Barbuda’s tourism board, the grasp of the sport of cricket is evident. With legendary West Indian players such as Sir Viv Richards, Curtly Ambrose, Andy Roberts and Richie Richardson all hailing from the islands, cricket has always been perceived as the country’s preeminent sport.
But if you’d arrived at the Sticky Wicket Stadium on April 17 with that conception, as Antigua Barracuda FC hosted its first home game in USL PRO, you might have been surprised.
However, the raucous crowd and environment didn’t come as a surprise to the team’s captain, George Dublin.
“It was absolutely fantastic,” Dublin said by phone recently. “I know Antiguans are a footballing public; we have total football fanatics here, we love the game a lot, and the atmosphere was absolutely fantastic. With it being the first game, the players, they came in and were excited to see the atmosphere and how it was on Sunday.”
The Barracuda earned their first victory of the season on Saturday night as Stefan Smith scored twice in a 3-2 win against Sevilla FC Puerto Rico and heads out on its first road-trip of the season this week. That the team has reached this point has a lot to do with the organization of the club’s executive board and Head Coach Tom Curtis.
Curtis was formerly a professional player in his native England before moving into the coaching ranks as the head coach at Loughborough University, one of the premier sports institutions in the country. Curtis also assisted the academies at clubs such as Nottingham Forest and Derby County, but when he heard about the opportunity with the Barracuda from his friend and Antigua and Barbuda Football Association technical advisor Bryan Hamilton, he jumped at the chance.
“I spoke with (Hamilton) a couple of times, I spoke with the executive committee, I expressed my interest in the post and I managed to get the post and here I am,” Curtis said. “I’m very excited to be here; it’s a huge adventure for myself personally, and it’s something that I’m really looking forward to.”
One of the first players Curtis targeted was Dublin. Now 34 years old, Dublin had been playing in Trinidad for a number of different teams, but Curtis and others persuaded him to come back home and be part of the ‘Cudas. According to Curtis, Dublin’s presence on the team has been invaluable.
“George has been a vital cog in the Barracuda wheel in the last six weeks,” Curtis said. “He’s the one that knows all the players, he’s played with all the players, he’s a really sensible lad, he looks after himself, he looks after the rest of the players and when you’re putting the team together you need someone like that in the dressing room that the lads look up to and respect.
“He makes my job a lot easier; he helps pass on information to the other players, so it’s been fantastic that we’ve got him on board, and he’s bought into all the tactics and the game plan that I’ve tried to put in to the club.”
Dublin was glad to be able to return back to his home country and help raise the profile of the sport he fell in love with as a youngster.
“The community I grew up in was much more a footballing community than it was cricket,” Dublin said. “I would always find a game and go out to the field and watch the bigger guys and fell in love with the game, and from then on I was always into soccer. My mum kept pushing me on, because she was a football fan from her school days.”
The ultimate goal of the club, and the players, is to help Antigua build a strong national team program. Currently No. 100 in the overall FIFA Rankings, and 13th in CONCACAF, Curtis hopes that the club can facilitate a move up the standings, and to find success within CONCACAF itself.
“We want to give the players the opportunity to play on a big stage and develop to move on to different clubs and represent the island in the national team,” Curtis said. “We’ve got 24 games over the next couple of months, we’ve got a lot of games coming up in a short period of time and hopefully some of the players that have that opportunity to get onto the big stage and really develop themselves as people and players.”
With the support the club appears to be set to get from its fans, though, the Barracuda appear to be on the right track to find success at the club level as well.
“It was fantastic to see so many people supporting the team, and it’s really nice that the team itself has lots of players from different communities and different clubs,” Curtis said. “It’s one of the first times that people can come and watch players from their community and support other players. It’s a really nice experience for everyone, and with the band that was playing and the entertainment before and after the game, I really think it will be one of the most exciting venues in USL and teams will really look forward to coming here.”