Thursday, August 5

‘It’s Paradise’: Meet the Briton Leading the Cayman Islands to Unmatched Success | Football

BCommon crawl en Pugh’s living room is flooded with light when he raises the blinds to reveal a view that, more than ever these days, makes the viewer itch. “It’s paradise, I feel very lucky,” he says, looking at a blue Caribbean. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself a bit because I work in a job that gives me a sense of satisfaction and challenge, and I live in such a beautiful place.”

It’s a wonderful scene, but Pugh’s place in the sun has been hard to come by. He didn’t know exactly what he was getting into when, in late 2018 and a year short of his 30th birthday, he left a coaching position in Ipswich Town to take over at the Academy Sports Club in the Cayman Islands. “I thought it would be a life experience even if it was bad,” he says, but instead things moved in the opposite direction. Seven months later he was appointed head coach of the British Overseas Territory national team; this week he will oversee the World Cup qualifiers against Suriname and Canada, beginning with a trip to the former on Wednesday, in a twist he could never have imagined as he worked his way into the youth setup in Suffolk.

Pugh has been frequently gifted with stories of a Caribbean Cup win over Jamaica in 1994, the islands’ most notable international getaway, but he’s on his way to putting that in the shadows. They have won four of their six games, defeating a much more experienced Barbados in their Concacaf Nations League group, and it’s an unprecedented run for a team whose previous victory came in 2010.

“Nobody expected us to do anything,” Pugh says of those half a dozen games, which led the Cayman Islands to finish runners-up on goal difference. “The expectations were so low and we exceeded it. I probably learned more in those games than in the previous five years, because you have to deal with so many different situations. “

Although he has two locally-sourced assistants, duties like game analysis and sports science, in which he has a degree, fall almost entirely on Pugh’s shoulders. Organizationally there have been dangers such as the arrival of the team for its first game, to the US Virgin Islands, an hour earlier. the scheduled kickoff. They came together to win 2-0. He joined a federation eager to restart after the corruption scandal involving Jeffrey Webb, the former FIFA vice president of the Cayman Islands who was suspended in 2015. Results matter, but Pugh doubles as training director and wants to leave a broader legacy.

Ben Pugh says:
Ben Pugh says, “When I leave here, I want to have people trained enough that a local person can take over.” Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Pugh

“When I leave here, I want to have people trained enough that a local person can take over, whether it’s in a year or five,” he says. “I see it as a responsibility, since they have given me the opportunity to come here, to give something back and make sure that the whole structure is in a better place.”

Titus Bramble and Liam Manning, who is in charge of Lommel, owned by City Football Group in Belgium, are among the former colleagues from Ipswich who have introduced themselves to the coaches association that Pugh has founded locally. Pugh spent eight years working for the Suffolk club, where he was a season ticket holder since childhood, after realizing he was “okay, but not good enough” as a footballer.

At 16 he was training youngsters at Shotley Rangers, his hometown team. He has seven siblings and would put his younger brother through training exercises, a modest start that made it just right for what was initially volunteer work at the renowned Ipswich Academy, where he was head coach of the youth development phase from under 12 to minors under 16 years of age. the moment he left. The principles held by Mick McCarthy and Terry Connor were highlighted. “The director and TC were outstanding people, very consistent,” he says. “Win, lose or draw, they would shake everyone’s hand the next day and they would be exactly the same. It is something that I have tried to incorporate into my way of acting “.

The opportunity to move 4,800 miles away came through a contact who used to bring young players from the Caribbean to Ipswich for coaching experience. “I had six weeks to pack up the house, sell everything, and move to a place I’ve never been,” he says. A job further up the chain at Portman Road would have materialized over time, but a question screamed at him: “Do I want to live in Ipswich for the rest of my life or take a risk?”

Cayman Islands (in red) in action against Haiti.
Cayman Islands (in red) in action against Haiti. Photograph: Taneos Ramsay / Courtesy of Ben Pugh

Grand Cayman, the largest of the three islands, is “like a great people.” The territory’s population is around 65,000 and it is a small, tight-knit soccer scene. Pugh’s squad is almost entirely local, with little recourse to the diasporas that other Caribbean islands can summon, and most lead normal lives.

He reels off a list: “One is a jeweler, another is a taxi driver, a couple works in a bank, a couple in the hospital, one or two are under construction and some are still studying.” The technical level quickly impressed him: more of a problem was the “little bit of tactical knowledge or psychological element” that he hopes regular competition against teams like his next opponents will instill.

In a sense, preparing to face Suriname and Canada has been straightforward: the Cayman Islands are Covid-free and have had unrestricted access to most of their positions for twice-weekly training. “It’s a huge advantage because we have a clear game plan and time to work on things,” he says. “We may not have better players, but we will have that organization.” A de facto team of foreign players on the islands have been among those who have provided them with friendly practices.

Given that Suriname can name a team full of talents based in Europe and Canada can still recruit Alphonso Davies, that discipline can go up to a point. Pugh has led the Cayman Islands from 206 to 193 in the FIFA rankings, but they have never won a World Cup match, which they have a better chance of beating against Group B contenders Bermuda and Aruba.

“Look at that game from Canada, it will be broadcast all over the world,” he says. “I tell the players that this is their platform: they all have aspirations to play abroad, so if they play well, if they are willing to fight, work hard, are good with the ball and are well organized, someone could take a chance on you.”

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Pugh knows all about seizing his own opportunity. If you could write the script, one day the road will take you back to the manager’s office in Ipswich, but that brilliant sight outside your home shows that there is little point in making predictions.

“I saw Julian Nagelsmann talking about not just getting experiences, but the right quality of experiences,” he says. “That is something I have now. I may be only 31 but I have coached six Nations League matches and now we are going to these World Cup qualifiers. I have worked hard to achieve it: I have made a bet to come abroad and it has paid off. It could have been the other way around, but in football you can never plan your trip ”.

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