Mount Pleasant Football Academy will be hoping to pick up where they left off when the 2019-2020 Premier League came to an abrupt end because of the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic in March last year.
The Drax Hall, St Ann-based club led the points table after 25 games and felt they were set to claim the parish's first-ever national football title under the astute Paul “Tegat” Davis, who took over the reins after Donovan Duckie was let go very early in the season.
More than a year later the fire still burns hot in the stomachs of the players and new technical director Englishman Walter “Wally” Downs says there is a feeling that they were “hard done by” and they will be seeking redress in the short season set to kick off this weekend.
“I wouldn't say there is a swagger but they feel as though they were hard done by what I can make of it,” the 59-year-old told the Jamaica Observer last week. “They said they were running into form and they were finishing strongly in the league and they will have that memory and perhaps they will feel they were hard done by because of the pandemic and the way the season finished, so they will be looking to put that behind them and achieve what they think was sort of taken away from them by the pandemic, so I wouldn't say they have a swagger but they feel as if their destinies weren't fulfilled and they are looking to put that right this year.”
Downs, who is an experienced coach with stints with several clubs in England and overseas including India, is happy with his squad that will include a number of Guyanese internationals, and was hard pressed to identify where their strength would be, saying they are well-served in every department of the game.
After they regrouped earlier in June, he did not have all his players as the Guyanese were away on international duties; Kevon Isaacs was away with the Reggae Boyz and a few others delayed their return, but he said they had potency everywhere.
“We are strong at the top of the field as (Kemar Beckford) has been the top scorer for the last couple of years and also (central defender) Ladale Richie keeps us very well marshalled at the back of the field with the two Guyanese...and this will sound good for us because Isaacs and Alwayne Harvey and Leonardo Rankine are strong in the midfield.”
Downs, who guided Reading FC to promotion to the English Premier League in 2006 and who has worked with several well-known English coaches including Harry Redknapp, Sam Allerdyce and Steve Coppell, added: “I look at it and I can't say we are going to be a defensive team, I can't say we are going to be an attack-minded team and I can't say we are going to have a good engine room. We are jelling as a team and that is what we are looking to do and I couldn't really at this stage say I know the shortened season will evolve the way it will evolve and teams will find their niche and if we become an attacking side that is great but I wouldn't worry about that as I know the defence is strong.”
He added: “If we have a period when we are not scoring goals, then I am very confident that the defence won't be shipping them in so I am happy all around really.”
Mount Pleasant, who will open their season against Tivoli Gardens on Sunday, have retained most of their players, the coach said, and have added a few as well, but they are still looking to add players if they are good enough.
“When the next [transfer] window opens up in July, we will be on the lookout to be signing players as some of our players' contracts will also run out in July as well...we have a good network of people across the Caribbean and agents are calling all the time and we will be looking to make additions,” he pointed out.
The matriculation of a number of younger players from the academy made him happy. “What has pleased me is we had eight players from the academy and they have blended in very well and some of them will be getting their chances very early as well, so we have enough fresh blood coming in.”
Downs, who has had stints with English clubs such as Wimbledon, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Queens Park Rangers and West Ham, said while the players just got back together as a team about three weeks ago, they had done a lot of work prior and he is happy with their fitness levels.
“We started training in preparation for last season; we started training at the end of August and we trained right through to January with a Christmas break. We were in a bubble then we realised that there wasn't going to be any football so we dispersed around the end of February and we got back together three weeks ago, so there was a very good base level of fitness that they had in them from when the league didn't start and they were raring to go so they came back and we just needed to top up their fitness and we just needed to pull the ones that had put on a couple of pounds on back in line quickly which they have done and we are ready to go.”
Despite what is expected to be a strange season the biggest hurdle he was seeing was the unusual 8:30 am start time for their first game in Kingston. “That is going to be very difficult for us, the early 8:30 start coming into Kingston... we will have to be up from 3:30 am to eat to get to Kingston two hours before the game, that will be a very big challenge. Hopefully, we can get a game in Kingston somewhere before so we can get a dry run to see how it looks, but I am not sure which teams will be available for that.”
He was hoping for what he called a “dry run” to iron out details when the time comes for the real game. “I'd like to think we can get a game somewhere in Kingston so we can just get our travel arrangements, get our preparations done right so we don't get there on the first day and we are all at sea and we don't know what we are doing and how well we have prepared, the 8:30 am is a challenge for us but it is what it is and we are up for any challenge.
“The early kick-offs is a challenge for us but the world is a different place and for this short league we have to make sure that those differences become our friends instead of thinking that they are going to be something that stops us. We need to adapt to it and be professional about it and we need to put our best foot forward,” Downs said.
While most coaches would take comfort in the fact that they cannot be relegated at the end of the season, Downs said that was not a concern of his.
Winning, he said, would be a priority from the start. “Yes, absolutely, winning will be a priority as there won't be much of a break between when the next season starts. There are players whose contracts are running out. They must realise they got to be part of a winning team if they want to enhance their careers and earn another contract at Mount Pleasant,” the Englishman said.
“If we find a team that is capable of going on long winning stretches they will want to be part of that team within this league because then we can take that into the next season. Winning is a habit. It's a wonderful habit to have and the fact that there is no relegation means nothing to me as we will be looking to be winning, so relegation is not really an issue that I have considered at all.”