The Best coach
sacked for winning
This was the World
Cup. But not as we know it. Jumpers for goalposts?
Well, not quite, but we did have Portaloos for
dressing rooms and a magnificently inept bunch of
British Virgin Islanders masquerading as the Dog and
Duck Sunday XI while being blown around and away in
the gale sweeping off the Atlantic.
'What a good day to
be Bermudian,' babbled the man on the public address
as 2,000 of his shivering islanders, huddled for
non-existent shelter in their apology for a national
stadium, looked as if they might beg to differ on the
sort of afternoon they don't tell you about in the
'Now, here's a
synopsis of the game so far...' continued our man,
doubtless delighting the BVI lads who really needed
to know the gory minutiae of their embarrassment.
Now, 8-0 loomed as Bermuda's teenage striker Stephen
Astwood rounded their keeper and prepared to walk the
ball into the net.
Astwood stopped. Just before the goalline, he glanced
behind him to check the coast was clear, got down on
his knees and headed the ball along the ground into
the net. The crowd went into hysterics about the
naughtiest goal in World Cup history but, on the
bench, Bermuda's general was shaking his head.
'Wait 'til I get
hold of him,' growled Clyde Best. 'If I was one of
their defenders, I'd want to kick him into the
Atlantic after a stunt like that. Ridiculous.'
Of course, a
gentleman like Best, still the same laid-back giant -
if a wee bit more, er, roly-poly - who at West Ham
blazed a trail for Britain's black footballers with
such dash and dignity, would never have dreamed of
adding insult to humiliation like this cocky kid. Yet
Bermuda's most famous son has learned to acquire a
keen sense of the ridiculous in his job as the
island's technical director of football.
And what could be
more ridiculous, he pondered, than the thought that
he had just orchestrated his country's biggest-ever
World Cup win - it finished 9-0 and 14-1 on aggregate
- just a fortnight before he was going to get kicked
out of his job without knowing what he'd done wrong.
'So I suppose I'll go down in history as the first
international coach in history who got the sack for
winning matches,' he mused.
He tried to laugh
it off because that's his amiable way, but as he
clambered out of the rain behind the wheel of the BFA
minibus - nobody had told him the job description
included being official team bus driver - he could
not hide the weary disillusionment.
Three years ago, he
and wife Alfreida had given up their cleaning
business in California so he could return home as
Bermuda's football saviour 'to put something back
into the country which shaped me'. Now, though, he
could only reflect poignantly: 'You know that Bible
saying about being a prophet without honour in your
own land. Now I understand.'
How did Bermuda's
national sporting legend find himself caught in a
tale of jealousy, intrigue and back-stabbing which,
even on this elegant isle where it takes a lot to get
the laid-back locals roused, has caused enough of a
stir to even prompt government intervention?
Two days before
Christmas, he was called in by the Bermuda FA
president Neville Tyrrell and told his contract would
not be renewed at the end of this month. Neither he
nor the public were told why and they were
The island's daily,
the Royal Gazette, demanded answers,
asking why 'a man whose silky skills during his West
Ham heyday did more to put this country on the map
than any number of politicians' ambassadorial trips
overseas' should have been treated so shabbily when
he had so successfully restored the island's
A source within the
Bermuda FA was so disgusted with what he felt was a
'witchhunt' against Best that he leaked documents
revealing how the FA's coaching committee had been
making plans to replace him with a 'big-name
consultant' because Best was supposedly not
'enlivening' the public.
'Yet Clyde Best's
record has been great... this decision makes no sense
to me or any rational thinking person,' complained
the source. A national radio debate had 99 per cent
of the callers agreeing with him.
remembered how Best had answered Bermuda's call in
1997 when the sport was on its knees, still reeling
from the scandal two years earlier when seven
national team members were caught trying to smuggle
drugs back into the country in the bottom of their
shoes after a Pan-American Games qualifier. Sponsors
had turned away in droves and the national team was
They needed a hero
and there was only one - the prison warden's boy from
rural Somerset on the western tip of the island, who
had made them so proud when, at 17, he left for
England with nothing but trepidation and a one-way
ticket to Heathrow. Now the first adventurer would be
coming home, having succeeded as a professional
footballer from Holland to Canada to the US, but
having achieved his greatest triumph as a man.
Best remembered it
all as if it were yesterday. Watching grainy images
of Spurs on the island's TV which fired a dream;
waiting as a 12 year old for the British ships to
dock so he could play against the men in the sailors'
matches; getting his first cap at 15; being told Ron
Greenwood wanted to see him on trial.
He remembered that
Sunday in 1968. How nobody was there to meet him at
Heathrow and he wished at that moment he'd never
come. How he got off the Tube at West Ham, not
realising he really needed Upton Park, and how some
Hammers'-supporting samaritan took a lonely, confused
kid and directed him to the home of Clive Charles,
another black player with whom he was to lodge.
He remembered how
they would scream 'nigger' at him on the terraces,
but he would tell himself: 'You've got to be mentally
strong. Ignore them. Carry yourself in the right
manner. Show them the soccer ball doesn't care what
colour you are. Give your answer by sticking one in
the back of their net.'
AND he did. Forty
seven times in 188 games. He was a lovely, graceful
player and even if some felt he underachieved, of
course he hadn't. His impact as the first black
footballer to imprint himself on the national
consciousness in British football's TV era could
never be measured by goals alone.
'At the time, it
was just a job to me,' he shrugged. 'But a couple of
years ago I went to a dinner celebrating black
players in England where I was introduced as 'the
legend' and lads like Cyrille Regis and Luther
Blissett shook my hand and told me how I'd been their
inspiration. When I see black kids playing in England
and think maybe I played a part in their emergence,
that's my satisfaction.'
Back home, he
thought he was going to be a pioneer again. Within
months of his arrival, he'd organised Bermuda's first
international on home soil in five years. The
Premiership and US major league contacts of a man who
could count on everyone from Pele to Harry Redknapp
as friends opened doors.
returned along with a talented coaching team but
precious little financial back-up - the Bermuda FA
used to ask him to travel to training sessions using
the island's quaint public transport service - he
moulded a motley crew of bankers, teachers and
construction workers into a team good enough to beat
Yet he found his
idyllic home much changed. More money-dominated, kids
'not so prepared to listen and learn', an affluent,
well-travelled generation which dreamed more of
basketball in the US than football in England, a
generation to whom his name meant nothing.
everybody here knows Clyde now - you could glean that
from the waves and smiles he received while driving
the bus down every pastel-tinted avenue - and even
his opponents find it hard to dislike a
down-to-earth, humble figure who's never blown his
own trumpet. Bermudians never get starstruck - they
reckon David Bowie, who has a home here, can walk
down Hamilton's Front St and nobody turns a hair -
and that was fine by Clyde. 'Yet sometimes it can be
a suffocating place,' he reflected.
He wondered if
small-island jealousies had conspired against him. He
had been voted out by a coaching committee of unpaid
officials, including one woman, 'who have no concept
of what's needed to produce an international football
team' and Tyrrell barely ever spoke to him.
He was trying to
bring professionalism but this was a day to
appreciate that it's not easy in amateur hour. Before
the game had even started, he seemed to be running
around sorting out crises not so much as technical
director but more as bus driver, nanny, housemaid,
administrator and man-motivator.
One minute, a
player had left behind his passport which the FIFA
official wanted to see as proof he wasn't a ringer so
Best had to organise someone to collect it from the
hotel, the next, he was desperately scrabbling around
to find a new jersey for his goalkeeper because the
official was not happy about its colour.
'This stuff drives
you batty,' Best muttered in the dressing room. By
the time he had gone into the ritual huddle with his
team for a collective recitation of the Lord's
Prayer, he already felt all in. The game hadn't even
started and now he was dreading the next ritual - a
notoriously demanding crowd, including more than a
few jealous coaches on the island who reckon they
could do a better job, getting on his back.
'I tell you, I know
how Kevin Keegan feels,' he sighed. 'If it were
Brazil and not the Virgin Islands, this lot'd still
expect us to win.' Sure enough, when the ninth goal
went in, you could hear moans that it wasn't 15.
At least Bermuda's
sports minister was happy. Afterwards, Dennis Lister,
explaining how he grew up watching and admiring Best
as a kid, conceded that 'there's a sentiment felt
strongly in the community that the FA's decision
needs to be reassessed'.
He was talking to
both Best and the FA about working out some form of
reprieve for Best, but you sensed any compromise
might be too late to heal all the wounds. 'Funny,
really,' pondered Best. 'In England, I'd never have
been treated the way I have been by some of the
football people here. We've a new government here
which wants to 'Bermudianise' society, yet other
Bermudians just want to kick one of their own in the
'You know, this is
my home and it will always be home. I've no regrets
about coming back; it enabled me to spend some
quality time with my dad before he died, but if I
could, I'd probably go back to England tomorrow.'
For as he buttoned
himself up under his baseball cap against the biting
wind, perhaps there was something about this day
which reminded him how, for all the racist poison he
endured and ignored so manfully all those years ago,
he was more appreciated in Upton Park's wintery
mudbaths than he now is among the pink beaches of his
paradise home. A hero deserved better.