A confluence of issues conspired against Vincy Heat, the Vincentian senior men’s football team, and caused them to suffer their most humiliating defeat in recent times. Such is the official stance of the current SVG Football Federation administration several days after the 10 nil trouncing from their Guatemalan counterparts.

Asbert News Network caught up with head coach Kendale Mercury one day ahead of the team’s final outing in the 2022 FIFA World Cup first round of qualifiers in the CONCACAF region. The mental health of the team was amongst the first of several factors he listed as having negatively impacted on Vincy Heat’s lackluster performance on Friday June 4.

“When the volcano erupted there was no training. So where are we going to train? The players are human beings so my main concern was for safety. There were loads of players who were affected – living in the red zone – not just from the senior men’s but from the senior women’s team and all that.

“That was my biggest concern first of all – safety and mentally. So this is the reason why, as the head coach, I pitched to my Federation the idea of moving the team to a safer environment.

“An environment where they could probably take some of the mental strain off because if you are at home you are worried about your family, how they doing, your housing situations… three players stayed at my apartment in St. Vincent so I know the constant mental issues; the parents calling every day, checking up on them – are they safe and vice versa.”

Not having the services of a sports psychologist readily available to the team, Mercury agreed, “is one of our biggest weaknesses… people don’t take the mental health of human beings seriously in St. Vincent. So culturally people ignore the mind and the mind is the most important thing the body has different to life.

“For years we’ve been asking for a sports psychologist we did have a volunteer, Anna French from the Peace Corps, she left and the void was never filled. I know they started discussions with someone but nothing ever came of it….

“These things are needed to build a proper programme. We’re not saying it has to be perfect or that we have to have all the pieces of the puzzles in place like the bigger nations because we don’t have some of the resources, human and otherwise, but we have to take the psyche of all of our athletes seriously. The mental is more important than anything else. So that has always been an issue and the players have always been asking for it even more so of late given the loss of Duane Sandy.”

The 32 years old national goalkeeper was killed on May 21 this year.

This was further compounded by the fact that there has been “more than a year of inactivity” for the athletes since Gold Cup prelims preparations were halted due to the COVID pandemic last year. Then the April 9 La Soufriere eruptions also severely hampered further at home conditioning for the Senior Men’s team.

Add to all this the challenges Vincentian players face in terms of acclimatizing to the higher altitudes of the South American continent.

The team’s travel plans were also thrown off schedule due to issues with their flight service provider.

“We asked to get into Guatemala as early as Monday because we needed at least 3 days in there – 4 days ideally. But based on measurements of the financial implications … so 4 days we wanted ideally without bussing the bank; we didn’t get that. interCaribbean [sic] had some issues and they couldn’t come on the Monday they had to now subcontract a LIAT plane to take us and they couldn’t come til the Wednesday.

“We got to Guatemala about 10:30 p.m. Guatemalan time which is 12:30 a.m. in St. Vincent time and we had to play 4 o’ clock on Friday. So we basically got there Thursday morning to play Friday at 4. These are the realities – these are not excuses – that fans don’t like to hear about but it’s the realities that contribute,” Mercury said.

An all-day rainfall, when they finally arrived in Guatemala, meant that the game hosts cancelled all official trainings set as the crucial “match day minus one” pre-game warm ups.

This additional hiccup then led Coach Mercury to solicit the local football association for some space in which to prepare the squad after their 16 hour flight. Such a long flight was an alien experience to all but Cornelius Stewart due to his foray with Asian clubs.

What resulted was a choice between a 60 x 40 field or an astroturfed tennis court like surface that was sure to provoke “serious accident and injury” to the players and their equipment.

Mercury told ANN they opted for the 60 X 40 space, under protest, even though that only allowed for “some passing and basically some shooting.”

Meanwhile SVGFF President Carl Dickson, Technical Director Keith Ollivere and Vice President, with responsibility for technical matters, Wayne Grant sat down with us to clarify several points.

From the outset SVGFF President Dickson confirmed that “we did start behind the 8 ball.” The delays, Dickson said, began while the governments of SVG and Grenada were negotiating “the offsetting costs related to accommodation, things like meals and ground transportation and so on.”

The Grenadian government eventually agreed to absorb the full costs of hosting the Vincentian squad “for just a little over 3 weeks” but by then less than a month on the team’s training schedule remained.

Dickson further noted that the reliable service they enjoyed from their exclusive carrier, One Caribbean, was challenged “a couple of days prior to [the team’s] leaving.”

Word of the team’s practice space issues, once they landed in Guatemala, only came to the SVGFF administration when Asbert News Network presented the concern, as represented by head coach Mercury, to them.

This particular concern first came to our attention via a Facebook post attributed to Dale Mercury.
VP Grant agreed that the national team ought to have been properly accommodated as per established protocols but reasoned that the game officials may have opted against damaging the playing surface given the non-stop rainfall one day before the qualifiers.

“What should have happened rather than seeing it or hearing it on social media maybe a letter should have come to us, formally, explaining the situation so we could have taken it from an executive standpoint and write to CONCACAF on the issue because by right they should be allowing our team to train at a properly secure facility and one that is at least on par with the ground that we’re going to play on because all of that is based on regulation,” Grant said.

Although President Dickson was unsure as to what contributed to the communication lag regarding such a grievous breach of competition regulations, he opined, “I don’t know if it is that at the time it was not seen as a challenge but I suspect they would have been grateful to utilize a surface of any degree but this should have been brought to the attention of the executive.”

As for any conditioning issues that the players may suffer due to the prolonged periods of inactivity Grant noted, “the core of players” has been at Mercury’s “disposal since February.” In addition, pre-game training for the Curacao outing amounted to just over a month’s prep “in camp” which was followed by “a week’s training” before they departed for Grenada.

Not only was Grant confident that, “in between still he had a good bit of time to work along with the players” but he was equally certain that “players have a responsibility also to do personal training so even though there were times in between when we may not have had players training they should have also at least been doing some personal training also.”

Although no definite timeline was mentioned, the SVGFF management team committed to renewing efforts in search of the sorely needed sports psychologist.

One crowning jewel in the Dickson administration is the 8 national teams that are currently being managed. Despite Vincy Heat’s dismal performance against Guatemala the SVGFF President remains optimistic.

He said, “one of the things that I think is positive coming out of the recent Guatemalan exercise – yes we would have played an inexperienced team at high altitudes; many of them would not have experienced anything like that before but the critical thing I found there, one of the positives, is that we only had one player who was severely affected by the high altitude.

“Severely affected – though others were affected; it says to me there is a better level of fitness in the team. The team’s fitness level seem to be improving because only one player was so badly affected by the high altitude.”

That player has since recovered and was reported to be in good spirits at the team’s camp in Grenada.

Having lost to Cuba 1 nil Vincy Heat must now refocus on beating out Haiti in their first Gold Cup qualifying encounter on July 2.

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