McLaren’s divine job started in the church

Cayman women’s football can boast one of the best youth coaches to come out of Jamaica. That’s not an idle statement considering his achievements and the respect gained in only two years here.

Bobby McLaren is assistant coach to the women’s Olympic qualifying team. They play Haiti and Puerto Rico next week in Group D of the Olympic qualifiers and McLaren has worked closely with technical director Thiago Cunha to prepare them. Cayman’s average age is only 18 compared to the more mature visiting sides, but after the way they performed at a tournament in Jamaica in July, McLaren has no fears.

‘Thiago and I have been working mostly with the girls Under-17s since February,’ he says. ‘In Jamaica we defeated Excelsior in our first game 1-0. That was an U-19 team. We played a Premier League team, Meadhaven, and lost 1-0 to them only on a penalty. And we lost 2-1 to Jamaica’s U-17 team. That team had U-20 players too because of what happened against Excelsior, so they were really looking at us back then.’

What they lack in experience and physical maturity, McLaren feels they adequately compensate for in other aspects. ‘I think it’s the discipline and attitude of these players, especially the younger girls who are very committed to the programme. They have taken on the responsibilities that we’ve asked of them and they’re moving from strength to strength.’

Cayman play Puerto Rico on Wednesday 24 October. Haiti and Puerto Rico play two days later and Cayman face Haiti on 28 October. All matches are at North Side, kick-off 7.30pm.

He knows very little of the opposition. ‘At this point we haven’t had an opportunity to scout any other opponents but we know that Haiti are usually strong. They have been in women’s football since the Sixties. Our programme is basically a very new one but these girls are really accomplishing a lot of things that we didn’t expect them to. So we’ll just have to wait until the ball rolls to determine how well they are really doing.’

Cayman’s key players are captain Krishan Welcome, Shenel Gall, keeper Judy Rivers, Sophia Dilbert and play maker Shakeina Bush who is coming from college in the US for this tournament.

Jamaican McLaren’s coaching career began at the Bridgeport High School girl’s team in Portmore. A couple have graduated to the national team since he left. He was a youth specialist coach for the parish of St Catherine, working with the Jamaica Football Federation by extension, identifying talent and recommending them for the national squad. He was also the technical director for the junior programme, developing talented seven to 17-year-olds.

A Premier level central defender for Wanderers in Portmore in his playing days, McLaren is honest about his ability. ‘I was okay but not good enough for the national team.’ He emigrated to New York in 1993 but there wasn’t much organised football there, just recreational games. Going back to Jamaica wasn’t much of an option as there were fewer playing opportunities than there are now. That’s when he hung up his boots.

He eventually returned to Jamaica in 1998 and coaching started with a church team in Portmore, God bless him. That extended into the community, then parish level and finally affiliation with the JFF and international level.

McLaren recently received his international coaching license from CONCACAF (the Caribbean region’s football association) and the English FA with a recommendation for the UEFA B license because he finished in the top four of 24 attending the course. Sir Trevor Brooking, the former England midfielder, oversaw the certification. CONCACAF president Jack Warner cut short his trip to China to watch the women’s World Cup to make the presentations in Trinidad.

‘What that license affords me is that I can now coach international teams in CONCACAF, anywhere in the region and with the recommendation I’ve received from UEFA I’m qualified to coach some professional teams in the United States.’

Jeffrey Webb is president of the Cayman Islands Football Association. He says: ‘I’m very happy to have somebody of Bobby’s quality here. And him willing to put the effort in to learn and to get himself qualified and so forth is very refreshing. When you’re looking for a coach the two things you look for is his ability to analyse the game and to communicate. He was highly recommended by some of the top football officials in Jamaica so we’re very happy to have him on board.

‘Thiago too, has done a hell of a job on the women’s programme in the four years he’s been here. He’s really built it up from nothing and the average age of the senior national team is only about 17 or 18 so it bodes well for the future. We’ve set the foundation and told the coaches that we’re looking to build a long-term programme. It’s not a quick-fix gap, we’re looking for down the road, something sustainable.’

With a glowing endorsement like that, McLaren could be excused for taking things easy. But complacency is not in his character. ‘My long-term ambition is to become an instructor where I could learn the technology and come back to the Caribbean and share it with my fellow colleagues. Because just doing this course enlightened me into realising why our football is where it’s at right now. The technology has not been passed on to us.

‘So if I can get as much information and knowledge as possible, I believe it will help overall the football in Cayman. The techniques that are being used in coaching are much different because top teams now use technology for match analysis, how to determine how to structure your training sessions. They have new and innovative ways of coaching so that the players will understand far better what you are trying to get across to them with new techniques that really and truly enhance the players’ ability to understand what you’re trying to deliver.

‘And if you can employ these types of techniques from an early age it will allow the players in their developmental stage to understand what is fully required so that when they reach the international level it won’t be such a challenge.’

Favourite player is AC Milan’s Kaka, the supremely gifted Brazilian attacking midfielder who at 25 continues to improve. ‘He has proven himself at every level; Champions’ League, World Cup tournaments and for his club. He has never let any team down. Even if the team is not playing well his level of consistency and work rate is what I admire about him.’ Can he produce another Kaka from Cayman? ‘I think Kakas are born not made!’

Like most people – including this writer – McLaren feels blessed for working in Cayman. ‘I’m very happy in Cayman, glad to be able to contribute to the development of football. I believe my purpose on earth is more or less to be a medium for transformation and football is just the vehicle I use.’

His favourite club is Arsenal because Arsene Wenger is such an inspiration. ‘I believe he has found that fine line between entertaining and being effective. One of my ambitions is to be able to understudy a coach like that where I could bring the beauty of the beautiful game to the players I coach. I want to use the power of football to create a brighter future for Cayman’s youth.’