Last weekend will go down as a memorable one for Cayman for many important reasons.
For one the country would be spared a deadly beating from Hurricane Gustav. But just as important locals would engage in a long-winded and long-awaited celebration of their national sport.
On Sunday Cayman made it into the second round of the Digicel Caribbean Championships. To do it the national side had to survive a tense 0-0 draw with arch-rival Bermuda.
A major hurricane may have just passed but it would have been hard to tell by the number of fans that came out.
Some 1,100 people filled the stands at Truman Bodden Sports Complex in hopes of taking their attention away from fallen trees and boarded-up homes and on to a Cayman team poised to be a winner.
It didn’t hurt either that at Truman they would find good seats and parking. The hurricane left no mark on the national stadium as the pitch was in pristine condition and begging to host a proud national football moment.
Everyone could sense they were in for a historical night. Even dignitaries and the media could feel the vibe pulsating around the stadium.
Adding to the tension were the results from earlier in the night. Antigua just got by St. Martin 3-2 to qualify as group leaders.
For Cayman their course of action was simple: tie or win and they’re in.
To their credit, the players ignored the buzz and came out with an attitude that was strictly business.
The Cayman players marched onto the field a quiet bunch, focused on warming up and sizing up their opponents.
The Bermuda side was no stranger to Cayman though. In March of this year Bermuda knocked Cayman out of the regional World Cup qualifiers with a tough loss in front of the local crowd.
In the first half they played as if they intended to make history repeat itself. Time and time again, they would put pressure on the Cayman backline.
Attackers like Damon Ming and Reginald Lambe were recurring threats for Cayman as defenders often scrambled to clear crosses and keep those danger men off the ball.
With such an aggressive stance from Bermuda it would have been easy for Cayman to gather their players at their end and hunker down the defences.
But Coach Carl Brown had other ideas. He implemented aggressive pass defence and encouraged his players to take stabs at the Bermuda goal.
Players like Jairo Sanchez and Carson Fagan would respond and be in the thick of the action. Sanchez, Fagan and the Cayman midfielders could be seen fighting off Bermuda for the ball, intercepting passes and launching runs on the wing toward Bermuda’s goal.
Cayman’s best chances came from a resolute Calvin Jefford. Coming off an abysmal performance against Antigua, Jefford came out determined to be a force on offence.
Jefford would make dazzling runs into the Bermuda area on several occasions. He would get by Bermuda’s right back often and get good looks on goal.
However he would often find himself in no man’s land, facing three defenders and armed with no support. Jefford could only force highly-contested shots that would be kicked away or easily handled by Bermuda keeper and Captain Timothy Figuerido.
Yet Bermuda would have the lion’s share of chances. The final stats would say they had seven shots on goal and nine corner kicks.
However, Bermuda looked to be constantly breathing down Cayman’s neck. Cayman’s O’Neil Taylor and Leighton Elliot had little time to relax as they could be seen tackling and marking up players across their area.
Cayman’s cause would then get a serious blow. Top local keeper Tuda Murphy would go down near halftime with a leg injury after a collision with an Antiguan player.
Coming into the game, Murphy had issues with injury. Up until now he was unable to start in any of Cayman’s games due to an ankle injury sustained in practice before the Cayman-St.Martin match.
At the half-time whistle a tired Cayman team went into the locker room tied at 0 with a Bermuda squad that looked frustrated at not netting a goal.
Carl Brown went into the locker room with a calm face, looking as if he was not concerned with Bermuda’s pressure or the loss of Murphy.
Surely Brown would take the break to encourage the Cayman team to keep up their play. He knew that Cayman needed only to hold Bermuda at bay to secure a berth in the second round.
In the second half however Cayman came out with a renewed sense of urgency. The squad would make more of a concerted team push on offence.
The result would be a crowd-pleasing chance to take the lead. Garth Anderson, who like Fagan and Sanchez was making strides on the wing, would make a run into Bermuda territory. He would slip past a few defenders before unleashing a laser from outside the box that just sailed above goal.
The crowd would have a mixed reaction, groaning loudly before giving an appreciative applause. The crowd would have loved to see Cayman take more chances on goal but knew the side could not afford to over-commit.
From there Jermaine Brown would have much work to do in the Cayman goal. He was consistently tested by the Bermudans, facing a barrage of close-range screamers, set pieces and long-range missiles.
The pivotal moment in the second half would see a pair of red cards. Fagan, who had a good game to this point, got his second yellow card of the night for a handball while part of Cayman’s wall for a Bermuda free kick.
Any advantage Bermuda gained would vanish after Stephen Atwood would be sent off for arguing incessantly with the referee about the free kick.
As each side fielded 10 men, the action got looser and resulted in a few more chances for Cayman. Jefford would get more looks on goal and Carter would force a world-class save from the Bermuda keeper.
In due time the final whistle would blow and everyone let out a collective sigh of relief.
The players, exhausted and battered, would shake hands at midfield. The crowd cheered, the Cayman players hugged each other in utter joy and everyone in and around the stadium had teary eyes and smiled from ear to ear.
At the end of the day, the game may not have produced a fairy-tale result. But for a nation longing for a moment of bliss in competitive football it was certainly a dream come true.