Scholars never on skid Rowe

Don’t be surprised if Scholars
International get off to another flyer when the football season resumes soon.
They’ll want to emulate Chelsea who have smashed in 15 in their three unbeaten
openers. Scholars were unstoppable in the first three months of last season but
hit a brick wall around Christmas time before taking a while to pick up the
points again and win the Premier League relatively comfortable.

Off the back of that championship
they picked up a winners’ cheque of $7,500 which they put with other funds to
go for a week-long training camp in Cuba last week. Three matches and daily
training sessions in the burning heat later, they were all extremely fitter,
slimmer and a far more cohesive unit. When Scholars International take on
George Town for the Community Shield on 28 September, they expect to be a formidable
side.

The Cuba trip was marshalled by
head coach Colin ‘Dougie’ Rowe who has been with the West Bay side since
arriving from Jamaica in 1994. He said: “It was a good tour. The players were
focused and the togetherness was immaculate. We got what we expected out of it.
I believe it was money well spent. Erick Brown’s fitness was only 50 per cent
at the start but it improved considerably, now 75 per cent. He wasn’t -playing
enough at his old club, Tigers. He comes with a lot of experience.”

Top Scholars striker Roy Forbes was
noticeably leaner at the end of the trip. He felt much sharper and lighter,
like many others.

In the first match against a Cuban
select, Scholars were without regular keeper Jermaine ‘Whacky Dip’ Brown who
had immigration issues. Rowe stood in and found himself two down early in the
match. Although previously a centre-forward he used his knowledge of the game and
vast experience to muddle through.

“We only had 11 players in Cuba for
the first match so we went in with a defensive strategy. I noticed they
attacked a lot on the flanks so we changed our strategy and concentrated on attacking
through the middle.” It worked, Scholar won 3-2 through goals by Roy Forbes,
Mario Watler and Erick Brown.

In his prime, Rowe was a striker
with Premier League side Cavaliers in Kingston. Good enough to play for the
Jamaica Under-20 side in the CUC championships in Trinidad in 1989, he scored
twice. He came to Cayman for the first time in 1993 with the Cavaliers for two
matches, loved it so much that he returned a year later to join Scholars who
covered his living expenses for the first six months. Sounds and Thing and
Jimmy Powell were his main sponsors.

He qualified to play for the Cayman
national side in 1997 and won around 40 caps over the next 13 years until an
excruciating injury finished his career at that level. In a friendly against
Honduras, a wayward challenge was so vicious that he broke both his tibia and
fibia. Two surgeries followed in Cuba and Cayman thanks to a supportive Cayman
Islands Football Association through six months of hell when he didn’t work. It
left his right leg three millimetres shorter and walks with a limp now. He can
play for about an hour now but feels discomfort in his ankle after that. Now
running his own flooring company, Tec Construction, Rowe is firmly settled into
Cayman life. Such is the respect Scholars player hold for him that on the Cayman
Airways flight back from Cuba on Sunday, they ensured his 39th birthday was
announced over the sound system and the whole plane sang Happy Birthday. 

The rest of the squad arrived in
time for the second game against another Cuban select but Rowe had to stay
between the sticks. This time they lost 4-0 but two goals were down to
appalling officiating and the other two would have been comfortable saves for a
regular keeper. In fact, Rowe was concentrating on directing his team when he
conceded them.

“We lost the second game heavily
but we still played with more structure and stuck to our game plan in the
second half. Two goals were down to errors by me but if we had had our keeper I
honestly believe it would have been by a lesser margin or even 0-0. The ref
finished the game at least 10 minutes early just when we were building up some
momentum.”

Scholars International wanted to
finish the tour victorious again. They took on semi-pro side Real Playa at the
Eduardo Saborit Stadium in Havana. They are provincial champions. One player
wore a Manchester United jersey. A bustling midfielder, he was no Paul Scholes
but was busy enough to make his presence felt. Their 16-year-old national team
centre-forward Daniel Luiz Saez defly finished a move from close range as Rowe
advanced. Scholars plugged away and levelled early in the second half from a
Mario Watler penalty. 

“We played with a lot of discipline
but unfortunately a defensive error allowed their goal,” Rowe said. “I saw the
mistakes we’d made in the first 30 minutes and rotated the players. After we
pulled one back early in the second half, we had a lot of possession. We really
had to adjust to the conditions of the rough, grassy pitches and I take my hat
off to the players for doing it so well.”

Overall, Rowe was pleased with the
results considering many squad members couldn’t make the trip because of work
and family commitments or visa issues. He is upbeat about Scholars’ chances of
retaining the league title and possibly grabbing at least one cup too.

“We have Leon Whittaker, Oneil
Taylor, Whacky and Chris Douglas in the national programme and they’re all soon
going to the Digicel Cup in Puerto Rico. We expect another good start but it’s
customary over the years for our results to drop off in December and January
because so many players go home to Jamaica and Honduras then. My main focus is
to ensure that a lot of players can play in a lot of positions so that we have
good cover.”

Brown may have to go back to
Jamaica soon and if that is the case it will be a big blow. “But we still have
a lot of players who want to join Scholars and if we have a space then some
will be willing. We have a young keeper just joined us from East End, Damian
Rankin. Most of the others are like family. We locked off together. It was a
well spent trip. We last went to Cuba in 2006 and did the Double so maybe it’s
an omen. “Chris Douglas was the captain on this trip and he was outstanding. He
played well both as right back and in midfield. His work rate and discipline on
the field was very good and I’d make him man of the tournament. The Cubans
didn’t expect us to have such great quality. We showed class and played hard on
uneven, grassy pitches.”

Rowe would not be drawn on which of
their rivals will be Scholars’ biggest threat although double cup winners
George Town and the emerging youngsters at Bodden Town look the obvious rivals.
Along with technical director and club founder Antonio Smith and the rest of
the coaching staff, Dougie is just focused on getting them in fighting shape.
So every evening Monday-Thursday for two hours until the start of the season,
they will be sweating like crazy at the Ed Bush Stadium in preparation.
Scholars have excellent sponsorship, particularly from construction firm CDA
whose representative Peter Campbell is a Scholars vice-president.

The Cuba trip may have been the
best investment Scholars International have made recently. New players gelled
with the established ones and the bonding process could see them all the way
through to a glorious end come May. It evokes the Cuban proverb: Brief
encounters can result in long relationships.

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