Football: Deon lights up Jamaica

These football-crazy islanders have a dream: to reach the World Cup finals and to play England; Stephen Brenkley talks to the Premiership player helping a nation realise an unlikely goal
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Shortly after half-time today it is entirely possible that Deon Burton will score and put Jamaica into the World Cup finals for the first time. Precedent can be a meaningless commodity in football but that ought not to prevent El Salvador from being especially vigilant towards the Derby County striker between the 50th and 55th minutes of the crucial qualifying match.

In each of the three he has played so far Burton has shown himself to be at his most dangerous in that brief period. During it, in all of them, he has scored Jamaica's only goal. They won the first two, drew the third and their long campaign in the Conacaf group, which began with 30 nations attempting to gain one of three places for France 98, was revitalised.

A point in Central America today may be enough depending on the outcome of the USA's match against Canada; three will certainly suffice. But it could yet come down to the final match, against the group leaders Mexico next week. If they make it - and they should - the contribution of Burton and the other English-born players in the latter qualifying stages will be difficult to underestimate.

"It's been a terrific experience, playing international football," said the 21-year-old Burton. "It's different from in England, a bit slower. I feel I've got more time but the skills are high. It took a while to get used to the different surfaces. But the team accepted us well and in Jamaica they're crazy about football."

Burton's exemplary contribution to the cause as a player representing the country through his parentage (his dad is Jamaican, his mum is English) was almost accidental. He made the trip to a training camp last June only to accompany Fitzroy Simpson and Paul Hall, then his team-mates at Portsmouth. The Jamaican management liked what they saw and asked him to stay. The rest is on the verge of becoming history.

"We visited England last year to look at players but it was difficult with the season in progress," said Horace Reid, secretary general of the Jamaican Football Federation. "In the summer we could act. The English- based players have brought us experience and a level of professionalism we otherwise wouldn't have had because we've never been exposed to it. The way they have fitted into the side reflects great credit on them. Now, we're being inundated with requests from England from players with Jamaican parents."

Not that Burton, Hall, Simpson and Robbie Earle of Wimbledon have done it all themselves. Native Jamaican veterans such as the 32-year-old central midfielder Peter Cargill and the exciting teenager Ricardo Gardner are firm evidence of the island's capacity to rear their own players. But their strategy has been formulated by a Brazilian professor, Rene Simoes.

"He has brought an enormous sense of experience and awareness and knowledge to the team," said Reid. "He's from the best footballing country in the world and what he has given us in terms of organisation on the pitch is difficult to overestimate." Not the least of Simoes's contributions has been the shoring up of a leaky defence. Early qualifying defeats by 6- 0 in Mexico and 3-1 in Costa Rica had undermined Jamaica's prospects.

"Our problem was on the road," said Reid. "Travelling seemed to affect us. But the turning point was in the USA last month where we drew 1-1 [Burton got a 50th-minute equaliser] and that's all behind us now."

Whatever happens today there is certain to be a rapturous capacity crowd in Kingston for the Mexico match next week. They have taken football to their hearts and cricket on the island which gave the world George Headley and Michael Holding is in danger of being submerged. Reid recalled a week last March when the West Indies had a home Test match against India. Brian Lara performed in front of around 200 fans; days earlier up the road the Jamaican football team had played before 20,000.

"We've always produced footballers but qualification would help to take us a big step further," said Reid. "Coaches from England, Italy and the MSL in America are interested in our players. There is great excitement. We're representing not only the 2.5 million people in Jamaica but the 2.5 million Jamaicans who live overseas and the rest of the Caribbean in a way."

The World Cup apart, Jamaica and Jamaicans everywhere have another burning desire - to play England, maybe in France 98 if the draw were to decree it, but also in a friendly at Wembley before that. "That would be a wonderful dream. England is still revered in Jamaica," said Reid.

First Deon Burton, perhaps now more familiar to fans of Jamaica than to fans of Derby County since his pounds 1m transfer in August, would like to score today. "I don't mind which minute," he said.