Carlos Edwards chuckles at his abiding memory from Trinidad and Tobago's astonishing achievement in reaching next year's World Cup. It was Dwight Yorke's face. "Just looking at him," Edwards recalls, "he had this wonderful expression which said, 'Yes. I've done it. I've qualified for a major tournament'. He doesn't have to play any more football for the rest of his life because of that expression. And this was from a guy who has done so much."
The broad smile of Yorke, now 34 and the twin-islands captain, was indeed as bright as it ever was for Manchester United or Aston Villa that evening last month in the Bahrain National Stadium when the so-called "Soca Warriors" earned the victory that took them to Germany 2006.
Among the unsung players of Gillingham, Dundee, Port Vale and Wrexham, as well as the homespun clubs such as San Juan Jabloteh and Caledonia Air Fire, Edwards also appeared, a 27-year-old midfielder or wing-back who is forging his career in the Championship with Luton Town. "Eventually it has sunk in," he says of qualification. "But, yes, it did take a while. About a week and a half, I think."
The memory of returning from the Middle East and stepping out of the team's aeroplane at Piarco International Airport in Port of Spain is equally vivid. "Unbelievable," says Edwards, chuckling again. "I was just not expecting anything like that. It was like 4 July, Independence Day, in America. The whole place was there. On a normal day it takes 30 minutes maximum to get to any destination from the airport. It took us six hours to get to the hotel - that's how many people were on the streets. It showed that the whole country was proud." The street parties continued for days.
That pride grew during the exhausting 20-match campaign in which, after three games, the Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker - whose former clubs include Real Madrid and Ajax - took over and transformed the fortunes of the Caribbean islanders. "It's a big honour to have him," says Edwards. "He actually made us qualify." Yorke, too, has been an inspiration. "He's funny and motivates you in each and every way he can," Edwards says of the unlikely captain.
Above all, Beenhakker instilled belief. "There's no fear whatsoever," explains Edwards. "Before, when we went to places like Mexico and Costa Rica, we would get thrashed four- or five-nil. Now we were unlucky to lose 2-0 to Mexico. And that's a place where even the Brazilians struggle."
Trinidad and Tobago, of course, then beat the Mexicans at home to reach the play-offs. The match took place at the Hasely Crawford Stadium. "And for the first time since I've been playing, since 1999, it has been full to capacity recently," says Edwards. "It's a big achievement for the players to represent the 1.5 million people of Trinidad and Tobago, the red, white and black, but you can see it is also for the fans."
And for all the islands' sportsmen, such as cricketer Brian Lara, who provides another inspiring image for Edwards. "He's a great friend of Dwight's and he came into the dressing room and gave us a bit of motivation," he says. "It was against Costa Rica and we were a bit down, and he gave us a plaque and said, 'No one in the cricket world was expecting the West Indies to win the ICC tournament and we did'."
It shows, Edwards claims, that there is no rivalry. "We are united," he says proudly. "Cricket and football go hand and hand. We are all sportsmen and help each other. It's just a small nation and we all have a laugh, and what is good for one sport is good for the other."
Indeed, not only will Trinidad and Tobago be the smallest country at next year's tournament, they are only the fourth - after Cuba (1938), Haiti (1974) and Jamaica (1998) - to qualify from the Caribbean.
Not that they regard qualification as fulfilment. The draw for the tournament is on Friday and Edwards - who will take a keen interest - insists that "we are going with one thing in mind and that's to compete with the biggest and best teams in the world". He adds: "I can't say we are going to go through to the second round but I hope we will. This campaign is far from over."
Edwards' confidence comes from a belief not only in his team-mates but also from evidence that the "smaller nations are getting stronger and stronger. Just look at who is qualifying - us, Iran. You would not expect that".
He never expected to pursue his career in England, either. "Joey Jones arranged a three-week trial," Edwards says of how he arrived at Wrexham five years ago after being spotted by the former Wales defender playing for the Trinidadian Defence Force team while doing two-and- a-half years' national service.
It took six months to get a work permit because, then, he didn't have enough international caps. Now he has 40 - even if the travelling, and the change of time zones, means that sometimes he is "returning home the day before the game I've just played in has been played, if you know what I mean".
For now, however, he is putting the World Cup to "the back of my mind" as he concentrates on the fortunes of Luton, whom he joined in the summer. The aim is the Premiership. "That would be some double," says Edwards. Indeed it would.Reuse content