Chris Birchall watched the last World Cup at a pub in a small Midlands town. In the next one, he could be partnering Dwight Yorke for Trinidad & Tobago in Germany. For a 21-year-old who was born in Stafford and had never set foot in the Caribbean until this year, it has been quite a journey. And it all started with three short words.
The club Birchall has been attached to since he was eight, Port Vale, were playing Wrexham last April. During a break in play, the Welsh team's 6ft 7in defender Dennis Lawrence suddenly loomed over the Vale player, asking if it was true that he had a "Trini blood" connection. "Yeah," came the reply, "me mum."
Birchall's mother was born in Port-of-Spain and lived in Trinidad's capital until she was 18, when the family migrated back to England. His agent had already established that he was eligible for the national side and, after Lawrence passed on his phone number, an invitation arrived to play in a friendly against the champions of Peru, Alianza Lima.
Thirteen caps later, Birchall has embarked on another long haul that he hopes will lead to the ultimate stage. Today, in the Hasely Crawford Stadium, Trinidad & Tobago tackle Bahrain in the first leg of a play-off to decide who goes to the finals. Tomorrow, the "Soca Warriors" - Trini's answer to Jamaica's "Reggae Boyz" - fly to the Arab kingdom for Wednesday's second leg.
Along the road from Burslem to Bahrain, the sense of unreality has been compounded by the fact that Trinidad & Tobago are managed by Leo Beenhakker. The Dutchman has been coaching for 40 years, with Real Madrid, Ajax and the Netherlands among his posts. The list of his protégés makes some reading: Cruyff, Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard, Butragueno - and Birchall.
For while the Vale winger is quick to pay tribute to his club manager, Martin Foyle, who nurtured his talent in the youth team and gave him his chance in the senior side, it was Beenhakker who switched the former schoolboy striker to centre midfield. "I'd never played there, but the game was slower because of the heat and I found I got more time on the ball. I thought it went well."
So did Beenhakker. Birchall kept his place for the remaining World Cup qualifiers and the Gold Cup, becoming the first white player to represent Trinidad & Tobago for 60 years. "I expected a bit of banter about that, but everyone gave me a brilliant welcome," he says. "The country is a melting pot - there are Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Brits there - and very laid back."
So much so that the national sport is Fours, a card game reputedly imported from Lancashire. Football success has eluded them, with no appearances in the World Cup finals. The pattern looked set to be repeated until Beenhakker turned things around.
"My first day with Trini was his, too," explains Birchall. "He's relaxed, doesn't show his emotions and knows how to deal with pressure. When he talks about tactics, or the job he wants you to do, you find yourself thinking, 'He knows everything about this game'. For him to have confidence in me, playing me at the heart of the team, is amazing."
Birchall's summer schedule took in Panama, Mexico, Honduras, the United States, Guatemala and Costa Rica. When he curled in a 25-yard goal against Honduras, a headline read: "Bend it like Birchall". In Monterrey, before 50,000 rabid Mexicans, he looked to the stands and the thought flickered across his mind: "What am I doing here?"
The qualifying group came down to a duel between Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala for the play-off place. While their rivals received Costa Rica, Beenhakker's men received Mexico knowing they had at least to match their result.
"The radio said 'Gates open 4pm' when kick-off was at 8!," says Birchall. "It was packed when we got there, but it looked like being a horrible anticlimax. We went one down and Stern John [currently on loan from Coventry to Derby] missed a penalty. Then we heard Guatemala were 3-0 up so we knew we had to go for it. Stern got the two goals that did it."
Like Birchall, his engine-room ally Yorke, now 34 and with Sydney United, is also performing in an unaccustomed position. Their colleagues come from clubs as varied as Vibe CT 105 W Connection, CL Financial San Juan Jabloteh and Defence Force (all Trinidadian), New England Revolution in Boston, West Ham, Gillingham and Dundee.
"It takes me nine hours to get to Port-of-Spain. Dwight comes in from Australia, a 20-hour trip. But his enthusiasm is always there and he's still a fantastic player; very helpful to younger ones like me. You might think he'd be a big-timer after his years at Manchester United, but he's nothing of the sort. And he's always capable, like his great mate Russell [Latapy, now with Falkirk], of doing something special going forward.
"I love the way he always plays with a smile on his face. Against Guatemala - a crucial game - we came back from 2-1 down with five minutes left to go 3-2 up. In stoppage time, Dwight gave the ball away and the guy should have scored but missed. We were looking at him, saying, 'What are you doing?' He just gave us this big grin."
Birchall has enjoyed "getting into the culture" of the twin-island republic. His CD collection now features soca music - Destra and Machel's "It's Carnival" is a favourite - and when out with "the Trini lads" he happily eats curried goat with rice, washed down by a bottle of Carib lager.
It's a far cry from life at Port Vale, who are perennially struggling for funds and fans. Foyle, whose squad is so small that he had every fit player in his starting XI against Wrexham in the FA Cup, has endorsed his Young Player of the Year's travels with a mixture of pride and reluctance.
"Sometimes I feel greater pressure playing here with 4,500 watching than with Trinidad & Tobago," Birchall admits. "I feel I have to impress, especially if I've been away.
"A few supporters have said: 'Why is he going? We pay his wages'. But now that it has come to a play-off, most have wished me well. I love playing for Trinidad & Tobago. But I know where I grew up. Vale, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire: that's my home."
For a few days next week, however, home will be the palatial Crowne Plaza hotel in oil-rich Bahrain. "We don't know much about them yet," admits Birchall, "but I'm sure Mr Beenhakker will tell us everything we need to know. It would be incredible to qualify. Equally, it'll be terrible if we don't make it after coming so close."
In 2002, Chris Birchall cheered on Beckham, Owen and the rest in the Crown & Anchor, his local in Stone. Soon he could be lining up against Brazil, Italy, Argentina and Germany in the flesh. "I'm hoping," he confides with an impish smile, "to get England."Reuse content