Michael Ricketts, the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) president, in under the cosh for the Reggae Boyz’ inability to get remotely close to qualifying for the FIFA World Cup finals
There are voices from all over the island calling for Ricketts to resign from the post he acquired five years ago, but does the finger of blame really just point towards him?
The national team are currently in disarray, low on morale following this month’s elimination from the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers. Since Ricketts stepped into the massive shoes left behind by the untimely death of Capt. Horace Burrell in 2017, it seems that there has been a rocky recruitment process.
Although the ambitious long-term project goal was to reach football’s pinnacle tournament, November’s World Cup finals in Qatar, the way that has panned out has been damaging to both the JFF and the Boyz.Jamaica were arguably a reliable yet largely unexciting team to watch under stalwart Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore. The Montego Bay-born former midfielder was named as interim head coach in September 2016 – three years after resigning from the role – and appointed on a permanent basis in May 2018.
He shored up the defence to stop goals being leaked left, right and centre. This flaw had cost head coach Winifred Schäfer his job. Thrilling times appeared on the horizon as Whitmore guided his troops to a remarkable runner-up berth at the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, narrowly beaten 2-1 by the United States.
Schäfer’s side had stunned rivals – the US in a fascinating 2015 Gold Cup semi-final showdown, arguably Jamaica’s best result for years. But following their exploits, the Boyz ran out of steam in the final against Mexico. Ricketts was in his element because he had inherited a Jamaica team high on confidence and full of promise.
Yet it has been a downward spiral ever since these heady days. Rumours were rife that Whitmore would walk away from his responsibilities unless there was less interference from the JFF.
Ricketts and the rest of the JFF weathered that storm, but there was always unrest bubbling around that Whitmore never got to call the shots despite his job title.
Whitmore was given so many obstacles as head coach, including COVID-19 travel restrictions and monetary issues with players. But it suddenly seemed that he had turned a corner and the good times were about to return.
It came as a bit of a shock when Ricketts announced on television in Jamaica, in March 2021, that a handful of British-based players were ready to represent the island.
This was a brilliant piece of news for fans. It appeared that Whitmore would be given a real chance to return to the World Cup finals as a manager, 24 years after he was involved as a pivotal player at the sport’s major tournament.
But Whitmore was seemingly constantly undermined by Ricketts and the rest of the JFF. He was allegedly informed that he had to find room for any new British-based arrivals that had a Jamaica link.
Ricketts hit back at claims that the power had been shifted from Whitmore. Instead he proclaimed that the JFF only contacted players to provide them with the opportunity to represent Jamaica.
This seemed to be the turning point for the downfall of the Boyz and indeed Whitmore.
The best island-based players were being trained and monitored at the Capt. Horace Burrell Centre of Excellence, located at the University of the West Indies (Mona Campus) in Kingston. But the announcement that there would be an influx of those from the UK favoured over local players must have been a kick in the teeth for those in Jamaica having dreamed of competing on the international stage.
Ricketts reeled off names of highly-prized players from the top two divisions in England as well as Scotland live on Sportsmax TV: “Looking at the list I see Andre Gray, I see Demarai Gray, I see Isaac Hayden – who himself called the JFF to express his desire.
“Mason Holgate, Liam Moore – who has actually acquired his Jamaican passport – Nathan Redmond, Kemar Roofe and Ivan Toney. All of these are in the process of acquiring their Jamaican passport.”
Ricketts added that West Ham United striker Michail Antonio had officially requested to represent Jamaica, having originally turned down the Boyz in 2016.
The reason that Ricketts was so eager to strengthen the squad was two-fold. Money squabbles over appearance fees by the more established players meant the JFF were starting to panic about their World Cup qualifying campaign. And having only reached the World Cup finals once Ricketts wished to follow their formula. Jamaica’s success story for making it to France 1998 was largely due to a British-based contingent that featured players such as Deon Burton, Robbie Earle and Ricardo Gardner.
Whitmore was forced to bring in fresh faces for the hastily-arranged exhibition match against the USA in Austria on 25 March because of contract issues over payments.
These players were unable to function as a unit, given so little time together, and were destroyed 4-1. However, those rebel players seeking improved financial contracts soon realised their places were under serious threat.
Accordingly, the monetary issues were soon resolved with both the JFF and the regular squad members coming to an agreement in order to focus on the eight-team World Cup qualifiers.
A stunning 1-1 friendly draw against European heavyweights (Serbia) in June appeared to be the start of something rather special. Yet five days later the Japan Under-23 Olympic side ran riot to sweep aside the Boyz 4-0, a result that was terrible for Jamaica and burst the hopes for fans that their team was on fire.
A month later England-based Bobby Decordova-Reid scored the second goal as Jamaica eased past Suriname 2-0 in the prestigious Gold Cup. The Boyz edged past minnows Guadeloupe 2-1, then suffered back-to-back 1-0 defeats to Costa Rica and the United States to bow out earlier than expected with insipid displays.
With Whitmore’s tactics sticking to exactly the same format for every match, the opposition were always prepared.
Whitmore was transparent. He decided to defend resolutely for the opening half in order to frustrate opponents, but attack during the final five minutes before the break. After the turnaround his sides tried for 10 minutes to score, then defended heavily.
Two or three substitutions made around the 60- to 75-minute mark to try to throw the opposition, with a final flurry to grab a late goal on the counterattack in the last five minutes.
This pattern lasted from the Gold Cup competition until Whitmore’s final match in charge, a tenacious 1-1 stalemate with the United States in November.
To kick off their opening World Cup qualifier last September, the Boyz left gaps in defence at the death to leave Mexico deflated by a narrow 2-1 defeat.
Antonio’s much-hyped appearance for the Boyz ended in disaster, and was the game that clearly signalled Whitmore would not survive much longer.
Many of the British-based recruits who had accepted Ricketts’s overtures started against Panama. Moore and Ethan Pinnock in central defence, Decordova-Reid, Daniel Johnson and Roofe in midfield with Antonio up front.
Panama simply outgunned Jamaica’s troops behind closed doors at Kingston’s National Stadium. The pitch was bumpy, the hosts were arguing among themselves, Antonio was chasing shadows as the lone striker with virtually no service and Whitmore’s tactics were once more unravelled.
For some reason, despite needing goals and a plethora of strikers, Whitmore kept reverting to playing just one attacker. A 1-1 draw at out-of-sorts Costa Rica earned the Boyz their first point in the World Cup qualifiers in their third match.
Whitmore’s persistence with his same tactics and sticking to one striker proved to be his downfall with two defeats in three World Cup ties over a seven-day period in October. Jamaica suffered a 2-0 reversal in the US, admirably held unbeaten Canada to a scoreless draw then finally scored maximum points with a 2-0 win in Honduras.
But the Boyz had just a measly five points from six games. The squad, despite being strengthened by top-class British talent, were struggling. The problem was that players were too unfamiliar with each other, and Whitmore had so little time that all he could coach was dealing with set pieces at both ends of the pitch as well as reiterate his tactics that even opposition fans knew before kick-off.
The players that took to the pitch were simply unable to hit the ground running and click as unit. Two must-win matches were the goal for Whitmore in November, but his negative tactics resulted in 1-1 stalemates against El Salvador and the United States respectively to leave Jamaica facing an uphill struggle.
With such dreary displays, numerous key players underachieving and Whitmore’s transparent tactics not reflecting the modern-day game he was given the boot in early December by the JFF.
Paul Hall, who had not long been installed as assistant head coach, took on the mantle of interim head coach for the remaining six World Cup qualifiers and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about Jamaica’s prospects.
He had his hands tied for his debut in his new role, with a largely experimental side looking out of their depth in January’s 3-0 defeat to hosts Peru.
Hall’s squad for a trio of World Cup qualifiers did not give many fans much hope for such crucial ties. There seemed too many England-based players plying their trade in the second and third tier.
As expected, these matches proved to be a step too high for some personnel. And for some reason Hall kept to virtually the same tactics that Whitmore had employed. The train of thought must have been that Whitmore had enjoyed a four-match unbeaten run with just two goals conceded before getting axed.
However, Hall’s charges lost all three games – albeit by a single goal, which was not a true reflection of Jamaica’s inferiority – to whimper out of challenging for a World Cup qualifying spot.
Two late strikes saw Mexico grab a 2-1 success in Kingston in January. Panama ran riot but only registered a 3-2 home victory and then Costa Rica earned a 1-0 win at the National Stadium.
The Boyz are languishing down in seventh spot, closer to finishing rock bottom of the pile rather than the push for a qualifying berth to make it to Qatar 2022.
Extraordinarily, they have just one win in their past 14 games so it is no wonder that anger has reached fever pitch about the JFF’s leadership.
The three reaming World Cup matches – El Salvador, Canada and Honduras – presents the chance for new faces to be introduced next month.
Ricketts has expressed that these ties are an opportunity for players to gain international experience. However, it remains unclear whether he wants to try out more British-based players or give those at the Centre of Excellence a chance.
After the World Cup campaign comes the CONCACAF Nations League, which kicks off for Jamaica in May. By which time there could be a new JFF president and a new head coach.
Calls for Ricketts to resign keep appearing across social media and traditional media, with many believing that this World Cup campaign has been an embarrassment.
Ricketts may lack the charisma and the persuasive powers of Capt. Burrell but at least he has tried to improve the squad and has been brave enough to make coaching changes. On the other hand, as the JFF were unable to properly file a formal appeal with FIFA over last year’s US defeat, then their competency is questionable.
Also problematic is giving the reigns to Hall. He is not based in the Caribbean nor North America, instead in London as the Under-23 head coach of QPR. He is clearly not the man to be tasked to taking Jamaica back to where it belongs, if his results and team displays are an indication.
A shake-up is certainly required, but the overhaul that Ricketts promised five years ago has failed to materialise. Yes he has unearthed British-based players, but at the cost of edging out top locals who have for years trained hard expecting to be given a chance to shine on the international stage.
Any patience for Ricketts from the fans and those involved in the game is wearing extremely thin. Ricketts was originally considered to be the right man to continue building on the legacy left behind by the Capt. Burrell. But Jamaica are not the force they were when he arrived, and keep slipping down the FIFA world rankings.
Ricketts tried to overhaul Whitmore’s squad in a bid to reach the World Cup finals, with the prize of competing at Qatar 2022 far beyond the financial rewards.
Admittedly now any overhaul will be a long process for Jamaica. In the CONCACAF region Canada are currently showing how they have rebuilt themselves and are the in-form team, while the once highly-respected Trinidad & Tobago are working on making a return to becoming a leading team.
Former players and experts are voicing what they want to see happen to the Boyz, and the consensus is that better leadership from the JFF and the dug out as the watching Jamaica has been joyless for even the most ardent fan recently.
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