Heavy underdogs up against Bermuda in the first round of 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying, Cayman Islands can allow themselves a touch of cautious optimism. They do, after all, have one of the Caribbean's most-respected and experienced coaches prowling their touchline.
Carl Brown, 56, has a reputation that rings out in regional circles and beyond. Capped over 60 times by Jamaica during the 1970s and 1980s, he was assistant to Rene Simoes when the Reggae Boyz reached their only FIFA World Cup finals back in 1998 and was head coach in his own right on no less than five separate occasions.
"I can't say that we'll take the Caymans to the World Cup the way we did with Jamaica, but I am sure we can make the Cayman Islands a strong contender in the Caribbean," said the man who has not only coached in England's Premier League, but also played alongside legendary Reggae man and renowned football lover Bob Marley.
The first order of business for Brown when taking up the Cayman Islands post last year was to assess the level of his talent pool, drawn primarily from the USA's University system and the local amateur leagues. To his surprise, what he found was an almost identical level of all-around ability to that in his native Jamaica.
"The talent here in the Caymans is the same, basically, as what you find in Jamaica," he told FIFA.com, pointing out that the 42,000-population (compared to Jamaica's 2.5 million-plus) is still something of a stumbling block. "The players come from the same hard backgrounds as many in Jamaica and they have the same speed and agility and the ability to improvise which comes from playing on ruddy pitches from an early age.
"The level of raw talent is alive and well here," Brown added. "What I need to do is instil a level of professionalism and make the players see that football can be a future for them. Look how many Trinidadian players and Jamaicans are playing in England right now!"
If it is professionalism they want in the Caymans, Brown is the man for the job. When Jamaican star Ricardo Gardner signed with Premier League side Bolton Wanderers in 1998, then manager Sam Allardyce brought Brown in as an assistant at the Reebok for a year.
"I learned a whole lot under Big Sam," the Cayman Islands boss recalled about the man who recently left his post at the Newcastle United helm by mutual consent. "With him, everything had its place, nothing was left to chance and everyone was consulted."
In his life in football, Brown's Premier League experience is not all that sets him apart. Having played for and coached the famous Boys Town club side in Kingston, he even had the opportunity to play with the then up-and-coming Bob Marley, whose star would rise not on the pitch but on the stage.
"Sometimes I wonder if he loved football even more than music," Brown said of Marley with a smile. "In Trenchtown (a large, poor neighbourhood in the Jamaican capital) he always loved to run out with the team, even after he achieved global fame. Football was his passion and he was no soft touch on the pitch either! The man could play."
The more things change
Training before and after work, the Cayman players have to make big sacrifices as they get set for their 3 February away date with Bermuda. Their opponents are nearly 50 places above them on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and their side will be bolstered by the presence of the speedy, USA-based Khano Smith.
However, the necessary sacrifices are no different than when
Brown was playing. "Back then it was the same," he stated
dismissively. "We would have to drag ourselves out of bed at
eight, train a bit and go off to work.
"At the end of the workday we would train again until the sun went down. At least now we have floodlights so we can go longer."
Knowing his side are outsiders mired in the lower reaches of the
region's pecking order, Brown is full of confidence ahead of
the away leg in Bermuda and plans to ensure his charges as ready as
they can be. "Make no mistake, we have some very good players
here in the Islands," he continued.
"Most of them play in the US University system which can be a sight better than the domestic leagues throughout the Islands." Two players Brown mentions for possible futures in the professional game are Donald Solomon and Tex Whitelock - both central defenders.
"Ideally, you want to come back from that first leg with all the points and a lot of goals and get the people out of their houses and build excitement. But we don't live in an ideal world and if we can't come back with all the points we want to make sure we get one and don't leave them all there," Brown concluded.
With the wily Jamaican at the helm, Cayman Islands will be nothing short of ready for action when that opening whistle blows.