Up against neighbours and island paradise Aruba in the opening round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Antigua and Barbuda, who made waves by finishing fourth at the 1998 Caribbean Cup, are hoping to revive the glory days.

With a patchy record in FIFA World Cup qualifying since losing their first preliminary - and first-ever game - 13-2 to Trinidad & Tobago back in 1972, current boss and former player Derrick Edwards is banking on the addition of a trio of overseas professionals to bolster his squad of part-timers, including butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.

In this case, the definition of 'overseas' translates to just under 500 nautical miles south and the Trinidad and Tobago Premier League. It is there, in the comparative footballing hotbed, where Antiguan standouts Peter 'Big Pete' Byers, Gayson 'Bubbler' Gregory and veteran defender and captain George 'Sowa' Dublin ply their trade as full-time pros.

"This time around we are in good shape with three professional players in the team," said Edwards, who was part of the Wadidli Boys squad that lost 9-1 over two legs to Guatemala in qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002. "These three boys are going to be the backbone of my squad. As professionals they bring a level of experience, class and overall fitness that makes them a cut above the home-based guys.

"Their inclusion in the team raises expectations a great deal ahead of qualifying and our first series with Aruba," added the coach known as 'Pretty Boy', who expects a good chunk of the 70,000 locals who populate the two islands of Antigua and Barbuda to be present at the recently renovated Sir Vivian Richards stadium and make some noise on 26 March. The all-important first leg takes place in Oranjestad, Aruba on 6 February.

The impact of the three Trinidad-based men cannot be over-estimated. In a recent 2-0 friendly win over a fancied St. Kitts and Nevis side, it was the brawny Byers, rumoured to be heading to the USA for a trial with MLS outfit Real Salt Lake, who scored both the goals, while Dublin and Gregory put in impressive shifts.

Byers finished as the Trinidad and Tobago Premier League's top scorer for 2007, with 15 goals for San Juan Jabloteh - managed by ex-England international Terry Fenwick - alongside Gregory. Dublin plays for Tunapuna-based rivals Joe Public.

Route-one Antigua
Edwards is also eager to point out that Antigua and Barbuda will not be relying on the silky skills and chaplinesque improvisation that have come to be the hallmark of many Caribbean sides. "We like to play with the ball in the air and take advantage of our power and speed," insisted the tactician, who is going into his third year in charge.

"We have great pace up the flanks and play with a flat back four. We're a little more direct than a lot of our neighbours, preferring to play a little bit of the old-fashioned long ball."

To hear him tell it, Edwards is certain his side - with all the players currently hailing from the main island of Antigua and none from the smaller island of Barbuda - will roll over Aruba. "We took a look at their U-21s recently and I was not impressed," he told FIFA.com dismissively. "They are a young team and we have to be considered the favourites to win the series."

If their trio of overseas stars and long-ball approach prove enough to see them past Aruba, the next test for the Antiguans will be far stiffer. Indeed, no lesser force than Cuba wait in the wings.

"I suppose it's better than drawing the USA or Mexico," chuckled Edwards, who led the team to the second qualifying round for the 2007 Caribbean Cup. "But Cuba are one of the best teams in the Caribbean and with increased fitness and preparations we'll be going in with confidence."