It is customary, whenever you are in between jobs, to expect messages of support. Former colleagues perhaps send along a note to offer a hand or alert you of potential opportunities. Former Trinidad and Tobago midfielder Chris Birchall found himself in just such a position earlier this year, having departed his boyhood club Port Vale after a combined eight years over two spells in their senior side. What was far from customary, for the average person – or even your run-of-the-mill footballer – was that the message of support was from none other than David Beckham.
“On the day that I rejected the deal from Port Vale, David text me to see how I was doing,” Birchall explains to FIFA.com, in somewhat nonchalant fashion. “He just asked what was going on and I explained, he then asked how I’d feel about Salford [City, the club owned by members of Manchester United’s fabled ‘Class of 92’]. He then spoke to Gary Neville and I was invited down to training.”
In the end, Birchall chose another path, but for a player who spent a large chunk of his career in England’s lower tiers, the matter-of-fact way he explains his relationship with one of football’s enduring superstars is remarkable.
“To be fair, I’d say every couple of months he’ll just check in, asking how my family is and I’ll do the same with him,” Birchall explains. “If something spurs contact, or there’s a picture on social media, it could be something like that, we just keep in contact and have a bit of banter.”
This friendship was forged during Birchall’s two-year spell at Los Angeles Galaxy, at the height of ‘Beckham mania’ in LA between 2009 and 2011. During his spell Stateside, as well as featuring alongside Beckham, Birchall also shared a dressing room with Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. His time in LA is one of two incredible episodes that punctuate a somewhat journeyman playing career. The other is his role in Trinidad and Tobago’s FIFA World Cup™ debut in 2006, with Birchall the first white player for decades to represent the island nation – qualifying through his mother who was born in the country.
The diminutive midfielder scored a stunning – and crucial – goal against Bahrain in their intercontinental qualifying play-off which helped the Soca Warriors complete an unlikely route to Germany in 2006, becoming the smallest-ever nation (in both geography and population) to reach the global finals.
“At the time for me it was just a goal, getting the team back into a situation where we could challenge for the World Cup spot,” Birchall recalled. “Now, looking back, and after people said that goal had a major part of getting Trinidad and Tobago to the World Cup, I can’t believe that I’ve had that kind of impact on a game, on the way the history has turned out for the country. I’m just proud and honoured that I had that kind of impact on a country that accepted me.”
An incredible twist of fate saw Birchall’s T&T side drawn into a group containing the country of his birth, England – who could count future Galaxy team-mate Beckham amongst their number.
It’s been a rebuilding process [but] hopefully now they can show CONCACAF that they are one of the big teams in that region.
“I was in my hometown, and all the cameras from the BBC had come just on the off-chance that that miraculous thing did happen, that we’d be drawn against England,” Birchall recalled. “I remember all my friends and family and the public were just in a bar, watching it on the big screen. England popped up first, and we were the last pot to get drawn into a group. I just remember the guy on TV unravelled the piece of paper, showed it to the camera and it said ‘Trinidad and Tobago’ and the whole pub erupted – I couldn’t believe it!”
These stories, and the contact details of Beckham, Keane, Donovan and Co., will likely do Birchall no harm in his preferred future profession of journalism, after the midfielder completed a university degree in Professional Sports Writing and Broadcasting. What’s it like being on the other side of the microphone?
“We did some work experience, went to St. George’s Park [the training centre of the England national team] for a couple of days. We were interviewing the Great Britain 7-a-side team for the Paralympics, and it was so strange to be on the other side,” Birchall smiled. “Trying to memorise your questions, determining what sort of flow the conversation was going, adding other questions that you hadn’t rehearsed, being on that side. It was very difficult but fun at the same time. I have a lot of respect for those who interview people now, because I know how hard it is!”
It is with a patriotic, not journalistic, interest that Birchall now follows the results of his adopted nation after retiring from international football in 2013. Into the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, ‘the Hex’, the former T&T man thinks Stephen Hart’s side have a good chance of reaching Russia – especially with 2006 World Cup squad member Kenwyne Jones as captain.
“I speak to Kenwyne and ask how they’re doing,” Birchall said. “He says this is the only squad he’s been confident in since the 2006 World Cup. After that tournament, we lost all our experienced players: Marvin Andrews, Dennis Lawrence, Dwight Yorke, Russell Latapy and Shaka Hislop.
“Now it’s been a rebuilding process, the players have come through, the funding’s been there and hopefully now they can show CONCACAF that they are one of the big teams in that region and hopefully go on. They’ve had some great results, drawing against USA at home, beating Guatemala away and drawing with them at home. Even in the Gold Cup the year before, drawing with Mexico, these are things that even in 2006 would have been unbelievable. Now this young group of players are all coming together.”
With his own personal experience of fairytale stories and unlikely heroic acts, Birchall’s now-trained journalistic eye will no doubt be keenly watching the Hex in the hope that T&T can emulate the 2006 cohort, and sculpt a tale of their own worth writing about.