Dennis Lawrence’s fondest memory of the 2006 World Cup might surprise you. It wasn’t the lanky Trinidad and Tobago defender’s efforts in Dortmund, shutting down a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic and an old Henrik Larsson in an historic draw against Sweden. It wasn’t even the game against England, when the underdog Soca Warriors stretched David Beckham and Co to near the breaking point.

“I know it’s strange, but the best moment for me wasn’t even in Germany,” Lawrence, recently appointed head coach of his national team, told FIFA.com. In fact, it wasn’t even on a football pitch. “It was getting off the plane at the airport back home after winning our play-off in Bahrain to reach our first World Cup. It seemed like the whole country was there to greet us.” 

An arrivals hall full of well-wishers – waving flags, greeting a victorious football team – isn’t exactly rare. But for Lawrence, and for his small Caribbean nation, it was especially meaningful. “It’s the first time I can remember seeing the whole country celebrate anything as one,” said the man who spent most of his playing days in England with Wrexham and Welsh outfit Swansea City. “That moment will always stay with me.”

In a country comprised of two islands – one small and sleepy, the other larger and more developed – division is the norm. The conjunction and between the two island names is a constant reminder of it. But the word Lawrence likes to use most is unity. In his first tenure as a head coach, the former skipper, 89 times capped, is banking on the concept to get the islanders up and running after losing their first two games in the CONCACAF qualifying Hexagonal for Russia 2018. 

Belief and unity
“The main challenge is to get the team to believe,” said Lawrence, an assistant at Wigan when they won the FA Cup in 2013 and a development coach at Everton after that. Still just 42, he’s a man with his own ideas. He’s deliberate in his manner and humble in his speech, but he has the courage of his convictions. He even tapped former Arsenal playing legend Sol Campbell to be one of his assistant coaches in a handpicked backroom staff. “The battle is really against ourselves. We reached the Hexagonal, so we’re here for a reason. We need to understand that. We can beat any of these five teams on our day.”

There aren’t many Trinidadians who know what it takes to qualify for a World Cup. But Lawrence is one of them. He knows first-hand about the sacrifices and the challenges. He even scored the winning goal – one of only five in his international career – in the second leg of the play-off in Bahrain. But humility won’t let him boast about it. “I think I scored it,” he laughed when prodded, before adding: “It was a header.” 

Trinidad and Tobago were the smallest nation to qualify for a World Cup, but they’ve hit on hard times since. They recently lost at home to Suriname and Haiti, results that eliminated them from this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and cost former coach Tom Saintfiet his job after only 35 days. 

Of the current squad, only Kenwyne Jones and Carlos Edwards remember what the grass smelled like in Germany. Lawrence will need these two veterans to be a beacon for youngsters like Dutch-based Levi Garcia, a phenom who was only ten when T&T were punching above their weight on the world stage. “They were a part of those days,” Lawrence said. “If they lead by example, the young boys will follow.” 

Legendary mentor
Lawrence paid close attention to his chain-smoking boss back in those glory days, the colourful Dutchman who masterminded T&T’s qualifying campaign. “In my eyes, Leo Beenhakker has no equal when it comes to influence on a football team,” Lawrence said. “The way he conducted himself, his discipline, and the way he managed the men was incredible.”

Beenhakker was the first person Lawrence called after being offered the national team post. “He just told me ‘you’re ready, so go and do it.’”

What Lawrence wants most is to see his country united under one banner again, the way they were on the tarmac at Piarco International Airport in late 2005. He just can’t shake that feeling. “I know what it is to represent this nation as a player. I know the culture,” said Lawrence, who refuses to call the next game, at home against Panama, a must-win. “I know how to give and get respect.”

And just like he saw it on one sunny day at the airport, Lawrence wants that elusive yin and yang again. He wants the players out on the pitch and the fans up in the stands to be as one. “I don’t just want the boys to go out and perform for the sake of it,” he said, his intentions crystal clear. “We’re not England or Brazil, but our fans have a special way of loving the game. They want success and I want to give it to them again.”