—- Montserrat’s 1- 1 draw with El Salvador was a scoreline largely lost in the deluge of FIFA World Cup™ qualifying results and storylines from the past week. But it is by far one of the most significant results of the 108 qualifiers that were played in the past week.
Montserrat, an island with a population hovering just around 5,000 and ranked 183rd in the world, punched above their weight on two occasions. First, they drew 2-2 with Antigua and Barbuda on 24 March, a team 57 places above them on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
But the real headliner was to come three days later in Willemstad, on the island of Curaçao. Trailing 1-0 in the 89th minute against El Salvador – a nation who have featured at two World Cups and sit 113 places above them – Lyle Taylor fulfilled his role as the team’s talisman and delivered in the crucial moment, just as he had done by scoring both goals against Antigua. Timing his run to perfection, Taylor latched onto Jamie Allen’s cross and headed in the equaliser.
After two heartbreaking defeats to El Salvador in the Concacaf Nations League – Taylor was unable to play on both occasions – the third time was indeed the charm. The celebrations were fitting of a World Cup Final. And even better, his young brother Joey, who he seldom gets to play alongside his sibling, was on the pitch when for the decisive goal [Editor’s note: Another pair of brothers play on the team in Brandon and James Comley].
Nearly 9,000 kilometres away from the Lewandowskis, Kanes and Gnabrys of the world scoring on the same day in somewhat routine wins, history was made.
As the 70th-ranked team in the world, El Salvador is the highest-ranked side Montserrat have ever drawn against, and by some distance. Curaçao were ranked 159th when they drew in Russia 2018 qualifiers and Antigua are currently 126th.
FIFA.com caught up with Montserrat’s man of the hour, who was back in Nottingham fresh off a cross-Pacific flight from Curacao via an eight-hour layover in Amsterdam, to put the achievement into context and to learn where their ambitions lie next.
Q: Lyle, this past week of World Cup qualifying must be up there in terms of career highlights for you, is that right?
A: It’s definitely up there. I’ve been at the training ground at Nottingham Forest and everyone’s been asking me how it was, and it’s just so different from my day-to-day footballing job. I get to play with my brother and with, I call them “brothers”. We are a family. The majority of the group have been together for about six years. It’s definitely special.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t more special than club football because it’s representing where I’m from and where my family have been and everything that makes us “us” as a family. It is very, very special and to be able to captain a country and walk the boys out and to go to war as we do every time we step on the pitch is a special feeling.
The instant feeling was that we should’ve beaten Antigua and we expected to. And I mean this in no demeaning or derogatory way of Antigua and their national team, but we expect to beat them. So for us that’s a disappointment. We thought if we went out there and did everything possible that we could beat El Salvador, who are over a 100 places above us, so I think that says a lot about how far we’ve come.
We’re not going into these games as whipping boys. We’ve got enough in this dressing room to win, so let’s go out there and show everyone that we’re good enough. We know the World Cup in Qatar is pie in the sky. That is a long way from this. We’ve got a lot of work to do just to get to the next qualifying group before the impossible dream of getting there, let’s be honest. Little ol’ Montserrat getting to the group qualifying stages would be massive. But that’s where we want to get.
I made my debut six years ago last week in Curacao against Curacao. Arguably we should’ve beat them. We were unlucky then. We had a period of inactivity for about three or four years and we’ve come back ready to prove a point. I’d like to take the last three years and say where are now compared to where we’ve been is streets ahead. Ninety per cent of that is down to Mr. Cassell (Montserrat FA President Vincent Cassell). The work he’s put in and the effort he’s made to allow us to simply play and to get to the position where we are expecting to win games is amazing and that’s down to him and what he’s put in.
As captain I’m privy to everything that goes on behind the scenes. I can’t overstate how hard Mr. Cassell works, and there’s a lot to come. It’s amazing what I’ve seen this team start as and turn in to. Down to the smallest things like kits. We used to wear FIFA-donated kits and now have a sponsorship with Bol. The new kit is amazing and it’s special to us and what we are as the Emerald Boys. Everything from that to the dormitories being built at the stadium, the standard of the pitch and facilities we’re given and hotels we stay in when we go away is 100 per cent down to him. He waited over 40 years to see us win a game, and we’ve done that in recent years.
What the boys have put in is unbelievable. Bear in mind we’ve had a lockdown for football below step 2 for about five or six months. We have over half our squad playing at that level. They’ve not been able to play or train for that period of time and they still turn up and bust their balls and get the results. It is absolutely unbelievable. We’ve had so many obstacles thrown at us and it almost feels like there are powers that don’t want us to succeed, but we are going to make it to a major championship, whether that’s a Gold Cup or the next stage of World Cup qualifying. When we do make it, it’s going to send shockwaves through world football.
I’ve played in front of some big crowds at Wembley and I’ve got a lot to be thankful for, but there is nothing like playing with family and we are all a family in the national team. To pick up a point against an El Salvador team, that really we have no right to be going toe-to-toe with, is massive. To do it the day before my birthday was a perfect storm and I’m so thankful that six years ago I accepted the call to be a part of this.
This is the first time I’ve played against them. The boys were telling me how tough it would be, and I was thinking about the games we played against teams that had beaten us big before, and you turn up and you graft and you give it absolutely everything and you get a result because that’s how football works. We were still confident. It’s always going to be in the back of some people’s minds, especially when you concede late goals to a team that, let’s be honest, are superior.
To be able to go out there, stand toe-to-toe and give away a poor goal by our standards, and to dominate the second half as we did is just amazing. It’s a taste of their own medicine to them because of what they’ve done to us previously. It’s massive to get that result, but there’s more. The next time we play, we will be winning.
From the level of football I’ve come from here in the UK to the level I’m at now, I was never going to be called up for England. It was never an option. The day I got the message I was on the train on the way up to Sheffield playing for Scunthorpe United at the time in League One. My dad and I had been talking about it that weekend and joking how Joey, my little brother, could play left-back, I’ll play up front and my dad could go in goal! And that weekend I got the message asking about my Montserratian heritage. As soon as I was asked, the answer was ‘yes’. It was a chance to represent where my grandparents are from and I was never, ever going to say no to that.
I don’t think anything I’ve done in life would be bigger than that achievement. That’s how big it would be and how high it would rank on my list. That would be the best thing ever. I’d give so much for us to be able to play in the latter stages of World Cup qualifying. If it’s the biggest highlight in my career, it would be up there at the very, very top for the other boys. That’s what it would mean, and there’s only one way for it to happen and we have to go out and make it happen, so we’ve got some work to do.