Helping a national football team ranked 177th in the world to reach one of the game’s top continental tournaments for the first time is another feather in the cap for our sporting expertise. Dr Mark Faghy, our Senior Lecturer in Exercise Physiology in the School of Human Sciences, explains.
Whether we follow the game or not, we all know how easily football can raise – or lower – the spirits of an entire country when its national team tastes success, particularly for the first time.
By the time Emery Welshman scored the goal which assured Guyana of their debut in this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup finals – which are open to North and Central American and Caribbean nations – some rather sizeable seeds of that success had already been sown thousands of miles away in Derby.
Turning to tried and tested expertise
Following his appointment as national team manager of Guyana in 2018, former Derby County captain and current club ambassador Michael Johnson approached me. He wanted to see how the expertise we have at the University of Derby could be combined with the generous support of the Rams’ chairman and owner Mel Morris to give him and his staff the platform to achieve success.
Michael, who had represented Jamaica as a player in the 1998 World Cup in France, had been a colleague and friend for many years since we linked up at the Notts County U18 Academy during my undergraduate degree. This had initially started as a six-week placement for a final-year module and turned into a two-year stay with the club. It saw us work closely to integrate sport science into the programme and ended up with us guiding the youth team to the U18s league title in our first full season, a celebration that continued with promotion to the first team.
Eight years later and we have maintained a good relationship, regularly sharing coffee and lunches, and talking about all things from the world of sport performance.
During a late phone call last summer where Michael shared the news that he had been appointed as the Guyana head coach, he instantly asked if I’d be able to join him on a two-week camp in Brazil. This was where the Guyana Football Federation was planning to host its first international development camp, bringing together eligible players from around the world.
Making use of the science
It was clear that Michael wanted to make the best use of sports science and sports medicine techniques that we now take for granted in professional football in Britain but which have never been used in the Caribbean regions.
That science involves the use of GPS tracking to assess training load and also to capture insightful information related to competitive performance.
The transponders worn by the players that gave us this data were donated by Derby County. They allowed us to identify not only the physical input of the players, which was impressive, but also their tactical awareness. We used this to effectively formulate our game plan and set-up leading into the CONCACAF qualifying campaign, which started in September against Barbados, as well as using it to monitor training load to ensure that players were working optimally during sessions within camp.
Alongside the addition of the GPS units, we also incorporated physical testing to monitor different areas of fitness, daily health and wellbeing screenings. And we structured conditioning programmes to maximise the potential within the squad.
These are not novel processes in UK clubs, where they are used routinely. However, they were great additions to a nation on the hunt for their first qualification and would give us an edge in the qualification campaign. And they did.
Results speak for themselves
A 2-2 draw at home to Barbados, an 8-0 win away against the Turks and Caicos Islands was followed by a 2-1 defeat away in neighbouring French Guiana. However, a win at home against Belize would still send the Golden Jaguars to the finals in the USA and Costa Rica this summer.
The Belize game duly arrived in late March, with British-born veteran Neil Danns and Welshman, who plies his trade in Canadian football, grabbing the all-important goals. The 2-1 victory took this geographically South American but culturally Caribbean nation of 780,000 people into uncharted footballing territory.
Guyana could not have been handed a sterner test for their opening game, facing tournament favourites the USA in Minnesota on 19 June. This is followed by matches against national teams who have both previously qualified for World Cups: Panama, who appeared at Russia 2018, and Trinidad and Tobago, who made their World Cup debut in Germany in 2006.