Montserrat is a tiny Caribbean island decimated by a volcano. Their football team however are very much on the rise.
On 18 July 1995 life in Montserrat changed forever when the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted for the first time in more than three hundred years.
Over the next two years two thirds of the Caribbean island’s eleven thousand inhabitants were forced to flee, with the capital city of Plymouth buried under metres of volcanic ash and mud.
Despite this disaster, the British Overseas Territory is who Maidenhead United midfielder James Comley represents internationally.
‘If you ever see anything about natural disasters Montserrat’s always there”, the nation’s vice-captain tells First Time Finish.
‘I went to the Natural History Museum last February and in like the geography side it was talking about the biggest natural disasters; Montserrat was in the top five.’
For the next eighty years the southern half of the island remains an exclusion zone. Young people generally leave to study or work in the USA or UK where there are more opportunities.
‘They’ve found it so hard, because they’ve no income from trade. It used to be quite big in the music industry, a lot of artists would go there and spend like two or three weeks recording in Montserrat, but obviously they lost all of that.’
Starting at the bottom
Despite having such limited resources, and a population roughly six percent that of Peterborough, Montserrat have recently been making waves on the football scene.
In 2002 they famously lost 4-0 to Bhutan in the ‘Other Final’- a game between the then two lowest ranked international teams- on the day of the FIFA World Cup final.
As recently as 2004 Montserrat lost 20-0 on aggregate to Bermuda in a World Cup qualifier, with the damage from the volcano forcing most games to be held away from the island.
After narrowly losing to Curaçao in the first round of World Cup qualifying in 2015, they didn’t play a game for three years.
The advent of the CONCACAF Nations League in 2018 changed things, offering the opportunity to play Aruba, Belize, the Cayman Islands and El Salvador for a place in the 2019 Gold Cup.
Willie Donachie was appointed manager for the campaign, and the former Manchester City and Scotland defender played a key role in turning around Montserrat’s fortunes.
‘He’s a man manager who likes to coach but he’s kind of a little bit less on the strict side’, Comley says.
‘He understands this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for quite a lot of us.
He’s kind of like ‘I don’t mind you checking out these countries and what they have to offer, just be sensible.’
Gold Cup heartbreak
Such approach has clearly worked, with Montserrat coming desperately close to qualifying for the tournament hosted by Costa Rica, Jamaica and the USA.
In the opening Nations League fixture the Emerald Boys were holding El Salvador until the visitors snatched a 2-1 win with the last kick.
‘El Salvador are a massive nation, they came to us and then they were having a friendly against Brazil’, Comley says. ‘They thought they were gonna just absolutely whoop us.’
On the contrary, Montserrat won their other three games, finishing eleventh of the thirty four teams, with the last place occupied by none other than El Salvador.
“We were so unlucky, we were the only team to finish on nine points and not qualify; we missed out on goal difference by two goals.”
Had they hung on for a draw in the El Salvador match, Montserrat would have finished fourth.
Even without that they could have still qualified, were it not for Barbados fielding two ineligible players- Hallam Hope and Krystian Pearce- against Guyana.
The 2-2 draw between the sides was later voided, with CONCACAF rewarding the game to Guyana to mean they qualified in Montserrat’s place.
Despite the close-call Comley looks back positively. ‘There’s just so many factors to it. You’ve just got to say we gave it all we had. We just didn’t quite make it and it’s all character building.’
Familiar Montserrat ties
What is most remarkable in the story of Montserrat is how close the players in the international set-up are.
‘It’s so funny the amount of links and ties within the team I already had that I didn’t even know. My old housemate at the time is cousins with one of the boys that plays for Montserrat.
“Even just on my road where I lived there was me, my brother Brandon and two other boys that play for Montserrat. We all played in the same local park together.’
On Christmas Eve 2019 Comley went out in Islington, and without any communication or planning four of the Montserrat squad ended up in the same place.
‘It’s so close and homely, I can’t really explain how good and how lucky we have been.
To travel with your friends, which is basically like travelling with family now, and experience different cultures, different countries and be able to play football with them, it’s amazing.’
The Montserrat squad don’t simply go to the Caribbean to have a holiday. They kicked on from the Gold Cup setback, winning their next Nations League match against regional power the Dominican Republic.
Comley laughs at the way others perceive his country. “When you’re speaking to these nation’s media, you can tell that they’ve just got that arrogance they expect to beat you.
‘It’s quite good to see because we believe in our squad that we can beat most of the teams, we can give every team a good game.’
Comley is one of several playing in the National League, with his brother Brandon in League Two with Bolton Wanderers. Alex Dyer spent several years in Sweden’s Allsvenskan, whilst captain Lyle Taylor plays for Nottingham Forest.
There is also an impressive pool of eligible players, the standouts being the Willock brothers of Chris, Joe and Matty. Added to this list is West Brom right back Darnell Furlong, ex-Manchester United trainee DJ Buffonge (now at NAC Breda) and Crewe defender Donervon Daniels.
‘Some people are bitter and like ‘well they didn’t want to play with us when we were nobodies.
On the flipside you’ve got to look at it as the better we do, the more interest people are going to have and want to play. You can only look at it from that side.
Every few months there’s always players popping up out the blue and good players are added to our squad that make a big difference. It’s exciting times.’
Promising future for Montserrat
‘You look at Caribbean football and see how it is evolving, you’ve got Leon Bailey from Bayer Leverkusen who’s playing for Jamaica now.
Little things like that are massive, they change how other players think because they can relate like ‘if he’s playing then maybe I should go and represent my nation.’
Players that are playing higher level could have the international break and be able to chill, but for some people they want to experience as much football as they can.’
One of the main problems facing Montserrat and other smaller Caribbean nations is that despite the increasing number of professionals, most of the squad are still semi-pros in England.
‘I would say fifty percent play a lower level of football than me”, Comley explains.
‘For them they’re like “can you let us know the fixtures and the dates and when we’re going to be travelling as far in advance as possible” so they can book the time off work.
Most workplaces are fine with it, but then you know what some employers can be like. Some of them don’t care, they’re just like ‘who are Montserrat?’
‘They can be a little bit awkward, and then some of them are like ‘you can take the time off but it’ll be unpaid leave.’ Some of the boys have been super committed.’
With no international break in England from League One down, clubs need three players called-up to get their games postponed.
Fortunately for the 2019 Gold Cup campaign Maidenhead had Comley and his Montserratian teammates Adrian Clifton and Dean Mason.
Last season though just Comley remained at York Road, meaning he had to miss key games as The Magpies battled to avoid relegation.
‘The club, the gaffer, they’re quite understanding and they just want me to go and do well. They just want me to look after myself and come back in as best shape as I can.
It is difficult don’t get me wrong. You go away for like nine, ten days; obviously you’re doing a lot of travelling, you’re playing games.
‘We normally get back on like a Wednesday or a Thursday, and then you’ve got training and then a game two or three days later so it can be quite heavy.
What normally happens is that we have a night flight and because they’re five hours behind it feels like you’re travelling for like 17, 18 hours.
Most of the boys sleep on the flight, and if you can get a good six, seven hours kip you land in the morning and you’re ok.
But myself I can never sleep; I just find it so hard. You’ve either got someone next to you that moves, or you feel yourself drifting off and then all of a sudden the trolley will hit your chair or something.
I’ll feel horrific by the time I get to training but there you get all the crap out of your body and then you actually feel alright. You’re ready to have a sleep and that normally sorts out your pattern.’
Unfortunately given current circumstances it is not certain when Montserrat will next play.
Two World Cup qualifiers- against Antigua & Barbuda and El Salvador- are scheduled for March, but it is not known whether these games will be able to go ahead.
‘There’s already a backlog of games so potentially over 2020 we missed out on six games that we were meant to play. Where they’re going to fit them in, I have no idea.’
One of these fixtures was a Gold Cup qualifier against Guatemala, which has been postponed twice and since been scrapped.
The current plan is a play-off against Trinidad & Tobago, with the winner facing Cuba or French Guiana for a place in the tournament.
That however might be complicated further, with FIFA having suspended T&T over violating statutes.
This ban has since been lifted, but Montserrat could face Antigua & Barbuda once more should sanctions be reimposed.
Regardless of who they face, make no mistake Comley and the rest of the Montserrat squad will fancy their chances.