In this exclusive interview, well-traveled Bahamas international Cameron Hepple chats playing in a WCQ when just 15, training with James Beattie, making Europa League history plus more…
1) Born in Bahamas’ capital, Nassau, what was it like playing football growing up? Did you always have aspirations of becoming a professional footballer?
“Growing up in Nassau was a great place to play football, always sunny so I was able to play year-round which was a blessing. At the same time youth football was booming. Saturday morning youth football at Fort Charlotte was the best day of the week, we played from 9 in the morning until about 3 in the afternoon, with all the players being nine or ten years old. Different teams from all over Nassau came out and played; it was great. I didn’t have confirmed aspirations of becoming a professional footballer until I was about 13 . I always dreamt about it, but growing up in the Bahamas we did not have the professional footballer culture, we just played for fun and I guess parents just wanted their kids to do something to stay active.”
2) How significant a role did the Centre of Excellence (CoE) scheme (see above) play in your development from an early age? It was a certain Englishman who helped set it up?
“Massive, I was only 9 years old when I started with the C.O.E.. We would train twice a week after school and the coach, Gary White (see above) – who now is one of 16 elite UK coaches – did absolute wonders. Not just as a technical coach, but giving players confidence and positively motivating players to do better and achieve more not just in football but in life. He was a great role model for all players in the C.O.E. program.”
3) Through that system, an opportunity arose to travel to England for trials. Barely in your teens, how did you find the prospect of leaving home and family for unknown territory?
“I was more excited than anything, I was on the road to my dream and was excited to experience anything that could give me more knowledge about the game and what it takes to get there. I have a dad who is English and supported Newcastle United so I kind of had an idea of what I was stepping into, and his family still lived there which was a plus. But honestly I was just happy to be playing and experiencing something new, as long as I am playing you could put me anywhere and I would be satisfied.”
4) What did you make of the trials? Was that period all about finding your feet and getting to grips with the harsh realities of football?
“It was an interesting experience, it was me and another young talented Bahamian player, Demont Mitchell, who went on trial. We trained with both our age group (U-15) and also the U-17(school boys) at Southampton and Wolverhampton. There was amazing pitches, quality coaches, quality players and most of all passion for the matches from fans.
I have a vivid memory of our first training session with the Southampton school boys: we were doing a simple passing drill, another player on trial drilled a 10 yard pass to me with so much pace, shockingly I controlled it but that was the eye-opener for me; of how it was everyday, faster, stronger, quicker. I was 13 and playing players who were on the U-17 Australian and Russian national teams and during training the first team players are running around the pitch for recovery. After training, James Beattie is doing extra finishing drills, it was absolutely quality, an amazing atmosphere and a great environment to learn from and I took that experience to the Bahamas and used it as motivation, thinking these are the guys I am competing against.”
5) You’ve played in four different countries (including homeland) – are there any distinct similarities or differences between them?
“From my experience I would have to say England and Spain have to be the two countries as having the most professionalism in the clubs, but with two entirely different styles of playing. Spain is obviously more focused on possession and a pause between transitional play, a very mental and technical game. England was a lot more physical and direct, fast paced with a lot of emphasis on defending and countering. The U.S was more structured on the English system of being very direct, physical and direct especially in the college system. The Albanian league was a lot more technical and possession based as well but hard because of the living conditions in Albania. Most players use football as a way out, to get to a bigger club so it was a very competitive league. I have also had experiences playing in Italy Serie B which I found to be a very tactical; and most recently Japan which was a huge shocker to me with how direct and positive they were in the second division but extremely technical and extremely organized in terms of playing and training sessions. But the big difference I have noticed between the first division and second division in most countries is the technical ability and decision making players make. Each league and country has their own flavor and style and it has been such an experience being able to see how each culture introduces their own DNA into their football. From all the experiences I have encountered I have a different view on football which will affect my coaching style in the future.”
6) Is it fair to say that it was in Albania where you’ve enjoyed the most success so far in your career?
“Yes it is fair to say that: becoming first ever Bahamian to participate in the Europa League and winning the SuperCup with KF Tirana are definitely highlights of my career thus far. Stepping in from playing a US Open Cup qualifier in America to playing World Cup qualifier with my national team then, a week later, playing my first match in Europe being a Europa League qualifier, was an amazing experience that I will never forget. I still have the ticket of the match.”
7) Nowadays you’re unattached. What’s the next move?
“Unfortunately I decided to leave Europe and shift my focus on other leagues. I am shifting back into the North American Leagues or Asia. I have a Canadian passport so I am interested in looking at Canadian clubs in the MLS preferably Toronto FC. After my season in Spain I spent 6 weeks in Japan training with clubs in the second division. The trials were positive with interest for next season so for the rest of the year I am taking a break from playing football until January where I will decide my next move.”
8) You’re a winger. What do you feel is the most important attribute to possess in that position?
“As a winger, the most important attribute I would have to say is your creativity to get past players and either shoot or cross, but always getting an end product. Also most importantly, being able to attack and defend helping your left or right back for 90 minutes so stamina is crucial.”
9) Moving away from your club career and onto international stuff – you made your international bow at an incredibly young age, a World Cup qualifier too…
“Yes at the ripe age of 15, but 14 years of age was my first match for the Bahamas national team against Haiti in a scrimmage in Miami. It is always an honor being selected; I was really happy to be a part of the WCQs then. I am haunted by the match because I hit the post twice and we lost so we could not go to the next round to play Mexico. I was absolutely gutted but learned a lot at such a young age and for that I am grateful.”
10) Since your debut in 2004, though, you’ve only managed 12 appearances (50% coming in World Cup qualifying). What kind of impact does such a lack of official fixtures have on the team’s chances of progress?
“It has had a major impact, we have been a bit stagnant in the last few years and this has definitely hindered our chances. Pulling out of the last World Cup qualifiers was a huge blow for the country and most importantly the players who have committed to the national program since they were 9 years old. We have learnt and matured from our losses and grew as players and as a team from playing in college and professionally. It is a bit unfortunate because I strongly feel we have an amazing team of veterans and young up- and-coming players who can contribute to the squad. All we need is the chance.”
11) Obviously Bahamas is a tiny country with under one million inhabitants, but small countries have still punched above their weight in international football before. Do you think enough is being done for the sport?
“As a player, and from traveling the globe and seeing football being played basically everywhere, more can always be done. I am not based in Bahamas at the moment so I cannot say for sure what exactly is being done but in my opinion the system is run backwards. Without stepping on anyone’S toes, it seems the older you get the fewer opportunities you have to play for the national team. From what I understand the men’s national team is a dead end and more focus is being placed on Beach Soccer (see below) as the regime in charge sees this is a far better option.”
12) What would you say is the next target, the goal for the foreseeable future? The team withdrew from 2014 World Cup qualifying, but with the Caribbean Cup and Gold Cup in the distance, are they possible aims?
“Honestly, I have no idea. I really hope we are entered into both the Caribbean Cup and Gold cup as I love representing my country. If we are not entered it will be disappointing with the caliber of players we have available to represent the national squad.”
13) The Under-15 side recently traveled to Cayman Islands to participate in the inaugural CONCACAF U-15 Championships and they finished a respectable fourth in Group A. How’s the future looking in terms of young, fresh Bahamian talent?
“I think the future is bright for young Bahamians, as more players come through the system like me and prove that it is possible to play football professionally, it gives others the opportunity to believe they can as well. Last summer, during vacations, I was fortunate enough to train the U-17 Second team and had a great time teaching the players what I have learned. But at that age there is a lot of trial and error, I am quite sure that the next time that team plays they will have learned from their mistakes in this tournament and go on to advance in the next one.”
14) And finally, what advice would you give to young, budding Bahamian footballers out there? Are programmes like the COE a step in the right direction?
“Anything is possible. More than ever now with the experience that I and other players have had playing abroad and coming back and contributing to developing the youth players. They are open to more knowledge that we as players did not have, and coming from Bahamians who grew up in the same surroundings as they did it helps a lot. A local program that is doing great things along the lines of C.O.E is YESI Rush Soccer, a local non-profit organization giving football to children in impoverished areas in Nassau and the out-islands and giving them the opportunity to play organized soccer. They recently teamed up with one of the biggest youth organizations in the US Rush Soccer, allowing more opportunities and experiences for a young player to develop and increase the chances of gaining scholarships to universities in America or playing professionally. Eventually when I am based at home I plan on bringing all of the contacts I have made in football and creating a scouting program for young Bahamians to be able to play abroad as well and get them in the professional ranks; putting Bahamas on the map. I am excited about the future of football in the Bahamas and excited for the next generation who will be able to benefit from the work that other players and I have done throughout our playing careers.”
Thanks for your time, Cameron.
You can track Cameron down on Twitter @CameronHepple or Instagram c_hepple. Likewise, we’re on Twitter too @caribbeanftbl.