A comprehensive review of the 2015/16 Guyanese Elite League with stats and analysis from Guyanese football specialist, Santokie Nagulendran…
So it came to pass: Guyana’s first ever Elite League concluded on Sunday 26 June with a finale that many would have predicted at the beginning of the season: Slingerz FC lifting the trophy. The semi-professional league was the brainchild of the FIFA-installed Normalisation Committee running Guyanese football administration last year and maintained a unique format. The season was split into two halves: the ‘’Genesis’’ and ‘’Finale’’ stages with eight clubs competing. They were Slingerz FC, Pele FC, Alpha United, Fruta Conquerors, Guyana Defence Force (GDF), Buxton United, Monedderlust and the Georgetown Football Club. The top four clubs at the end of each half competed in play-offs to determine a winner for that half of the league, with the respective winners of each half then having a championship game at the end of the season to determine an overall champion.
The league caused controversy upon its inception due to the geographic make-up of the teams taking part; five of the eight teams were based in Guyana’s capital city Georgetown, while no teams from the small mining town of Linden were featured, a town with a rich footballing history that is also the region in which Guyana’s most famous footballing event takes place: the annual Kashif and Shanghai knock-out tournament. Yet the rationale was that the eight teams chosen were all CONCACAF-licensed and had enough financial stability to compete in the league.
Action eventually begun in September 2015 after initial delays due to a lack of sponsorship, but fans were nevertheless happy to see the return of a top domestic league in Guyana. The previous inception, the National Super League, had ceased in 2014 and players were left without any sort of top competition for over a year. Slingerz FC started the season as favourites having been unbeaten for over two years in any form of football, while Alpha United – a powerhouse of Guyanese football over the last ten years and led by the national team’s assistant coach Wayne Dover – were also not to be taken lightly. Between Alpha and Slingerz, the two clubs contained the majority of local-based national players within their ranks and have comfortably the biggest budgets in Guyana. Think of them as the Manchester City and Chelsea of Guyana.
Yet whilst the league placed emphasis on developing Guyanese players, it was a veteran who made the biggest impact during the opening games: 33-year old Gregory ‘’Jackie Chan’’ Richardson. Generally considered the most talented Guyanese-born player of his generation, he had left former club Alpha United in the summer and re-joined his boyhood team Pele FC. The move was inspired as Richardson led the goal-scoring charts for the first half of the season, taking Pele to second in the first half of the league against all the odds. Elsewhere, Slingerz dominated but almost pulled out of the league when they were told some of their players were ineligible for a game against GDF, leading to them walking out and losing by forfeit. That was their only so-called loss of the first half of the season in which they amassed 28 out of a possible 42 points.
Striker Delon Lanferman excelled for Alpha United, as well as Pele FC defender Jumane Somerset, and both were rewarded by being sent to the 2016 MLS-Caribbean Combine in December. Daniel Wilson, a midfielder for Alpha and Julian Wade, the Dominican winger who plays for Slingerz, both received invitations to go on trial at Sporting Kansas City in USA. Unfortunately none of these players were awarded contracts abroad but the league is providing an opportunity for players to get noticed overseas, and that was a concept which was non-existent before in Guyana.
On the pitch, Slingerz cruised to the ‘’Genesis’’ title, defeating Alpha in a classic 3-2 final with wild celebrations launched by the West Side team at the full-time whistle. Pele came in a respectable third, whilst Buxton, Monedderlust and Georgetown FC struggled despite some flashes of quality, filling the last three places in the league. During this period, Guyana held footballing elections and Wayne Forde was elected as Guyana Football Federation President, yet he expressed concern over the sustainability of the league. He said: “My primary concern with regards to the league is how would the clubs sustain themselves and continue to participate because it imposes a financial burden on them.” Indeed this is a problem recurrent around the Caribbean: it remains financially crippling to fund and sustain a team in a local league, and this further emphasizes the need for a Caribbean Pro League with substantial investment to materialize.
The second round of the league, the ‘’Finale’’, begun in February and continued the pattern of the previous stage: Slingerz FC vanquished all challengers and looked set to coast to the title. They added to their strong squad during the interim period by signing winger Trayon Bobb from Caledonia AIA (now known as Morvant Caledonia United) in Trinidad & Tobago and his addition boosted their attacking capability. They amassed 40 out of a possible 42 points in the second stage of the season. Elsewhere, Fruta Conquerors began a remarkable charge for the top spot, led by 22-year-old Canadian-based forward Shaq Agard. Agard struck six goals in nine games but was subsequently banned from competing in the remaining rounds of the league due to confusion over his status and whether he was correctly registered to compete as an ‘International Player’. Yet Fruta managed to sustain their momentum despite a subsequent humiliating 8-1 loss to Slingerz and qualified for the ‘’Finale’’ play-offs by finishing second in the league. A great improvement from the previous half of the season.
There was controversy as the league reached its conclusion. The aforementioned Richardson was sent off in a game against Alpha and his team Pele FC later walked off the pitch with the game being abandoned. Richardson was charged with misconduct and suspended until his hearing took place weeks later. This meant he missed the play-off games and also Guyana’s 2017 Caribbean Cup qualifiers against Curacao and US Virgin Islands in June.
The top four for the second stage of the season remained the same. So Pele (without Richardson), Fruta, Alpha and Slingerz would make-up the play-off round to determine the winner of the ‘’Finale’’ round.
Despite finishing four points ahead of them in the league, Fruta capitulated and lost 4-0 in the first play-off semi-final against Alpha while Slingerz defeated Pele 2-0. In the final, Alpha surprisingly defeated Slingerz on penalties after a 0-0 draw, meaning that there would be one final match between Alpha and Slingerz to determine the overall league champion and crown Guyana’s number one club. Whilst rivalries fuel competition, Slingerz played Alpha a remarkable seven times over the course of the season due to the format of the league and in many ways this saturated the intensity of the rivalry. Many fans criticised the format. In the championship play-off, a sole strike from Devon Millington sealed the title for Slingerz and they took the crown of best club in Guyana. Deservedly so, too, as over the season they were the most consistently destructive team. Wade was ultimately the key player for Slingerz – his pace and goals made the difference in numerous games and he was aided by the consistency of national team midfielders Vurlon Mills and Bobb.
The Elite League had many successes and also many hurdles. The league brought the spotlight on many young Guyanese players of the future whilst also creating opportunities for players to get paid and be able to compete on a regular level. This should benefit the national team in the long-term. Yet many administrative actions did dampen the excitement of the league such as the questionable suspensions of Agard and Richardson, denying their respective teams of their star players. Many games also had their venues changed at the last-minute, including the championship final, and this affected crowd numbers.
It remains to be seen what changes will be made for next season. There have been rumours that the composition of teams may change with Buxton, Monedderlust and Georgetown FC failing to make an impact and seemingly struggling to remain competitive against the other sides in the league. Monedderlust, the sole representative of Guyana’s second biggest region Berbice, lost 10 out of their 14 games in the first half of the season, while Georgetown FC lost 11 out of their 14 games in the second half. In such a small league, there cannot be such disparity between competing teams as it reduces the appeal to both fans and potential sponsors by having not having a competitive league from top to bottom. Whether the quality of the league serves as a wake-up call to those three teams as they prepare for next season remains to seen.
So-called traditional clubs with bigger fan bases such as Georgetown sides Western Tigers and Santos, as well as a side from Linden, may get a chance to be inserted into the league at some point. But with no relegation or promotion officially being implemented in this inaugural season, it seems unlikely that the league composition will change for the time being, especially as only 10 teams in Guyana actually have the CONCACAF-license required.
Slingerz and Alpha will compete in the 2017 CFU Club Championship against the best throughout the region and it will be exciting to see how they fare. Both are full of quality players and confidence is brimming. Guyana’s Elite League may not be perfect, but it has built a platform for Guyanese football to leap from.
By Santokie Nagulendran
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