Posted: 12.04.20 at 02:13 by Derek Davis
Little did a young player know when he stepped up as a 16-year-old coach helping at Shotley Rangers, that he would go on to be the manager of an international team looking to qualify in the FIFA World Cup.
Step forward Ben Pugh who is the Cayman Island’s Football Director of Coaching, and manager of the men’s international team.
Ben took over as the country’s national manager in March last year, just months after originally flying out to the Cayman Islands with wife Carmella to coach league side Academy Sports Club.
With a background in coaching at Ipswich Town youth academy, initially as a volunteer, then overseeing teams between Under-13 to the under-16s, and having set up his own coaching company with long-time friend and Shotley teammate Lee Mandley, Ben soon impressed with his footballing knowledge in the Caribbean.
“Coaching abroad was always something I had wanted to do and both myself and my wife Carmella, (who is also from Shotley), had always spoken about living abroad as we both love to travel,” recalled Ben.
“That along with the potential to get involved with the National Team made it a risk worth taking.
“I began helping out with the national team, coaching with the men’s team, also writing and developing a way of playing.
“After a short period of time a position became available and I was appointed Head Coach.”
It was something of a baptism of fire turning around the fortunes of a side that not won a competitive international match in nine years.
Ben said: “Prior to my arrival, the Cayman Islands hadn’t won a game in around nine years. After a lot of hard work, we prepared for the Nations League games in September, October and November with a draw at home vs Cuba. We then won four out of our six games and narrowly missed out on qualification on goal difference which would have been a massive achievement.”
The Cayman Islands are now FIFA’s 193rd ranked country in the world, but that is 13 higher than when Ben took over as national manager of the side, who play in George Town on Grand Cayman.
Part of the problem is the Cayman Islands, made up of three islands, has a population of around 65,000, with half of that made up of non-nationals, making his pool of players less than footballers in Suffolk.
“We now have World Cup Qualifiers in September and the goal is to qualify for the next round,” said Ben “We don’t know who we have in our group yet but we will make sure we are fully prepared when the games come round and will reassess our goals at that time.
“We also have a very young team and we are trying to build a solid base for the team to get better by promoting youth players, we are trying to get as many of these players off island to help them develop further as people and as players.”
The challenge has been made a harder as the country, like the UK, is in a Covid-19 lock down.
Ben said: “Despite all that is happening at the moment, players are continuing to work hard as they have programmes to follow at home.”
Having a wide portfolio to deliver has meant little time to chill out and the 30-year-old has used his time constructively.
He said: “The role is great and very diverse. With the senior men I enjoy the competitive nature and pressure of working in a results-based environment. It is a young and enthusiastic group who have very clear goals.
“A large part of my job is also developing coaches and overseeing the other national teams. I have recently started the Coaches Association which provides coaches of all levels with new ideas and a platform to discuss their own coaching problems as well as learn on the field and in the classroom.”
As beautiful as the Shotley peninsula is, Ben admits life on the Cayman Islands is pretty idyllic, with its seven-mile beach and wonderful climate.
“Living in Grand Cayman is beautiful – unbelievable beaches, unbeatable weather and incredible food. The Caribbean culture has proven to be very welcoming and it really is paradise,” said Ben.
He added: "I find it difficult to switch off to be honest, even when I am away from work I am watching football or talking about it with other coaches both on and off island, and in and out of a professional setting.
“I enjoy spending time at the beach, the snorkelling here is great. I also spend a lot of time reading but mostly these are books linked to coaching and learning.”
Not that Ben doesn’t often think of his past on the peninsula and he is still close to his family and friends here.
He said: “I have great memories of Shotley and Holbrook, and it was a fantastic place to grow up.
“I have fond memories playing football and spending time with friends. I’m still close to a number of people from the peninsula and saw a few over Christmas when I returned for a few days.
“I speak with my family often - with technology as it is. I do miss the long walks along the coast and running with my dog for miles along the front.
“I liked spending time socialising in the local pubs and I played for the Rose for a couple of years – I had some really good times there.”
Although not quite in the same league yet as Sir Alf Ramsey, Sir Bobby Robson, George Burley, and Mick McCarthy, who have gone on from being Ipswich Town coaches, to international managers, it is still quite an achievement for an unassuming young lad from Shotley Rangers to where he is now, and Ben is still only 30.
12 top Cayman Island facts -
• The world famous seven-mile beach and award-winning around is actually five and three-quarter miles in length.
• The population is a little less than 66.000 people, with half of those actually born in the Cayman Islands.
• The main industries are tourism, financial services and construction.
• Currency is the Cayman Island Dollars CI$
• The Cayman Islands consist of three islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman
• National Bird: Grand Cayman Parrot
• More than 135 different nationalities are represented in Cayman. The majority of the population is Caymanian, followed by Jamaican, British, American, Canadian, Filipino and a mix of Latin American. However, there is also a strong and close-knit German, Brazilian and French community.
• Queen Elizabeth II rules the Cayman Island, with Martyn Rope the country’s Governor.
• Although a British territory, Christopher Columbus sighted the Cayman Islands on May 10, 1503 and named them Las Tortugas after the numerous sea turtles seen swimming in the surrounding waters.
• The Cayman Islands aren’t islands at all, they’re part of a mountain called the Cayman Ridge, which rises more than 7,500m – or the size of a very large mountain in the Himalayas – from the ocean floor. But all three islands are extremely flat. The highest point above sea level is actually the east end of Cayman Brac – and that’s just 46.6m.
• There is a dive site for every day of the year The Cayman Islands are widely recognised as the birthplace of recreational diving in the Caribbean, and a top choice for diving holidays. With more than 40 dive operations and 365 dive sites, people from all over the world choose to dive in the Cayman Islands for the warm, calm waters, 30m+ visibility, stunning reefs and incredible variety of marine life.
• The mudslide cocktail was invented in the Cayman Islands The Wreck Bar and Grill at Rum Point is reported to be the place where the delicious mudslide cocktail was invented back in the 70s. The story goes that a customer at the bar asked for a White Russian. The barman asked what was in a White Russian, so the customer told him: vodka, Kahlua and cream. The barman didn’t have any real cream but he did have Irish cream, which he used instead and so, the mudslide was born