Jamaica has given birth to a number of talented athletes throughout the years, from track stars to equestrians. While our track stars get the lion’s share of the public’s attention and love, we also have a strong love affair with ‘the world’s game,’ football. Although we’ve only made it to one World Cup so far, we have seen a number of talented players over the years. Many of them have donned national colours and turned out for the Reggae Boyz, but others have made their names in club leagues in Britain and the United States, earning fame for themselves and opening doors for other Jamaican players coming through the ranks. Today, in the spirit of World Cup fever, we feature a few of Jamaica’s football legends.
John Barnes – The name John Barnes is well known in football circles, most notably for his 10-year stint at Liverpool Football Club and as one of England’s standouts. However, he was born in Kingston, Jamaica and attended St George’s College before migrating to England at 12 years old where his father, an army colonel, was seconded to the British regiment at the time. Barnes began his career at Watford in 1981 at 17 and moved to Liverpool in 1987. During his decade with the club, he made 407 appearances, scored 108 goals and won four major trophies. He made the England under-21 team while at Watford and made his senior team debut two years later. Barnes would go on to earn 79 full international caps for England (a record for a black English player at the time) and score a dozen goals. On September 16, 2008, after having his name bandied about with technical duties relating to Jamaica’s football, John Barnes was appointed as head coach of the Reggae Boyz. He served from November 1 to June 15, 2009.
Alan ‘Skill’ Cole – Many local football pundits, official and otherwise, would argue that ‘Skill’ Cole is one of the most talented players to ever come out of Jamaica. However, despite his prodigious talent, which earned him comparisons to the great Pele, he has never quite lived up to the expectations. Raised in central Kingston as an only child, Cole grew up to be a midfield maestro, becoming Jamaica’s youngest senior football international, making his debut against a Brazilian team when he was only 15 years old. Cole had professional stints in the United States with the Atlanta Chiefs in the late 1960s and with Brazilian club Nautica in the early 1970s. He helped Nautica to a spot in the National Championships in 1972, where he played against the likes of Pele, Gerson, Tostao and Jairzinho, all of whom had played on Brazil’s World Cup winning team in 1970. Cole partially attributes his chequred career to FIFA’s rules during the 60s and 70s that barred professional players from representing their national teams. On September 26, 2010, he was presented with a plaque by FIFA President Sepp Blatter in recognition of his contribution to Jamaican football.
Lindy Delapenha – Lloyd Lindbergh ‘Lindy’ Delapenha was the first Jamaican to play professional football in England, joining Portsmouth in April 1948, where he won a league championship medal. He was transferred to Middlesbrough in April 1950 for £12,000. The skilled winger became a mainstay and the club’s leading goalscorer (1951-52, 1953-54 and 1955-56). He scored 93 league/FA Cup goals in 270 appearances, including unbroken records for a winger of 22 goals (1952) and 25 goals (1954) in a single season. Delaphena moved on to Mansfield Town in June 1958, where he made 115 appearances and scored 27 goals over two years. At the peak of his career at Middlesbrough, he was offered £26,000 to transfer to Manchester City, but declined it in order not to dislocate his fiancee. Delapenha played five more years in England, retiring in 1960 and won the Southern League Cup with Burton Albion, scoring the winning goal in the final. Back in Jamaica and nearing 40, he took Boys’ Town from Division III to Division I and ended his playing career at Real Mona. He also became director of sports at the then Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), now Television Jamaica (TVJ).
Gil Heron – Heron was born in Kingston in 1922 and was the first black man to play for the legendary Scottish football team, Glasgow Celtic. He played during the 1951-52 season, scoring two goals. Heron, known as the ‘Black Flash’ and ‘Black Arrow,’ began his career in 1946, playing for the Detroit Wolverines in the short-lived North American Professional Soccer League. The team won its inaugural season, with Heron as the top scorer. He was then transferred to the Detroit Corinthians in the larger American Soccer League. He was scouted on one of Celtic’s regular tours in the States and went on to make his Scottish debut on August 18, 1951 in a League Cup tie against Morton, scoring in a 2-0 victory. However, his career at the club was short-lived, as he was competing for the centre-forward position with John McPhail, a Celtic hero of that era. Heron, who died in 2008, was also the father of the late jazz musician and rap pioneer Gil Scott-Heron.
Theodore ‘Tappa’ Whitmore – Whitmore’s name will forever live on in the annals of Jamaican football history as the hero who enabled the Reggae Boyz to win its first match at the senior World Cup. His double strike in France ’98 took Jamaica to a 2-1 victory over Japan. Before donning the national colours, the midfield marshall played for local clubs Violet Kickers and Seba United. His first match for the Jamaican national team was in November 1993, a friendly fixture against the United States. He was an integral member of the team, his skill and creativity in the midfield creating many an opportunity for the Reggae Boyz throughout the strenuous Road to France campaign, which culminated in a nil-all draw against perennial rivals Mexico at the National Stadium November 17, 1997. Whitmore was appointed as the Reggae Boyz head coach in 2009. He guide them to 2010 CONCACAF Gold Cup title, but despite his best efforts, he was unable to recreate the magic as the team failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup currently underway in Brazil.