In July 1995, the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat began to erupt on a large scale. The effects were devastating.
Vast areas of the Caribbean island were covered in thick layers of ash. Sulfur dioxide fumes filled the air. The capital, Plymouth, had to be abandoned.
Large volcanic eruptions continued over the next five years, eventually leaving about two-thirds of the island uninhabitable. Two-thirds of the population of 11,500 fled.
Quiet and rustic will never be quite the same again – much of it remains locked in ‘exclusion zones’ and volcanic activity is still closely watched.
Like Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands, Montserrat is one of the 14 British Overseas Territories (BOT); Self-governing but eventually under the control of the United Kingdom.
After they were forced from their homes, about 4,500 Montserrats settled in England, primarily around immigrant communities located in London and Birmingham.
The national consciousness of Montserrat is still marred by a catastrophic catastrophe. But there is also the spirit of teamwork that has been shaped by trauma and struggle. You can see it in her national football team – and the UK-based players ceding their ancestral homeland.
Montserrat played its first match in 1991 and became a member of FIFA only in 1996. For years they were ranked among the worst national teams in the world.
Between 1991 and 2012 they won two of the 27 matches they played, both against Anguilla, and another BOT is currently 210th in the FIFA world rankings – only San Marino is below them.
When, in March 2004, Montserrat was finally able to host matches at home again for the first time since the eruptions, it was in the first round of the 2006 World Cup regional qualifiers. They lost 7-0 to Bermuda.
They have long been a small thing in the international game, but that is slowly starting to change.
“It was tricky,” says Alex Dyer, a record holder shared with Montserrat, who has 21 caps.
“Not in a rude way, absolutely everyone did their best. We didn’t have the finances, the facilities, we didn’t have anything.”
Dyer, 32, is a midfielder with Wildstone in the National League who has played in Sweden, Norway and Kuwait. Grandparents on his father’s side were raised in Montserrat. It debuted in 2011.
That year, the team was ranked the worst in the world. A little over a decade later, they’ve reached 178th – but their progress runs deeper.
“When I started we didn’t even have matching tracksuits,” Dyer continues. “It really did feel disengaged but it was just a small nation at the beginning of their journey.
“As we have continued to improve gradually and in the last few years, it has exploded. We have a great sponsor who understands that we are not just a team that wants to play football and win matches. They have got the ride, they got the island.”
Part of the problem was the lack of regular matches – between 2012 and 2017 Montserrat played only seven times.
In 2018, things changed with the launch of the CONCACAF Nations League, providing opponents of the same size and caliber.
There have been 18 games since then – and eight wins – overseen by Scottish coach Willie Donacci, who recently quit.
As the team’s fortunes changed, more people wanted to get involved. Recruitment has not always been so easy.
“It’s been a very long process,” laughs 36-year-old striker Bradley Woods Garnes, who since debuting in 2012 has helped find new players alongside his old friend and teammate Dean Mason.
“Sometimes I was looking for the traditional Caribbean names from Montserrat. Sometimes I was looking for the football manager. If I found a player, I would send him a message on Facebook.
“Few people thought it was a joke, someone messed up and asked them if they wanted to come and play international football.
“But once I finally had phone conversations with people and gave them an explanation of where we are now – who our players are on board, where we’re going, who we beat – it worked out really well.”
Among the new arrivals is Nottingham Forest striker Lyle Taylor, who made his Montserrat debut in 2015 when he was at Wimbledon. He is now the record scorer with 10 goals.
Former Salford City midfielder Matty Willock, whose brothers Joe and Chris play for Newcastle and QPR respectively, made his debut in 2021.
Standards and results improved beyond recognition. Montserrat came painfully close to qualifying for the 2019 Gold Cup, the equivalent of the European Championship in CONCACAF, and just lost its goal difference to El Salvador, a country of 6.5 million people who is 100 places above it.
“There’s going to be some losses, but recently we’ve been victorious and the people on the island are over the moon nonetheless,” Dyer says.
“It gives them some joy and something to be happy about, and it inspires the younger generation of kids. They can look forward to playing with the country themselves when they get older.
“Before, you didn’t see any kids playing football. Now when we move in, they have a whole product line. They may or may not succeed in football, but it gives them the drive and passion themselves that will be used in other aspects of life.”
Spending more time on the island gave the team a much deeper understanding of who they represented and what they meant, not to mention the emotional support they could count on. Players feel that their connection to the place has become stronger.
“Although we grew up in the privilege of a Western country like England, going there is very refreshing because it brings us back to who we are in our DNA,” Dyer adds.
“They still make tours to areas where there is no danger so you can see what happened. It’s so horrific, but it’s part of the island’s history. It made it more community and people took care of each other more than ever.”
“Once you see people and you see how proud they are of us, even when we lose matches, we owe it to them to do everything we can for them.
“Our ship is football, but we have a lot of players who have done things outside of football as well, which is commendable, to help raise awareness of Montserrat. To show its beauty and what it is.
“The imprint of what we do will continue. That is the most important to us.”
A place in the Gold Cup remains a target for Montserrat, but just one win in their first four matches in the 2022-23 Nations League means they face an uphill battle to qualify. This may not happen this time, but they are undoubtedly heading in the right direction.
“We can get a taste of how close they are and the standards we’ve applied now mean we’re disappointed when we don’t make it,” Dyer says.
“Even though we play pretty much every game as underdogs, we have the confidence, the arrogance of boundaries, to know that we are a good team and we can even beat some of the top nations.
“You have good times and bad times but everyone knows why we are here and what we are doing for it. Everyone is just there to do the best we can for the country.”
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