Familiar foes renew fever-pitched battle in Champions Cup
The first piece of silverware for the 2014-15 football season beckons a familiar crew, albeit they have not been able to embrace the glory of winning the Flow Champions Cup KO in many moons.
Portmore United last won in 2007 when they were rubbing shoulders with the nation's elite. Now, they are battling to get their share of the limelight at parish level in the St Catherine Major League.
The same holds for Reno, even more so, as the 1996 champion team is still trying to regain its foothold among the big name football clubs, having slipped from its once lofty position as king of local football.
Montego Bay United, which won the national league championship last year and Harbour View, who have done so on several occasions recently, are more accustomed to the big stage.
For many of the 24 other clubs that faced the kick-off, the Flow Champions Cup KO, football's national knockout championship, was their big stage and it carries some amount of pressure.
"A knockout championship is different in that you have room for mistakes when you're playing in the league. But in the knockout you've to bring your 'A' game everyday. The moment you slip you're out," said Patrick Graham, coach of Reno.
Fourteen of the teams that participated in the competition play at parish level, some in areas where the absence of a premier league outfit limits opportunities for people to see big teams and big players competing against each other on a regular basis.
"It brings top-flight football to sites where that level of football is not usually played. It makes us feel like we're making a meaningful contribution to the development of the game," said Donovan White, vice-president, marketing and sales, Columbus Communications, parent company of cable giants, Flow, which has been sponsoring the competition for five years.
"Our intent, in terms of its contribution to football development in Jamaica, is to foster the playing of games more frequently. We found that the knockout format generated more excitement and it also develops a certain type of skills set; close skills, playing under pressure.
"Beyond that, we believe in the development of communities and a lot of the communities don't get that level of football on a regular basis," White remarked.
The teams actually participate in the competition at no added financial cost, as they are outfitted with gear and facilitated with travelling expenses, by way of the sponsorship package.
The benefits, however, are far greater, many of which filter into the communities and some far reaching, as Flow broadcasts matches to regional countries Grenada, Trinidad, Barbados, St Vincent and, St Lucia.
"The broadcasting is a good thing,' said Andrew 'Bowa' Hines, head coach, Harbour View. "It's a platform for players to be highlighted, for them to be seen by coaches and scouts in other countries.
"It's a platform for the players and it's welcomed and appreciated," he added.
There is also a Flow Champions Cup Clinic, which caters to the training of players and coaches. This year, a psychological component was added to the clinic to enhance mental fortitude.
"If a parish champion is hosting a premier league club, then automatically it peaks interest and improves community spectatorship and match attendance. As a result, the vendors, community members and home teams benefit from the revenue that is generated from that game," outlined Nicole Campbell, sponsorship manager, Columbus Communications.
"Additionally, this year, Flow reintroduced a community initiative, 'Goals for Charity', which allows top-scoring teams from each round to donate $50,000 to a community project of their choice. We felt that this was a really important initiative because at the end of the day, football is a sport that pulls the community together," she added.
Interestingly, one of the biggest games involved Manchester's New Green and St Ann's Black Stars, parishes that have not had a representative in national league competition for many years. The match produced a whopping eight goals, with the Manchester team accounting for seven against the former premier league club.
With less fanfare, the top four have been delivering the knockout punches as they made their way to the semi-finals to be held at Arnett Gardens' Anthony Spaulding Sports Complex tomorrow.
Reno will tackle Harbour View in the opening match of a double-header, beginning at 5 p.m., while Portmore United will kick off against Montego Bay United in the 7 p.m. feature.
"Naturally, we are the underdogs," said Clive Marshall, manager of of Portmore United.
His sentiments reflect that of many team officials in the 22 matches leading into the semi-finals.
From an overall perspective, Campbell says it is a "fantastic" feature of the Flow Champions Cup.
"The fantastic thing about the Flow Champions Cup is that it levels the playing field for both premier league clubs and lower-tiered teams," said Campbell. "Both groups have an equal shot at winning the cash prize and coveted Flow Champions Cup title and in many instances we see a 'David and Goliath' situation, where the underdogs truly rise to the occasion."
Reno, without a national title for close to two decades, is certainly looking to rise.
"The competition has had a positive impact on our community. It's been a while since Reno has been to a major semi-final and definitely the people of Westmoreland are looking forward to that," said Graham. "The players are looking forward to that. We won't have a better avenue to win a championship at the moment. We're two wins away from a championship."
The former national midfielder said the club has been struggling to get funds and getting this far has lifted their profile. This, he said, could encourage sponsorship, as people prefer to back winners.
"We've one or two sponsors and now we're seeing brighter days. We all know that sponsors would want to invest their money in a team that is winning," he said. "If we can go to the final and win the championship it augurs well for us."