Audley Boyd, Assistant Editor - Sports
PANAMA CITY, Panama:
CAREERS have a way of choosing people. This has been the case for Jamaica's number-one goalkeeper, Donovan Ricketts, who celebrated 100 caps for the men's national senior football team during Friday night's CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying football match against Panama at the Rommel Fernandez Stadium in Panama City.
"It's a special achievement," the Montegonian remarked of the milestone prior to the Panama match at the team's base, Sheraton Hotel in Panama City.
He added: "Not a lot of people have the opportunity to represent their country, much less to reach 100 caps, so it's an honour."
Indeed. But if Ricketts had succeeded at his chosen position, he might not have reached these lofty heights.
As a young boy, then at Catherine Hall Primary, he was a striker. At trials for his school team, though, he never made the grade. However, his older brother - one of his many siblings also gifted at sports - Daniel, held a spot on the team. Due to this fact, he admits, "I still had to go to training and sit and watch because we had to walk home together."
Daniel and their brother Devon, also represented Jamaica's national football teams.
As fate would have it, Catherine Hall Primary's goalkeeper was transferred to the Montego Bay Boys' Club's Under-12 team and the coach asked Donovan to stand between the sticks.
"I stood in, just enjoying myself diving about and the next day, I came, sat back and was watching practice. So the coach said, 'What you doing, young man? You're the new goalie.' So I was a goalie from then."
CORNWALL COLLEGE DAYS
He soon moved on to Cornwall College and improved rapidly, claiming his place in the national Under-17, then Under-20 teams. His performances in the latter led to a bigger stage, where he was spotted by René Simões, the Brazilian coach in charge of the men's senior national team when Jamaica made their historic World Cup qualification for France '98.
Ricketts then became the national Under-23 goalie and was chosen as the senior team's third string keeper for France '98, when fellow Cornwall College alumni and Montegonian, Warren Barrett, was the number-one custodian.
"Coach Simões knew he was going to be the goalkeeper for the future and his hard work and dedication has really paid off," said Barrett.
He's not only dedicated to the sport, but also to family. Ricketts is married and has a six-year-old boy, Donovan Jr, and a "daughter along the way".
Ricketts made his debut in a World Cup Qualifier against St Vincent and the Grenadines nearly 15 years back.
"I was nervous. I wanted to tell the coach I was injured, (there were) butterflies, diarrhoea, everything. I said to Chris Dawes (national midfielder at the time), 'I'm going to tell the coach I'm injured.' He was like, 'No, it's a grown man's sport.' So I just man up, went out, and once I got the first touch, I just felt at ease and played."
Jamaica won the match 1-0, one of the countless in which he has contributed in a career full of ups and downs.
"My most memorable moment was playing against Brazil at the Walker Stadium (Leicester City) in England. That has been the highlight of my senior-team career so far," he said.
The now towering 6'4" custodian has many more special moments. Winning the top rural-area schoolboy daCosta Cup title with Cornwall, Premier League at Wadadah, and Major League Soccer championship at Los Angeles Galaxy number highly among his successes.
He has had to deal with disappointments, too - none worse than his experience at Bradford City in England.
"My lowest point was my last season in England at Bradford City, where, for some reason, I wasn't the coach's choice. I was in the team, out the team, sometimes I wasn't in the team at all, didn't travel," he laments of the 2008 season.
The saying 'good friend better than pocket money' became a perfect fit through support provided by Jamaican teammates Ricardo Gardner, with whom he shared a stint at nearby Bolton Wanderers, and Omar Daley, who was at Bradford.
The Jamaican went full circle to get back on top.
He came home and rejoined the premier league with Trelawny club Village United, where he had previously played before earning his place at Bolton. Then came his shot at the MLS, when noted US men's national senior team head coach Bruce Arena invited him to LA Galaxy.
"I started to read more about the psychological aspects of the game, so I started to learn that the game was not only about physical preparation, but it was also about mental preparation as well," he noted.
"I read more and my whole thought process changed and I went to the MLS and met Bruce Arena. He put that much confidence in me, I didn't want to let him down. I trained harder. I had a goalkeeper coach, his name was Ian Furrough, and he helped me a lot. In my first game, I played well. I got in the Team of the Week and everything just took off from there."
That was 2010. The following year, he won the league's top goalkeeper's award and has excelled since, moving to Portland Timbers, which is on course for its first MLS play-off qualification.
Jamaica's passage is not as smooth. But Ricketts' contribution is no different.
"My main focus is on organising the defence, because if you organise properly, the less you have to do, and when you have little to do as a goalie, it's the best thing," said the Jamaica team captain.
"But mainly, my job is to encourage. Sometimes you want to shout because people are missing chances and when you convert chances, it makes your job much easier; you play much more relaxed and if it's nil-nil, you're on edge, thinking if they sneak a goal in, you might lose."
Barrett says it's natural, and very important, for goalkeepers to behave that way.
"It's key, he's at the back, he's seeing the entire play, especially when it comes to alerting his defenders in dangerous situations," he said. "Sometimes you have to come down hard on a player who makes an error, but it's the nature of the sport. No one should take it personally," stated Barrett, the goalkeeper coach of the national team.
Though outstanding, Ricketts also has his critics.
"Shot stopping and reflexes, they're as sharp as when he was 21," observed Barrett. "But if there's one area I think he could improve in, it's probably crosses. But I can understand what probably might be going through his mind, especially with the balls they are playing with these days. They're much lighter than the ones we played with five-six years ago, so it's a lot more difficult for the goalkeepers to pick up the trajectory and then to make a judgement to leave their line."
Vinimore 'Vin' Blaine, the Reggae Boyz's assistant coach, shares a similar view.
"Donovan has his weaknesses, crosses, but when it comes on to shot-blocking and quick reflexes, I think that is what keeps him there (at the top)," he reflected after Friday's match. "He blocked well, he moved well and he kept us in the game. He made two excellent saves that kept us in the game."
Ricketts, though, has broad shoulders and has his own way of dealing with criticisms.
He added: "Once you're in the public's eye, there will always be criticisms, but if you take on every single one, you'll have a mental breakdown. So you listen to the people who are in charge, like the coaches, the goalkeeper coach, and whatever they say to me, their word is gospel and I try to work on that aspect of my game."
At this point, he's willing to usher one of the many other promising goalkeepers into the Jamaica job and help them get a chance to spread their wings.
"We've a lot of good quality goalkeepers coming through and you know, we're Jamaicans and we need work permits to go to England, and they have the ability to do that," he said.
"I've achieved what I think I can achieve and I'm comfortable where I'm at, so sometimes you've to just step aside and just leave the other guys to do their thing and take the country even further. I'm not going to retire, but I'm going to relax. But if the country needs me, I'm always going to be here."