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Guyana’s historic challenge

Guyana are taking part in their first major tournament and begin with a bang against hosts United States in the CONCACAF Gold Cup on Tuesday. Adam Bate caught up with manager Michael Johnson and assistant Paul Williams to find out how they did it and why this means so much…

For football fans in Guyana, the night of March 23rd will live long in the memory. A 2-1 home win over Belize secured qualification for the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time in the country’s history.

Even for Paul Williams, a man who has seen plenty as a top-flight player with Derby, Coventry and Southampton and a coach with Nottingham Forest and Birmingham, the celebrations were a sight to behold.

“It was surreal,” he tells Sky Sports. “When you see pictures and video footage from years gone past of people jumping around in the street, it was just brilliant to be a part of it. It was unbelievable what it meant to the lads. We had under-15 and under-16 Guyana players at the game and to see their faces was amazing.”

The 48-year-old coach is assisting Michael Johnson, a former Birmingham and Derby defender himself, in his first managerial role. It is quite the adventure for these two stalwarts of English football, one that will see them face hosts United States in their Gold Cup opener on Tuesday. It is also an opportunity they had almost given up on.

Few in the game are more qualified than Johnson. As well as his Pro Licence, he has studied corporate governance, sporting directorships, marketing and business. Even so, after no fewer than 25 failed job applications, he had settled on the ambassadorial role with Derby that he still performs. Management, it seemed, was a chance that would be denied him.

“The amount of applications I did, you start to wonder if it will happen,” Johnson tells Sky Sports. “There is no getting away from the fact that when I first retired my first thought was that I was going to get myself qualified so I could become a manager. But that didn’t materialise. At the time, I was disgruntled because I didn’t know where I was going.

“There were lots of times I thought it was not going to happen. After five years I was no closer. With the facts about black managers and the lack of opportunity, that just compounded what I was already thinking.”

That all changed when he received the “curve ball” of a call from Guyana while on the Derby team bus back from a game against Wolves. He was appointed last June, throwing himself into the challenge of his life, and has since been joined by Williams, who is also relishing the sort of opportunity that had not looked like coming his way in the English game.

“It’s the chance to pit your wits against people in international football,” Williams explains. “I know it’s not at the same level as Gareth Southgate with the Nations League but it’s a different experience for me and it’s challenging. The fact that I am getting the opportunity to do it, I am really thankful to Guyana and to Jonno. It’s a proud moment.”

His most recent coaching role had been at Birmingham but this has been a world away from that. “It’s humbling, that’s the word,” he says. “In Guyana, you see two sides of it, the nice bits but also the poverty. When you are used to category one academies, there is nothing like that over here. So you go back to basics in terms of coaching.”

Johnson has done impressive work in embracing the culture of Guyana and adding players from the nation’s diaspora to the local talent. He has capitalised on his relationship with Derby to institute greater professionalism, introducing heart-rate monitors and ideas from the world of sports science. A unity of purpose has bound it all together.

“You get a lot of buy-in from qualifying for a competition for the first time in a country’s history,” he explains. “That goes a long way. It has helped the togetherness. We have lads like Neil Danns who has done a lot in his career and played in the Premier League but we have also got lads who are just starting out in their career and play locally.

“It’s great to be able to integrate them both. It’s humbling to see Dannsy with no airs and graces, just involving himself in the environment. That’s what it’s about, creating the right environment where everyone feels at ease. It’s a big thing getting that right and we have done it. We are integrating people from all walks of life into one team and one dream.”

The dream begins in earnest when Guyana face United States in St Paul Minnesota. With Trinidad and Tobago and Panama the other two teams in the group, both of whom have qualified for a World Cup since the turn of the century, it is a daunting task that awaits. But Johnson talks of springing a surprise or two and Williams shares that ambition.

“We have just got to make sure we give a good account of ourselves but I do think we will surprise a few teams,” he says. “The bigger goal is to leave some kind of legacy for the next generation so they can say, look, we have qualified for this and we are a decent footballing nation now. That can give them hope that they can go on and achieve bigger things.”

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