Leon Cort has a big summer head of him. While the attention of most of this country will be squarely focused on events in Poland and the Ukraine, his national side Guyana will be stepping out on to the turf at a yet to be determined Mexican stadium; this potential tussle with a man known as Chicharito, the first of a sequence of six games that are the most important in the nation’s footballing history.
With his club Charlton seemingly cruising to a place in next year’s Championship, Cort will be galvanised for the steep task ahead and Guyana have certainly punched above their bulk in CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 World Cup thus far. The national eleven pipped 2006 qualifiers Trinidad & Tobago in a tight second round group – finishing top of a group packed with countries that enjoy a fine tradition of international achievement – only in cricket.
A 3-0 loss in Port of Spain in November took a little of the gloss from Guyana’s success, but by then they were home and dry, with Barbados and Bermuda trailing in their wake – Cort scoring in the vital 2-1 win over the Soca Warriors in the home fixture. The Golden Jaguars are likely to find the going fraught with difficulty in a final round that features formidable opposition in Costa Rica and El Salvador, as well as the Mexicans, ever the region’s dominant power – but his experience gained via spells at 10 English clubs will be key.
Of course Cort and his brother Carl’s presence in Jamaal Shabazz’s squad is but the latest evidence of a trend initiated by the Jamaican Reggae Boyz as they raced to qualification for the 1998 World Cup in France – with the standard of local leagues in the Caribbean not matching up to those of the mainland powers of the US, Mexico and Central America, the net has been spread wide to take advantage of the diaspora.
England has been plumbed for players of West Indian heritage – Cort has only played four times internationally and has been joined in yellow by Ricky Shakes of Ebbsfleet United, Jermaine Grandison of Shrewsbury, Chris Bourne of Metropolitan Police and Jake Newton of Havant & Waterlooville, while his brother is currently unattached having most recently turned out in the red and white of Brentford. A downside for the Guyanese has been the patchy availability of some of these men – and Cort did indeed recently offer his excuses for missing a slew of friendlies designed as preparation for the final push.
Carl Cort may have once been a £7 million man; Bobby Robson disbursing that sum to bring him to Newcastle in 2000 as Wimbledon began their sad demise, but Leon too has been the subject of some big fees. He twice changed hands for a million and a quarter pounds – first when his old boss Peter Taylor signed him for Crystal Palace from Hull before Tony Pulis made him a Stoke City player in 2008.
That Premier League experience was enough to persuade Burnley to go even higher and he arrived at Turf Moor for £1.5 million in 2010 but according to No Nay Never, his time there proved to be ’nothing short of a disaster’ and the latter days of his time in Lancashire were spent across the red rose county at Preston North End on loan. He then returned home to south east London when joining Charlton after his contract at Burnley was cancelled – and he remains at the Valley now.
So it’s been a career of peregrinations and he has rarely chalked up a bunch of seasons anywhere – in retrospect, his athleticism and vigorousness as a defender may have persuaded Premier League bosses that a raw diamond could be cut but injury and inconsistency have hampered his progress. The exception to this was the spell at Southend that made his name – he notched up 130 consecutive appearances for the Shrimpers at one point and and gained a reputation as one of the best defenders in the lower divisions.
Chris Powell’s massive overhaul of the Charlton squad in the Summer was always likely to leave players jostling for a finite number of places, but he has now played 11 times and done well as clean sheets have been kept in the wins over Brentford, Chesterfield, Sheffield Wednesday and Yeovil since the turn of the year. On Saturday, he missed a chance to earn the Addicks a point when he nodded over in the narrow 1-0 defeat to Huddersfield, but coped well generally with wonder boy Jordan Rhodes, despite the latter’s winning penalty.
The Floyd Road club have a comfortable looking run in with most of their rivals already faced, and one fully expects them to collect the League 1 trophy when they entertain Hartlepool on May 5. That will leave Cort a month to prepare for the flight to Mexico City – and he’ll reflect on an outstanding first full season in management for his boss Powell.