From Port Vale to Port of Spain, and now Los Angeles. Andy Fraser charts the progress of a Caribbean cult hero born in Stafford
When Chris Birchall signed for LA Galaxy this summer, it marked a new twist in a once-promising career that seemed stalled in the lower leagues. While Birchall had all but disappeared in the UK following his unlikely World Cup heroics for Trinidad & Tobago three years ago, across the Atlantic his performances for his adopted nation lingered longer in the memory. On signing the Stafford-born midfielder, Galaxy’s coach Bruce Arena spoke of his longstanding admiration for the player Trinidadians hail as a national hero and affectionately refer to as “Me Mum”.
The story of Birchall’s introduction to international football is legend in the Caribbean. Press-ganged by Trinidadian defender Dennis Lawrence, who was playing for Wrexham, Birchall confessed to having a small amount of “Trini blood” – his mother, Jennifer, was born to British expat parents in Port of Spain (the nickname comes from his stock response when asked). Shortly after, despite never having visited the islands, Port Vale’s young player of the year became the first white man to pull on a Soca Warriors shirt in over 60 years.
Sceptical T&T fans were quickly won over with a series of impressive performances, sealed with a thunderous late equaliser in the home leg of their 2006 World Cup qualification play-off against Bahrain. A 1‑0 victory in the Middle East four days later secured their ticket to Germany. The following summer Birchall played every minute of their three feisty, but ultimately unsuccessful, group games at the finals, including an energetic display as they almost gave England a fright in Nuremberg. He even popped up on the BBC in a series of quirky but underlit video diaries coming across as down-to-earth and likeable.
Returning home with his reputation enhanced, he was swiftly rewarded as Micky Adams paid Vale £325,000 to take him to Coventry City. However, a promising start was interrupted by injury. A subsequent managerial change, and indifference from new boss Iain Dowie, saw him unable to pin down a regular spot in the side and concerns about a general lack of fitness circulated. Within a year he was loaned to St Mirren.
On his return, another new manager in Chris Coleman was unimpressed and he was loaned out to Carlisle. In January 2009, Birchall’s contract at Coventry was cancelled by mutual consent and he was invited to Brighton, again by Adams, to play for a short-term deal. In less than three years he’d gone from World Cup hero to League One trialist.
Things had also turned sour on the international front. A dispute over unpaid bonuses led a group of T&T players, Birchall among them, to issue a lawsuit against the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF). In return, all 16 players were allegedly banned by the TTFF, although the official line has always been that the absences were at the behest of Wim Rijsbergen, T&T coach at the time. Local media referred to the missing players as the “Jacklisted”, due to the involvement of the omnipresent TTFF “special advisor” and FIFA vice-president Jack Warner.
Consequently, Birchall missed out on T&T’s friendly with England in July 2008 – his only appearance of note that week was as a VIP room wallflower as a “lively” Dwight Yorke celebrated his umpteenth international retirement in Port of Spain’s Zen nightclub.
Whether he was also on the island to offer an olive branch is unknown, but a recall eventually came and after 18 months in the wilderness he joined up with T&T as they attempted to qualify for another World Cup. Two group games against the US reignited Bruce Arena’s interest and led to the enviable move from the south coast of England to the west coast of America.
Birchall made his debut for LA Galaxy coming on as a substitute for David Beckham and, at only 25, it is quite likely his new employers see him as a budget replacement for the former England captain, if and when he decides to end his ill-fated American adventure. Hopefully, for the sake of harmony in the Birchall household, they’ll arrange a dinner date first. “I think the Beckhams have done very well for themselves,” his girlfriend told the Staffordshire Sentinel, “and anyone who doesn’t admire them is jealous. I’d love to meet them.” She then admitted to once appearing as a Victoria lookalike in a World Cup music video. Whether Chris Birchall is in LA as an occasional stand-in or a cut-price successor remains to be seen.
From WSC 273 November 2009