Brent Sancho

He was a defensive liability in League One but seemingly comfortable at international level. Chris Lynham reflects on Kent’s very own World Cup star

When Neale Cooper was installed as boss of freshly relegated ­Gillingham in 2005, he decided to use his knowledge of the Scottish market to rebuild the flagging squad. In among the deranged goalkeepers and tanked-up forwards he acquired on the cheap was ­Trinidad & Tobago defender Brent Sancho, signed on a free from Dundee. With the Medway towns possibly being the only conurbation on earth that could make Dundee look like an oasis of bohemian chic, it was hardly a glamour move for Sancho. But for Gills fans it was an exciting acquisition – an established international who was intent on sealing his ticket to the World Cup in Germany.

Sancho’s somewhat eclectic football career had previously taken him from Joe Public in Trinidad to Portland Timbers via Finland before settling in Kent alongside T&T team-mate Ian Cox. Brimming with confidence and eager to please, it was loosely in defence that Sancho made his full debut in a 1-1 draw at Griffin Park. His early powerful and committed performances endeared him to supporters who were happy enough to overlook a first touch that invariably meant his second touch had to be a tackle. A late winner against Chesterfield prompted the first symbolic chants of “Dirty Sancho” (a nickname based on a gross sexual deviance but also inspired partly by his conceding two penalties against ­Pompey in the League Cup).

Sancho was open in admitting that he was using the club to put himself in the shop window, but thanked God (and his family and agent) for helping resurrect his career in the nick of time. But like so many before, he didn’t reckon upon controversial Gills chairman Paul Scally. When Sancho joined up with his national squad for a World Cup qualifier while officially injured, Scally discounted the publicity a World Cup appearance would have brought his club and chose to issue an indignant rant about misplaced loyalty. Sancho was informed that he would never play for the club again and was reduced to training with the youth team; when a loan to Swansea fell through it seemed that his chances of playing in Germany had gone.

During his absence, Gillingham plunged down the table. Following a 6-0 defeat at Ashton Gate, with the familiar cry of “Can we play you every week?” ringing in fans’ ears, Dirty’s restoration to the side was demanded. Scally claimed an apology had been received and ten minutes into the next game the ­centre‑back popped up in the opposition area to open the scoring against Brentford. It signalled a dramatic reversal of fortune: Gillingham embarked on a six-match winning run, steering clear of relegation.

Sancho duly went on to star in a series of inspired performances in Germany. T&T’s goal remained unbreached for more than 170 minutes against Sweden and England, and when the deed was finally done it was a result of Peter Crouch using our hero’s dreadlocks for leverage to open the scoring. In putting through his own net in the final game with Paraguay, Sancho became the first Gillingham player to score in a World Cup, but nothing could dampen the media frenzy, which at its height saw him propose to his girlfriend live on TV via a text message to BBC South East.

It has to be said, however, that Sancho is not actually very good. His popularity stemmed from an undoubted willingness to give his all, but he demonstrated all the positional sense of a ten-year-old chasing a tennis ball in the playground. Time and again he was caught upfield as opposition attackers bore down on the goal and his failure to get even the basics right meant he featured in one of the worst Gills defences in living memory. Only when you’ve seen a Leyton Orient full-back score a ten-minute hat-trick to wipe out a 3-0 lead can you gauge just how clueless they were.

Gillingham failed to cash in and, barely a year on from such wonderful performances on the world stage, Sancho was released and has yet to find a new club. Along with many other T&T players, he never represented his country again following financial wrangles and was last heard of assisting with a Player Association fun day in Trinidad in May. Gillingham fans will mostly retain fond memories, but has a World Cup star ever fallen from grace quite so dramatically? I only hope his girlfriend accepted.

From WSC 249 November 2007