The Pompey pair conquering the Caribbean

Swimming in the Caribbean Sea, the island of Puerto Rico possesses a fresh-faced footballing inhabitant.

Saturday, 3rd December 2016, 9:30 am
Updated Tuesday, 6th December 2016, 4:19 pm
Former Pompey duo, Neil Sillett and Adrian Whitbread, are relishing the opportunity handed to them at Puerto Rico FC

Carmelo Anthony – a New York Knicks superstar and three-time Olympic gold medallist – provided the impetus as owner and visionary.

Yet the partnership entrusted with delivering the dream was borne from the Fratton Park dressing room two decades earlier.

Former Pompey defender Adrian Whitbread and ex-head physio Neil Sillett had become colleagues under the Terry Fenwick era.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Club owner and New York Knicks basketball player Carmelo Anthony

Now they serve Puerto Rico FC, a club founded in June 2015 following basketball’s Anthony’s capture of the prized franchise to compete in the North American Soccer League.

Challenged to build the Bayamon-based outfit entirely from scratch, head coach Whitbread and technical director Sillett have relished their opportunity.

A maiden campaign reaped an eighth-placed finish, but, crucially, they reached the qualifying stages of the prestigious CONCACAF Champions League.

Victory by a 4-1 scoreline over Criollos de Caguas FC in last month’s CFU Championship final has earned the passport to a potentially money-spinning tournament featuring opposition from Mexico, the United States, Canada, Costa Rica and six other countries.

Club owner and New York Knicks basketball player Carmelo Anthony

Certainly an impressive instant impact from the former Blues pair.

‘As head coach, I was handed a unique experience to build a football club – one I felt I would never get the opportunity again,’ said Whitbread, who made 158 appearances for Pompey.

‘Puerto Rico is a US territory, no different to the other Caribbean islands. When you are talking about the Caribbean, people automatically think of going away for a vacation to St Lucia and Barbados, but they are no different to Puerto Rico.

‘It is a very beautiful place. But we are actually here to succeed and be very good at what we are doing – and that is what Carmelo saw in us.

‘They speak Spanish so our Spanish is a work in progress, like the football club, but people appreciate the fact you are even trying.

‘They are very welcoming, it doesn’t matter if you are a stranger walking down the street, every person will generally say “good morning” to you, there are no funny looks.

‘Being a club starting from scratch, we firstly needed money. We have an astute owner with a background of being successful as a sportsman and runs this as a business.

‘He doesn’t throw money willy nilly, sponsorships have brought revenue into the club outside of attendances. There has to be a business plan.

‘We need kit, we need equipment. We need players and they need accommodation, transportation and flights to get to the island. While recruiting, they had to be flown in from mainland America, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.

‘We had a blank canvass regarding players and, a year on, probably have between 10-15 determined, with nine spots open, so Neil is working very hard recruiting others.

‘It has been baby steps, but we are up and fully-functioning – now we’re looking to improve.’

Sillett’s role heavily involves recruitment, utilising contacts accumulated during 13 years as an agent.

He served as a consultant scout to Paulo Wanchope’s Costa Rica, pre-2012 World Cup and the 2014 UNCAF Centro American Cup.

Yet many Pompey fans will remember him as physio during an eight-year Fratton Park spell, working with John Gregory, Frank Burrows, Tony Barton, Jim Smith and Fenwick.

The 53-year-old is formerly Whitbread’s agent and, with the family home in Purbrook, it has been testing.

Yet in a league containing New York Cosmos, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Tampa Bay Rowdies, there are some famous old America footballing names to revel in facing.

Sillett said: ‘Adrian was looking for someone to head up recruitment and be a sporting director and wanted me.

‘My family still live in Purbrook, my 17-year-old son, Frankie, goes to a lot of Pompey games, so missing them has been tough.

‘But the chance to start a club from scratch definitely appealed. We knew it was going to be hard and there was a lot of interest through Carmelo’s involvement, but it intrigued me.

‘Carmelo rented a former baseball stadium converted for football and in our first match we had 6,474 against Indy Eleven.

‘We averaged between 4-6,000 over the season, which would comfortably put us in the top-six best-attended clubs in England’s League Two.

‘The training ground is not great, with an Astroturf pitch and two grass pitches. However, when we get rain it is proper rain and have only played on the grass since August, coinciding with an upturn in form.

‘Myself and Adrian have the same ideals and I do most of the recruitment. I know a lot of the players out there, especially though my work with the Costa Rican national team, taking some of their players.

‘We have to be delighted with coming from nothing and are now looking to strengthen to give us a chance of qualifying for our Champions League, which starts early next year.’

Whitbread has long links with the island, spending four years as assistant and then head coach at Puerto Rico Islanders – the former under Colin Clarke – before their folding in 2012. Yet the lure of England will forever be strong.

He added: ‘It has been a very good start. Like a school report, we have done okay, but there’s room for improvement and that is us all-round as a football club.

‘Coming back to England is definitely an ambition, but this is a fantastic project I want to be successful in. Still, wherever I am in the world, should the opportunity rise I would consider it.’