By Matt Badcock
Tucked between Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname on South America’s north coast, Guyana may seem an unlikely place for a remarkable football story.
The country whose motto is One People, One Nation, One Destiny, and has a population of just 800,000, are placed 177th in the FIFA world rankings.
But a remarkable story is indeed unfolding with a handful of Non-League players helping to write the pages of history.
Last weekend, the Golden Jaguars beat Belize to qualify for the CONCACAF Gold Cup for their first time ever.
In the summer they could be pitted against the might of Mexico or America in some of the best stadiums on the planet.
Wealdstone midfielder Sam Cox is still letting it all sink in. A youngster at Tottenham alongside England skipper Harry Kane, he’s proudly carving out an international dream of his own.
“It’s easily the proudest moment of my career and biggest achievement to date,” Cox says. “People here are congratulating us but the impact it’s having in Guyana is phenomenal. What we’ve done is not only for us but it’s for the whole nation because hopefully now it can produce more financial stability and money pumped into grassroots and football education.
“It will really lift up Guyana football. Most people didn’t even know how to pronounce our country – for us now to be viewed by 40 million people in the summer, that’s going to inspire so many players into the game.
“For me to captain the country into a major tournament will be an unbelievable personal achievement and one I will never forget until my dying day.”
Cox, who has spent time on loan at Hampton & Richmond Borough this season, isn’t the only Guyana star plying his trade in English football.
Managed by former Derby County man Michael Johnson, they call upon Reading’s Callum Harriott, Bury’s Neil Danns, Newport County attacker Keanu Marsh-Brown and Non-League names like Kadell Daniel and Anthony Jeffrey – both Dover Athletic – Hampton’s Marcel Barrington, Farnborough’s Elliott Bonds and Whitehawk’s Ronayne Marsh-Brown.
Cox, 28, made his debut in 2015 and has gone on to make 15 appearances and will never forget their defining moment.
“Belize were in the same situation and could have qualified so it was literally win or go home,” he says. “For the last couple of months waiting for this international window I’d been dreaming about it every day, knowing we could be going to a major tournament.
“With the recruitment of Anthony Jeffrey, Keanu Marsh-Brown, Callum Harriott, Reiss Greenidge, we’ve got a lot of talent on top of Neil Danns, Stephen Duke-Mckenna (Bolton) Kai McKenzie Lyle (Liverpool), Kaddell Daniel and Marcel Barrington (Hampton), it’s a good blend of overseas players and local based players.
“It was probably the best squad since I’ve been involved.
“We went in all prepared. We did ten days out there before and got the result. It was tense, Belize had some talented boys, so it was tight but we got there in the end. I haven’t stopped looking at the teams who have qualified – Mexico, America, Canada, Jamaica, Trinidad, Curacao, Panama, El Salvador, Costa Rica are in there. It’s going to be an unbelievable journey and experience of a lifetime. I can’t wait.”
Cox’s own path to this point has been far from smooth. When he left Spurs he had spells with Barnet and a loan stint at Boreham Wood before joining Hayes & Yeading United. He later moved to Wood permanently and captained the side into Non-League’s top flight.
The love for playing for Guyana shone through when he accepted a call-up in 2016 to play in a Caribbean Cup fixture against Puerto Rico – a decision that didn’t go down well and consequently cost him his job at the club after four years’ service.
But there’s an ever increasing international contingent in Non-League football – Maidenhead United’s Adrian Clifton, James Comley and Dean Mason play for Montserrat alongside a whole host of players from these levels including Gresley striker Spencer Weir-Daley and Corinthian-Casuals’ Bradley Wood-Garness.
And Cox believes it’s a positive that offers players life experiences they would otherwise miss out on.
“It kind of gets looked down upon by managers which is sad,” he says. “This puts it all into perspective for everyone for what can be achieved when you take that step of faith and do what you believe in your heart is right.
“I wouldn’t change a thing now. Every boy dreams of representing their country. The places I’ve seen, the situations I’ve seen, have opened my eyes – it’s humbling.
“I’ve got to play football around South America and the Caribbean. I believe managers in Non-League and lower league football need to be more open to it and I hope the story I’ve gone through encourages other players to step out more and do the same thing. This shows miracles do happen.”
An emotional post-game speech led by Cox shows how big a deal creating Guyana history is.
“It means the world, honestly,” Cox says. “There’s a lot of politics around importing players from overseas. A small minority of fans want their local players to play rather than boys from England and America.
“I was getting questioned about the overseas players and I was emotional to say we’re just as passionate as the people who live here. We are Guyanese, we all want the country to move in the right direction, and if you see the scenes after the game you can see the passion and emotion. There were tears – that shows how much it means.”
There’s little doubt Cox and his team-mates will relish the tournament that kicks-off on June 15 in America and Costa Rica with stadiums including the famous 90,000 capacity Rose Bowl in California. Cox too will reflect on his journey when he leads his team out for the first game.
“I think why I was so emotional after the game and why I wanted it so much was because it’s been tough since being a pro at Spurs,” Cox adds. “I’ve done a few lower Football League clubs like Torquay, Cheltenham, Barnet and then ended up in Non-League with Boreham Wood and now Wealdstone.
“It’s not ideally where I expected my career to go and, at the time, you think you’re falling short in comparison to the boys I’ve grown up with and are playing for England and in the Prem – the Harry Kanes, Danny Roses – and all those boys who are doing so well.
“It’s been tough but I’m always faithful. I know there’s a plan for me. I’m a believer in God so that has helped me massively to take one step at a time and let him guide me. I’ve learnt to run my own race, not compare myself to anyone and just enjoy life.
“I’m coaching back at Tottenham with the U15 academy boys. The club’s been brilliant to me. I hope my story can inspire lads who’ve been down a similar road to me. If you stand up for what you believe in, keep your head down and never give up, you just never know where this game can take you.
“To be captaining my country to an international major tournament is beyond all my dreams and expectations.”