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From Tile Hill Social FC to the Caribbean ...Tony starts his World Cup playingcareer; FOOTBALL: THE EX-COVENTRY SUNDAY LEAGUE PLAYER HOPING TO SKIPPER HIS NEW NATION TO INTERNATIONAL GLORY l CHAMPIONS LEAGUE l THE LOCAL SCENE.

HE acknowledges he's only slightly better, accepts he's definitely slower and realises he is chasing an impossible dream.

Yet Anthony Graham, one-time Sky Blue hopeful before joining the rabid ranks of Coventry parks footballers, is poised to step into football's wonderland.

At 36 and with boots already feeling the close-at-hand embrace of the dustbin, a personable guy's global love affair with the game has extended to the World Cup.

"It's a fairytale, I still can't come to terms with it," said Graham, formerly from Allesley Park but now a proud citizen of one of FIFA's romantic bit-part players.

England manager Kevin Keegan is already casting anxious glances towards a vital two-leg 2002 World Cup qualifier against Germany, not to say similiar jousts with Portugal and Romania.

But for Graham - let's call him Tony, everyone bar for proud wife Mary does - the biggest sporting event from here to anywhere really kicks-off on Saturday when St. Kitts and Nevis entertain Turks and Caicos Islands.Tony, boasting a pedigree stretching from Coventry Boys to Tile Hill Social FC but with a cluster of more fashionable ports of call en route, is skipper of the Turks and Caicos national squad. In his sun-lashed part of Planet Football, they don't come much bigger than taking on St. Kitts.

"Yes, it's a really important game for us. We are staying over there to play them again next Tuesday - our best pitch really isn't quite up to it - and if we were to advance from those two games then we will go on to play St. Vincent two weeks later. Who knows after that?"

The man's enthusiasm is infectious - Tony has wrapped an impenetrable layer of invincibility around his beach boys band. Closer investigation of football's pecking order suggests that even humble St. Kitts is almost certainly a journey too far.

The 200th member of the 208-strong FIFA organisation, Turks and Caicos Islands are currently ranked at 196th..St. Kitts are 57 places in front of them. Keegan and Co can sleep easily in their beds. Dwight Yorke's Jamaica remain the team to beat around the big, turquoise blue yonder.

"We are on a hiding to nothing," admitted Tony in a breakfast-time telephone call this week when the temperature had already nudged towards 750f.

"But the squad has been training four or five times a week since the New Year. We're a lot fitter, if not faster, and the population is right behind us. You can feel the buzz."

When the Grahams left their Coventry home for Paris nine years ago and a new career with Disney Corporation, they could never have anticipated that the Yellow Brick Road would lead to an unlikely tilt at sporting fame.

From France two pairs of itchy-feet aimed for the United States but somehow found themselves touching down in the idyllic paradise of the powder white sand-fringed 25 Turks and Caicos Islands in the sun. It's a palm-tree setting Ben Gunn or Robinson Crusoe would have been loathe to leave.

"When we came here the population was about 8,000. It's now up to 25,000 but you'd scarcely know it. It really is a lovely part of the world boasting some unrivalled beaches - yes, a beautiful place."

Tony, who met Mary in Daimlers Piano Bar at the De Vere Hotel in their native city, married in their new home in dreamy Providenciales and now have two children, Jordan (5) and and 15-month-old Mya.Parents George and Monica Graham and Bell Green-based parents-in-law Andrew and Mary McCullagh have tested the warm waters lapping a few yards from the Caribbean home. Coventry always calls them back, but e-mail contact is constant.

The Sky Blues spotted Tony when he was a bright-eyed goalscoring centre- forward with Coundon Court School and Coventry Schools. He was taken under youth coach John Sillett's wing and spent a season working out alongside fellow apprentices Peter Bodak, Mark Hateley, Garry Thompson, John Hendrie, Ian Butterworth, Danny Thomas and Greg Abbott.

"They were a smashing bunch of guys and John Sillett was superb, a real father figure. Andy Blair left City for Aston Villa while I was there but we have remained friends and he has been out to see us."

A flight of footballing fancy then brought brief spells at Tamworth, Derby County, Luton Town, A.P. Leamington - "I scored the last goal in the final match at The Windmill" - Stratford Town and Bedworth United before Coventry parks action taking in Massey Ferguson on Saturdays and Tile Hill Social on Sundays. Then came the change of scene and the Mickey Mouse world of Euro Disney.

Now running his own Human Resource Consultancy, Tony qualifies for the Turks and Caicos Islands through residential criteria.

But he stresses that making his country's World Cup squad isn't the biggest 11 footballers-plus examination. "There are only four teams in our domestic league and we are taking 16 to St. Kitts."

FIFA finally answered an ambitious crusade when accepting Turks and Caicos Islands into membership during the 1998 World Cup in France. Tony flew back to Europe as part of the three-strong Turks delegation and was able to see several matches. "I even met Gordon Strachan - a great chap."

Wife Mary has also picked up the footballing bug and is a leading figure in the women's scene. She attended the Caribbean Women's World Cup in Los Angeles last year.

Tony, now strutting his stuff as a central defender, has won two caps, losing 2-0 against The Bahamas before sharing four goals with United States Virgin Islands. He says that football, not cricket, is now the No 1 sport for kids in the Caribbean.

"There were 10,000 spectators at each game and there could be as many as 15 to 20,000 watching in St. Kitts. Not bad, their population is only 48,000."

"No-one gives us a chance, we've received a letter from FIFA saying that if the first result is so conclusive we don't have to stay for the return leg! But we really think there could be a shock.

"Just think, we could see off St. Kitts and St. Vincent and then find ourselves playing against Mexico at the Azteca Stadium in front of 100,000. Now that would be something."
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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:Draper, Roger
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Mar 16, 2000
Words:1041
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