The small town of Reigate, tucked away at the bottom of the North Downs in Surrey, is not an obvious place to find an international footballer. 27-year old James Shearman has played for his local amateur side there for years via the most unlikely representation of a Caribbean island thousands of miles away.
Shearman started playing football for Reigate Priory, who currently compete in the Surrey Elite Intermediate League (the eleventh-tier in England), and worked his way through the youth sides to the first team.
“I left for university and made my way through the socially political mess that is university football - I ended up in the 2nd team by the time I’d left”.
The midfielder graduated from Oxford Brookes with a degree in business and the relationship Shearman forged whilst completed his further education played a large role in his future destination.
“After university my girlfriend at the time’s father lived in the British Virgin Islands and he had found her a job out there. As such, I started putting my CV out there and managed to find a job as a Port Agent, dealing with the logistics of cruise ships and mega yachts”.
Shearman was determined to continue his love for football and started playing for the ex-pat team known as the Wolues FC, a side renamed after a misspelling at the manufactures changed it from Wolves.
Into just his second full season in the BVIFA National Football League and Shearman got a request from national team manager Avondale Williams that he wasn’t expecting.
“I was approached by Avondale and was asked to train with them. I eventually got called up to the squad to represent the country against Dominica in a friendly”.
The ‘Nature Boyz’, renowned for including current Tottenham Hotspur boss André Villas-Boas amongst their list of former managers, hadn’t played for over a year after World Cup and Caribbean Cup qualification exits at the first hurdle saw coach Patrick Mitchell leave.
Shearman played in a 4-0 loss but the worst part wasn’t the score.
“I went for a simple feet and back from a throw in only to get cramp and collapse in front of the home fans; queue endless laughter from the crowd as the only white boy in the stadium falls over in agony with no one around him!”
He still described his international debut as “an incredible experience” and manager Williams still had a friendly tournament in September on Saint-Martin to prepare his newly formed squad for upcoming qualification campaigns. Some of these players had only moved to the islands recently and this would later cause big problems for the national side.
After impressing in a 1-0 win over Anguilla the 3-1 loss to the hosts Shearman was focused on the following months Caribbean Cup qualification before a wildly bizarre set of circumstances contrived to through the Nature Boyz off course.
For Shearman and a number of other players the question of eligibility arose upon their return from Saint-Martin “it transpired that I needed to live in the BVI for at least 2 years before I could represent the country again – I would have loved to have played in World Cup qualification”.
The midfielder was obviously disappointed but it got much worse for the national side. In the few days before departure to the Dominican Republic there was a break in at the FA’s offices and important documents, such as passports, went missing. Then after the wait for confirmation on player eligibility, which resulted in a drastic change in the squad, a delayed flight took the patched up squad to their qualifiers.
In San Cristóbal they were thrashed 17-0 by the hosts (their record defeat) and 10-0 by Dominica and squad returned home dejected. Shearman and the other ineligible players remained helpless when the World Cup qualifiers came round in 2011. The Nature Boyz were drawn against traditionally weaker neighbours the United States Virgin Islands but crashed out after a 4-1 aggregate upset.
Shearman was the only European ex-pat who was ineligible but there was a long list of non-island ‘natives’ who caused some controversy on the territory.
“The British Virgin Islands issue Belonger Cards, which are a form of identification and are handed out to those that may be born in the territory to non-native parents or to those who have been living here for at least 5 years. A number of non-native players play under these cards. To date I don’t believe FIFA have addressed the issue or confirmed whether players playing under these cards are eligible for selection – this is how I qualified.”
Two years after his last call-up Shearman was included in the squad setting off to Martinique for the 2012 Caribbean Cup qualification campaign. “It’s fair to say we didn’t do too well” reflects Shearman, and it might be fair to say that’s an understatement after they went down 16-0 to the hosts, 4-0 to Suriname and perhaps in their worst performance 6-0 to Montserrat.
The islands haven’t played since then and for Shearman his brief international career is all but over as he’s returned to the UK and Reigate, citing his family and girlfriend as the reasons for his return. It might be back to park football but his time in the Caribbean has left a mark.
“It’s bizarre to say I've done it, I'm very grateful to the BVI FA for allowing me to represent the country - It’s pretty cool pub chat! The memory of making my debut in Dominica and singing the national anthem will certainly live with me for a very long time!”
Picture - St Martin by justenoughfocus.