Down the Southern Road: End of the Line
One of the more unhinging moments for summer visitors to the Deep South might be when they lay down for sleep. Attempting to rest their heads on pillows for a quiet night’s sleep after a day full of eating beignets and touring antebellum plantation homes, they likely first notice that annoying symphony of cicada song that is anything but tranquil. After a time, the din becomes a simple white noise easily ignored, but those initial late summer nights touring the southern United States can be rather sleepless. Around this time last season, though, that cicada song sounded a touch sweeter, as it was singing the Baton Rouge Capitals on to their journey through the Southern Conference finals and on to the championship semifinals of the Premier Development League. The cicadas still persist in their midsummer cacophony for 2011, but the sound is anything but pleasant, as it will not be joined with the sounds of celebration from supporters of the Black & Red.
Following a gritty 1-0 away win at Nashville on what is considered to be one of the poorest pitches in the PDL, Baton Rouge traveled once again to the Pan American confident they could take a further 3 points on the road against derby rivals New Orleans. While there had yet been an impressive offensive explosion from the Capitals, results that could have seen them sneak their way up the table into a playoff position had continued. Tactical and squad adjustments English manager Stuart Hayers had implemented midway through the season were showing up positively. Ben Callon appeared quite comfortable attacking deeper from the midfield rather than at the forward position, taking to his self-styled “Robbie Savage” role with aplomb. Former QPR lad Luke Sheekey continued coming off the bench to provide that additional spark in the attacking centre necessary to keep the often hulking defensive quartets faced by Frenchmen Paco Navarro and Achille Campion in check when they sought to grind out goalless draws against the capital club. James Livingston remained confident on the ball with quality passing to playmakers like Justin Portillo, who really did look the part of a young talent ready to compete at the next level. Former Bolton Wanderers youth Mark Ross had picked up right where 2010 PDL Defender of the Year Joe Tait had left off, providing the sternest of one man defensive walls in front of whichever GK Hayers chose to start. Even the fullback positions–which had been a bit of a bother earlier in the season–had shaped up nicely, with Brazilian Gui Brandao and Jersey-born James Queree settled on either side.
Then, hope faded just as the faint rainbow that hung over Crusader Stadium during the campaign’s first home derby. A gutting 3-1 loss to New Orleans effectively drove the nail into the coffin of any post-season aspirations. Perhaps still reeling from this blow, the Black & Red were thumped again just three days later, this time 4-1 to Brilla FC away. That loss might have been a particularly bitter pill to swallow, because it was on Brilla FC’s pitch last summer where Baton Rouge found themselves 2-1 winners over Houston Leones for the Southern Conference title. While squad turnover at the amateur level remains quite high, Hayers, Callon, Portillo, and local lad Brandon Chagnard were all part of that winning side. Almost a year later, though, and that group were left only to wonder what might have been had the 2011 campaign not began so poorly. A cursory glance at the scorelines indicates a lack of finishing in front of goal that plagued the Capitals’ season throughout. Despite the quality and depth of attacking options available to Hayers, overall there was just a lack of polish that could have turned a few draws into wins and a few losses into a justly deserved point. With optimistic hopes of a playoff berth dashed on the road, the Black & Red returned home for the final matches of the campaign. Either because there was little to play for other than pride or because it had been building all season, the Capitals thrashed West Texas 6-2 with braces from Campion and Chagnard along with torching New Orleans 6-2 in the final match via a hat trick from Campion on 23 July. Simply for bragging rights, this win must have been satisfying, as it saw Baton Rouge pip the Big Easy side for 3rd on the division table, eight points behind Chivas El Paso.
Following that last blast, Hayers, Callon, and Sheekey announced their retirements from competitive play in the Premier Development League. As all three remain affiliated with club management, this suggests the trio of Brits that arrived on the bayou a summer ago to raise a nascent side to unexpected heights have only stepped over the touch line for the final time rather than completely end their associations with the Baton Rouge Capitals. Further, as Callon and Hayers have founded a local sports performance company, this could be interpreted as the pair taking themselves out of the playing squad in order to free up minutes in 2012 for those they recruit and train as their replacements. Callon in particular has been engaged from the beginning with the local football community, seeking to develop young talents that can grow their games and provide them with that first opportunity to play professionally in the future. Even if there is not another run to the national championships on offer for the Black & Red, at the very least it appears local growth of the beautiful game will be affected by the club’s participation in the PDL and its English makeover from 2010 to today.
Now, when guests have to end their southern vacation, unpacking their travel bags that have been filled with trinkets such as fleur de lis and packets of Cajun spices to sprinkle on their bland home dishes, that first night back they might have another sleepless night. Having spent a few evenings in the Deep South, charmed by the hospitality and enamoured with its laissez faire attitude to life, they realize something is missing. They miss those cicadas, singing out to them as their heads hit their familiar pillows, and wish they could return just one more time.
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