In July 1995, Montserrat’s Soufriere Hills volcano began to erupt on a massive scale. The effects were devastating.
Huge swathes of the Caribbean island were covered in thick layers of ash. Sulphur dioxide fumes filled the air. The capital Plymouth had to be abandoned.
Large eruptions continued over the next five years, ultimately leaving about two-thirds of the island uninhabitable. Two-thirds of the 11,500 population fled.
A once calm and bucolic place would never quite be the same again – much of it remains shut off in ‘exclusion zones’ and volcanic activity is still being closely observed.
Like Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands, Montserrat is one of 14 British Overseas Territories (BOT); self-governing but ultimately under UK control.
Having been forced to leave their home, about 4,500 Montserratians settled in England, primarily around existing migrant communities in London and Birmingham.
Montserrat’s national consciousness remains scarred by cataclysmic disaster. But there is also a spirit of togetherness forged through trauma and struggle. You can see it in its national football team – and the UK-based players giving back to their ancestral homeland.
Montserrat played their first match in 1991 and only became Fifa members in 1996. For years they were ranked among the world’s worst national sides.
Between 1991 and 2012 they won two matches out of 27 played, both against Anguilla, another BOT currently 210th in Fifa’s world rankings – only San Marino are below them.
When, in March 2004, Montserrat were finally able to host home matches again for the first time since the eruptions, it was in the first round of regional qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. They lost 7-0 to Bermuda.
They have long been minnows of the international game, but that’s slowly starting to change.
“It used to be shambolic,” says Alex Dyer, Montserrat’s joint-record appearance holder with 21 caps.
“Not in a rude way, everyone did the absolute best that they could. We just didn’t have the finances, the facilities, we didn’t have anything.”
Dyer, 32, is a midfielder with Wealdstone in the National League who has played in Sweden, Norway and Kuwait. The grandparents on his father’s side grew up on Montserrat. He made his debut in 2011.
That year the team were ranked joint-worst in the world. Just over a decade later they are up to 178th – but their progress goes deeper.
“When I started we didn’t even have matching tracksuits,” Dyer continues. “It felt really disjointed but it was just a small nation at the start of their journey.
“As we’ve gone on it’s got gradually better and in the last few years it’s exploded. We’ve got a fantastic sponsor who gets that we’re not just a team that wants to play football and win games. They get the journey, and they get the island.”
Part of the problem was a lack of regular matches – between 2012 and 2017 Montserrat played just seven times.
In 2018 things changed with the launch of the Concacaf Nations League, providing opponents of a similar size and standard.
There have been 18 fixtures since – and eight victories – all overseen by Scottish manager Willie Donachie, who recently stepped down.
As the team’s fortunes have changed, more people have wanted to get involved. Recruitment wasn’t always so easy.
“It’s been a long, long process,” laughs 36-year-old forward Bradley Woods-Garness, who since making his debut in 2012 has helped with the hunt for new players alongside old friend and team-mate Dean Mason.
“Sometimes I would search traditional Caribbean names from Montserrat. Sometimes I would look on Football Manager. If I found a player, I’d give him a message on Facebook.
“A few people thought it was a joke, someone messing around asking them if they want to come and play international football.
“But once I finally get to have phone conversations with people and give them an explanation of where we’re at now – what players we have on board, where we’re going, and who we’ve beaten – it’s worked out well.”
Newer arrivals include Nottingham Forest striker Lyle Taylor, who first played for Montserrat in 2015 when he was at AFC Wimbledon. He is now their record scorer with 10 goals.
Former Salford City midfielder Matty Willock, whose brothers Joe and Chris play for Newcastle and QPR respectively, made his debut in 2021.
Standards and results have improved beyond recognition. Montserrat came agonisingly close to qualifying for the 2019 Gold Cup, the Concacaf equivalent of the European Championship, just missing out on goal difference to El Salvador, a country of 6.5m ranked 100 places above them.
“There are going to be some losses, but recently we’ve been winning and the people on the island are over the moon with that,” Dyer says.
“It gives them some joy and something to cheer for, and it inspires the younger generation of kids. They can look forward to maybe playing for the country themselves when they’re older.
“Before, you wouldn’t see any kids playing football. Now when we go over they’ve got a whole production line. They might be successful with football or they might not, but it gives them a drive and a passion that they’ll use in other aspects of life.”
Spending more time on the island has given the squad a much deeper understanding of who they’re representing and what it means, not to mention the passionate support they can rely on. The players feel their connection to the place has become stronger.
“Even though we’ve been brought up in the privilege of a western country like England, going there is so refreshing because it takes us back to who we are in our DNA,” adds Dyer.
“They still do tours to the areas where it’s not as dangerous so you can see what happened. It’s quite harrowing, but it’s part of the history of the island. It’s made it even more of a community and made people look after each other more than ever.
“Once you see the people and you see how proud they are of us, even when we’re losing games, we owe it to them to do whatever we can for them.
“Our vessel is football, but we have a lot of players who’ve done stuff outside of football as well, which is commendable, to help raise awareness of Montserrat. To just show its beauty and what it is.
“The imprint of what we’re doing will last. That’s what’s most important for us.”
A place at the Gold Cup remains the target for Montserrat, but just one win from their opening four 2022-23 Nations League games means they face an uphill battle to qualify. It might not happen this time around but they are undoubtedly heading in the right direction.
“We can taste how close it is and the standards we’ve implemented now mean we’re disappointed when we don’t make it,” says Dyer.
“Even though we go into pretty much every game as underdogs, we’ve got the confidence, borderline arrogance, to know we’re a good team and we can even beat some of the bigger nations.
“You have good times and hard times but everyone knows why we’re there and what we’re doing it for. Everyone’s just out there to do as well as we can for the country.”