WHAT follows is not fiction. It may seem like it at times. But it’s actually really… real.
It is the story of a 45 year-old footballer.
Many of us can’t relate, because we pick a spot early in life, and our day to day business unfolds within that prism.
Keith Gumbs, the 45 year-old footballer, long stepped out of his prism.
“I don’t know how to stop.”
It sounds like a problem. It is not.
Keith Gumbs, nearing 50, finds himself in a wonderful predicament, four decades removed from realising all he wanted to be was a footballer.
On Friday night Keith will lace up his boots and share a pitch with a Caribbean legend, which will make it two out there at once.
You know about Usain Bolt’s eight Olympic gold medals. You know the whole world knows him. You know he wants to be a footballer. You know he’s nervous about it. We don’t know if he’ll make it, but that’s not important right now. You know you’ll watch to see what he’s like on Friday night.
Watch Usain Bolt in action as the Mariners face Central Coast Selection live and exclusive on Fox Sports Channel 505 from 7pm (AEST) on Friday. Watch on Foxtel or start streaming today.
Keith Gumbs will play striker for the Mariners opposition, the Central Coast Select XI, a bunch of guys who play in the local premier league for love not money, which fits well because Keith’s story is too good to put a valuation on.
He’s from St Kitts & Nevis, a couple of specks on the Atlantic edge of the Caribbean, home to just 55,000 people.
When he was 12 his mum moved to America, leaving him and his brother, 13, to live alone near to an Aunt. Despite that almighty disruption and sudden need to self-parent, he wanted his future to be football.
His uncle used to visit from a nearby island, and they’d watch countless hours of South American football. Uncle used to say ‘one day, we’ll see you on that TV’.
Funny how it works because they’ll be able tune in on Friday in St Kitts to see their most famous footballer, even though home now is Long Jetty, a place squished between the ocean and a bay on the Central Coast of NSW in far-flung Australia.
Much like the question asked inwardly at the sight of Bolt in a yellow Mariners hat — how the hell does that happen?
A woman, Lauren, now his wife and mother of three sons, brought him here after they met in Hong Kong.
“She was teaching English over there. We were out after a game one night, met her there. Met up later, had a good chat and that’s how it goes…”
That would be ‘how it goes’ with his Caribbean accent. How does it go? He could make BAS statements sound appealing. When he mentions he lives in “Long Jetty” you believe it to be a carefree island in the sun with palm trees rustling in the warm trade winds. That’s how it goes.
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Keith’s football ability is as smooth as his spoken word and it’s taken him to all parts. If only those who spoke for him did their job a little better, or had a little luck when he needed it… who knows?
This, though, is not a tale that contains nor deserves bitterness. There isn’t any.
“Best thing about football for me is travelling and meeting all these people and having these experiences you can’t get in a classroom, says.
He’s played football on five of seven continents, missing Africa and Antarctica. If only those penguins got their congress and governance sorted, he’d have given the latter a go.
Keith started as a kid in the Caribbean and scored nearly 200 goals for his hometown club Newtown United. He was quick. When 20, he broke 11 seconds.
One of his first coaches claimed to have a contact at Aston Villa, but that turned out to be a complete load of crap, and in limbo, locals used to sling him 20 quid to play for their Friday night pub team and destroy opposition who at least had the weekend to drown sorrows.
Eventually, though, it was back to St Kitts. International teams used to tour there in the summer, and once, Oldham Athletic dropped in. He scored against them, impressing the chairman, who invited him back to the UK for a trial. After two training sessions a two-year contract was offered, but after a few trials, he couldn’t get a work permit.
But wait! An agent saw him play and score for Oldham against Middlesbrough and took to him to Greek club Panionios. They had money issues, so he left. Bradford, just promoted to the English Premier League wanted him. Again, the UK Home Office didn’t and no work permit, no dream move.
2001 turned out to be an episode of Getaway. Back in the Caribbean in Trinidad and Tobago, Palmeiras of Brazil came calling. Again, it didn’t quite work out, so next stop? Hong Kong.
Finally, he found relative comfort in a region – not a country – a region for the next decade. Aside from Hong Kong, there was Malaysia and Indonesia.
“Sometimes you don’t have a choice,” he says of his nomadic ways.
“Keep bouncing, to find something that suits you. I found that in Asia and I found they appreciate your football more there.”
By the way – and it’s much more important than a ‘by the way’ – he played over 100 times for St Kitts & Nevis. ‘The Sugar Boyz’ – of course it’s with a ‘z’ – never got near a World Cup, so Friday night could end up being the most watched game of Keith’s extraordinary career.
He’s in the Central Coast Select XI on merit after getting involved in playing on the Coast four years ago. He answered an online call to find a goalkeeper for Southern Ettalong’s Over 35’s. A quick spin through his resume soon had the Over 35’s coach hand him onto the first team. Right move.
Keith still has pace, abdominal muscles and an eye for goal.
This season he banged in 14 goals and would have been more if he didn’t have to sometimes leave at halftime to get to work, which happens to be mentoring at-risk youth, and therefore happens to make Keith Gumbs even more likeable.
Usain Bolt will have every stretch, touch, move and reaction micro-analysed on Friday.
“Usain Bolt is a winner,” offers Keith.
“I expect him to show people ‘I am Usain Bolt’ and forget track and field. I have no doubt he will help the Mariners. He won’t be short of that will to win.
“I’m looking forward to sharing the field with him, and meeting him.”
Keith, for his part, will just go out and do his thing. Enjoy it, maybe score a goal, maybe upstage the greatest sprinter in history.
And on Saturday he’ll be at it again.
His club side Southern Ettalong have an elimination final against Berkeley. Without the cameras. Just family and friends.
Why should it stop?