Image copyrightFRANKLIN WILSONGuyana players celebrate after beating Belize to qualify for the Gold Cup
Image captionSam Cox (number eight) was in the Guyana team that beat Belize to qualify for the Concacaf Gold Cup for the first time

When Sam Cox made his international debut in 2015 it was in a land he had never been to before, with a bunch of guys he had never met.

The Londoner, who has been a non-league footballer since 2011, had never experienced heat like it, nor an atmosphere like that in Guyana's Providence Stadium.

Fans were playing instruments, with reggae music booming through the PA system. Then Cox, a makeshift right-back, attacked on the overlap and whipped in a first-time cross for Emery Welshman to equalise.

Cox "went crazy", jumping over an advertising hoarding and running towards the fans to celebrate. It was a moment he says he'll never forget. Yet days earlier he was questioning his decision to step so far out of his comfort zone.

"The first time I got on the team bus it was all 'this seat's taken'," said Cox, who is of mixed race. "I was probably the lightest skinned player there and, when I introduced myself to the squad, straight away they were calling me 'white boy'. I was shocked."

The World Cup qualifier finished 4-4 and St Vincent & the Grenadines progressed on away goals but Cox was man of the match. He had become an immediate fans' favourite and begun a "life-changing" journey.

A year later he became captain and galvanised a team that, in 2014, had gone almost two years without a game. Now known as 'skip', the 28-year-old is leading Guyana into their first major tournament - the Concacaf Gold Cup.

Rubbing shoulders with Kane and Kluivert

Although Guyana is at the top of South America, the former British colony is considered part of the Caribbean, and Cox's maternal grandparents were part of the Windrush generation that emigrated to the UK.

Their grandson grew up in north London and joined the Tottenham academy at 15, playing alongside the likes of Harry Kane and Danny Rose before being released at 20 and dropping into part-time football.

Image copyrightTWITTER: @THESAMCOXSam Cox tweet of pictures of him with Harry Kane and Ryan Mason
Image captionCox came through Tottenham's academy with Harry Kane and Ryan Mason and now coaches Spurs' Under-15s as well as playing in non-league

But after helping Boreham Wood FC win promotion from the National League South in 2014-15, Cox was given the opportunity to do "something he couldn't resist" -represent Guyana.

After that "eye-opening" introduction, Cox made Guyana's right-back spot his own. He'd go from playing in places like Torquay one week to Trinidad the next, and having training camps in neighbouring Brazil and Suriname.

He was even singled out for praise by childhood idol Patrick Kluivert, who coached Curacao when they faced Guyana for Cox's first game as skipper in June 2016.

"It was the law of the jungle really," said Cox. "They didn't know who I was, where I'd played. I had to earn their respect quickly.

"So becoming captain was a huge honour, my Nan's so proud. There's a lot of politics within Guyanese and Caribbean football so there's a lot more that comes with having the armband but I'm not afraid to express the view of the players and I try to help them be the best they can be."

Tapping into the Guyanese diaspora

Image copyrightDUANE SAUNDERSNeil Danns, Sam Cox and Matthew Briggs
Image captionNeil Danns (left), Sam Cox (centre) and Matthew Briggs (right) all made their Guyana debut in 2015 and are out of contract this summer

Two men have been instrumental in the development of Guyana's national team - Trinidadian coach Jamaal Shabazz and Faizal Khan, a London-born Fifa agent with Guyanese parents.

Shabazz took the Golden Jaguars to within one goal of qualifying for the 2007 Gold Cup, while Khan has helped to identify then recruit players with Guyanese heritage living around the world who qualify to play for the nation.

However, they have been in and out of the programme because of problems with the Guyana Football Federation. Fifa banned one GFF president in 2011 and removed another in 2014, replacing Christopher Matthias' administration with a normalisation committee.

The team had gone on strike over pay in November 2012 and did not play again till September 2014, when a home-based side endured a dismal Caribbean Cup campaign after Matthias said he was against using foreign-born players.

"It was ludicrous," said Khan, who along with Shabazz was invited back by the normalisation committee in 2015. Shortly after, former Premier League players Matthew Briggs and Neil Danns made their debut, followed by Cox.

Johnson's career highlight

Image copyrightFRANKLIN WILSONGuyana captain Sam Cox and coach Michael Johnson
Image captionCox (left) has remained Guyana captain after the appointment of coach Michael Johnson (right)

With some stability restored, ex-Birmingham and Derby defender Michael Johnson was named coach last June. Then for the first time Guyana appointed a head of recruitment (Khan) and a video analyst.

"It was a case of 'see what you can do'," said Johnson, a former Jamaica international. "The main objectives were rebuilding and organising so we could aim towards the 2026 World Cup. No-one expected this.

"There's a lack of resources and finance, but we do the best with what we've got. There were marginal gains at first but once people heard about the professionalism we've brought in, there was a lot of buy-in from players who didn't make themselves available at the start."

London-born trio Callum Harriott, Anthony Jeffrey and Keanu Marsh-Brown made their debuts as Guyana beat Belize 2-1 in March to qualify for the Gold Cup, which Johnson says is the highlight of his career.

Keanu's brother Ronayne came aboard in 2018 and they have been joined in the squad by winger Terell Ondaan, a former Netherlands Under-21 international.

Khan said: "Sam Cox works so hard to keep the team together as a group, despite everybody coming from so many different places, and he's been a tremendous help to myself.

"Sometimes we speak to potential players together because when they're thinking of playing international football - and possibly upsetting their club manager - it helps to hear from the team captain about what the real pros and cons are."

'A truly humbling experience'

Image copyrightDUANE SAUNDERSTeam picture of Guyana football players
Image captionTwelve members of Guyana's 23-man squad for the Gold Cup were born in the UK

For Cox, who is out of contract at Wealdstone after spending the season on loan with Hampton & Richmond, representing Guyana has been a "truly humbling experience which I'm grateful for".

"It's been fantastic to connect with my roots," he added. "It's developed me as a player and as a man. We've created history with the national team and it's amazing to see the happiness it's brought to the people of Guyana."

At 177th in the world, Guyana are the lowest-ranked team in the Gold Cup and play their opening game against hosts the USA on Tuesday (03:00 BST Wednesday).

"That was the draw I prayed for," said Cox. "We've got a difficult group but what a chance to really put Guyana on the map."

The Golden Jaguars also play Panama and Trinidad & Tobago, with the Panama game at Cleveland's 67,000-capacity First Energy Stadium. The London lad is most definitely a long way from home.

"It's a bit different to playing in front of 1,000 at Wealdstone," he joked. "This is what we dreamed of when we were kids. It's giving me goosebumps just thinking about it."