Wednesday, May 27, 2020
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Brits and Their Indian Super League Summer

Logo for Indian Super League (via Wikipedia)As this time of year often leaves many dreaming of warmer climes, we might now consider the fortunes of the many British players & managers to have moved to India as part of a wave of foreign influence over the still relatively young Super League in the country…

 

Owen Coyle is the latest to take the plunge in accepting a job in the ISL, with Chennaiyin on December 4 of last year. He replaced John Gregory, the former Aston Villa boss having arrived in 2017 & going on a three match winning run following a debut loss to FC Goa- defeating Northeast United, FC Pune City & ATK (originally Atletico de Kolkata thanks to Spanish investment through Atletico Madrid). Coyle began with a 1-1 draw versus Jamshedpur, and has since led the team to 3 wins and 2 defeats.

 

The Kerala Blasters have also enjoyed the benefit of English experience in the dugout at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium since their inception in 2014. With crowds of around 55,000 a game- a league record- seeing admittedly mixed results. David James wound down his career with a spell as player/coach, bringing Iain Hume, Jamie McAllister, Stephen Pearson & Michael Chopra with him, Hume finishing top scorer in that first season with five goals.

 

The former England goalkeeper was not kept on though. Veteran Peter Taylor, who has recently made an exit from Dagenham & Redbridge, was appointed in his place, signing Stephen Bywater, Peter Ramage & Sanchez Watt among others before swiftly exiting stage left in November 2015. Caretaker manager Terry Phelan was unable to halt the slump & so the club failed to qualify for the Super League finals, Chris Dagnall finishing as top scorer with six goals, just one more than Hume managed the previous campaign...

 

A rebuilding job was then undertaken, with the club once again opting to go for an Englishman. Steve Coppell stepping into the dugout the next season & getting the Blasters into the previously elusive Super League finals. Two Irishmen joined the playing staff as Aaron Hughes & Graham Stack arrived to play their part in a season which ended in the Blasters losing to Atletico Kolkata in the Indian Super League final, 4-3 on penalties, which secured Kolkata the league title for the second time in the first three seasons of the competition.

 

As the name might suggest it wasn't only Brits looking to tap into the potential of football in what is traditionally more of a cricketing country! ATK were the first team formed to play in the Super League, the result of a partnership between former batsman & indeed captain Sourav Ganguly & three local businessmen, Harshavardhan Neotia, Utsav Parekh & Sanjiv Goenka. For the first three seasons of their existence Los Colchoneros, as their Madrid- based initial co-owners are known, were also backers before Goenka bought their shares.

 

The Indian Atletico have kept the famed colours, though...

 

“We want cricket to be as popular as it is but at the same time we want to develop football as well. I don't think two popular things can't go together. The standard of football has to be good and I am sure popularity will follow”. So said Ganguly when the club was launched in May of 2014. Predictably a heavy Spanish influence was also prevalent. Antonio López Habas appointed as manager & former Real Madrid man Borja the first player to come aboard.

 

He was soon joined by Luis Garcia playing out the twilight of his career, while another former Liverpool man, Josemi would arrive during the International Draft- a sort of transfer window where Super League clubs are able to bid for foreign players.

 

Iain Hume would swap Kerala for Kolkata the following year, with Helder Postiga also coming in & scoring in a win over Chennaiyin on his debut before picking up an injury & missing the rest of his maiden season.

 

Revenge for Chennaiyin would arrive in the play-off semi-finals, where they dispatched Atletico 4-2 on aggregate, with manager López Habas leaving over a salary issue & joining Pune City. He was then replaced by former Villarreal boss José Francisco Molina before the severance of ties with their Atleti benefactors & the arrival of yet another Englishman as Teddy Sheringham became manager.

 

Robbie Keane soon joined him at Salt Lake Stadium, the now Middlesbrough assistant getting his first experience of player-management when Sheringham was sacked in March of 2018. He went on to score the only goal of his first match under that arrangement, against North East United, though he would depart at the end of the season & subsequently retired as a player.

 

Against the backdrop of the Super League's launch, Stephen Constantine was continuing to coach India's national side, having arrived in 2002 for the first of two spells with the Blue Tigers. Perhaps their first appearance of note on the international stage was at the London Olympics of 1948, the team playing without boots & losing 2-1 to France- as one newspaper report put it, "The French had been given a run for their money – and that, too, by the barefooted Indians!".

 

When asked why they played minus the proper footwear, captain Talimeran Ao simply quipped that "Well, you see, we play football in India, whereas you play BOOTBALL!", that particular soundbite making the sports pages after Sarangipani Raman had netted in the match itself.

 

The Olympics would later play a part in the Indian withdrawal from the 1950 World Cup after they had been awarded a place purely because their scheduled opponents in qualifying all withdrew!

 

India's FA, the All India Football Federation, decided the team could not possibly travel to Brazil for the tournament due to the cost of doing so, perceived lack of preparation time & prioritising the Games. Within a year they would embark on what is widely acknowledged as the most successful run in the footballing history of the country, under Syed Abdul Rahim, who also coached the Hyderabad City Police team & won the Asian Games on home soil as a first trophy of note for India.

 

In a sense it was yet another Englishman, Bob Houghton, who carried on the good work in between Constantine's two periods in charge, starting a revival of sorts. Leading them to a Nehru Cup win over Syria in August of 2007 then again in 2009, with an AFC Challenge Cup victory over Tajikistan in-between in the August of 2008.

 

Croatian, and former Derby County favourite, Igor Štimac is now in charge, having taken over in May 2019. The real challenge remains for India to reach another, elusive, World Cup or Olympic Games. However, as things stand, the Indian Super League is not helping those dreams to become more attainable.

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