‘I will bring an end to Bagan’s dry spell’
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For starters, how did the Mohun Bagan deal come about?
My contract with Air-India was getting over in May 2012. I had the option of renewing it, or looking elsewhere for better prospects. I had a few offers lined up from around the I-League. Then I received the call from Mohun Bagan, who told me that they were really impressed with my performances at Air-India and were interested in employing my services. They wanted to give me an opportunity at leading Bagan to the I-League title. It was indeed an honour and a pleasure to receive such an offer from a great club like Bagan. I have always dreamed of coaching in Kolkata. To experience the passion and the vibe of football in that city. And I just took the call right away of accepting the proposition.
You have been involved with football in Mumbai for so long as player and coach. Was it an easy decision to shift base at this stage of your career?
As a professional coach, one cannot create any boundaries around them. You always have to be ready to shift base and accept every challenge. I have always fantasized about being a part of the football culture in Kolkata. The environment there is so passionate and so are the people, the fans and their media. I can assure you that it's every Indian footballer's dream to play in Kolkata. I actually dreamed of going there as a player and even had an offer lined up. But I had a settled job here with Mahindra and it somehow didn't come through. And to get a taste of Kolkata football especially from the dug-out of a great team like Mohun Bagan was an opportunity I couldn't miss out on obviously. I am originally from Himachal Pradesh, was born and brought up in Delhi and it was only football that brought me to Mumbai. So I'm used to adapting to different climes.
What about your own experiences of playing in Kolkata?
I always enjoyed playing there, and never minded being at the receiving end of the many jibes from their fans. I remember scoring two or three of my finest goals there back in the 1991-92 season during the National League. That is also when we reached the semifinal of the IFA Shield. So all in all great memories in Kolkata as a player, and I'm hoping to create many more now.
Air-India was your maiden stint as the senior coach of an I-League team. How was the experience here?
An amazing experience and my time with Air-India also proved to be a great learning curve. I appreciate the assistance provided by everyone from Mr Pinge to Dhanraj Pillay, and not to forget Godfrey Pereira (who replaces Kashyap as Air-India coach) and Joginder Thapa. The adminstrative staff were also very supportive. And despite our limited resources and various other restraints we managed to produce our best performance ever in the I-League, notching up 32 points—most ever in AI history—and finishing seventh. With a little more help, we could done even better.
So you must be looking forward to a more unshackled reign at Mohun Bagan?
Financial stability and a substantial budget is obviously crucial for any coach or manager to thrive and create a strong team around him. That way you also can get in some star quality. For example, most of the players at Air-India were young and immature. My objective there was different. I had taken a conscious decision in fact to educate them about being professional. And when you become professional, you naturally want to play for bigger teams and make more money. Unfortunately, Air-India has always only been a breeding ground for really talented players, take Sanjay Pradhan or Nirmal Chettri for example, but they struggle to hold onto them. As a result, the target of their management has always been to avoid relegation. At Bagan, the goal is very clear. Only winning the I-League title counts. So it will be an interesting change for me, going from helping a team avoid the drop to guiding one towards the championship.
How about dealing with the likes of Odafa Okolie and Tolgay Ozbey up front?
They are both great players, who are extremely talented and have proved their worth. My role will be in guiding them to score the maximum number of goals possible. Any coach would love to have Odafa and Tolgay in their line-up. So I am enjoying the prospect. My focus will also be on giving the local and younger players an important role in the squad to help them develop.
How have the Kolkatans reacted to your arrival at Bagan?
So far so good. The passion and emotion in this part of the world is very high. Same goes for the management. There were around 50 reporters at my first press-conference as Bagan coach. And it was telecast live on the local channels. This kind of coverage for football is exclusive to Kolkata. They simply can't get enough of their beloved sport here. We have a pre-season camp on at Durgapur, and I was shocked to find that 10 reporters had reached the ground even before us. And they were calling our manager and wondering why we hadn't reached yet. This can only happen in Kolkata. Dealing with the media is going to one of the different challenges there.
Despite being arguably the most popular club in the country, Mohun Bagan haven't really won anything of note in close to a decade. What do you think has been the issue?
To be honest, all the players and previous coaches have tried their best. Their last National League title came way back in 1999-00. I am not going to hold any single person responsible for the long drought ever since. I think they had a good last season to be honest. But football is funny. Things don't always go to plan, and a team's dominance always comes in phases. Bagan have won a number of titles over the years. If you notice, the last decade has witnessed a Goan domination in Indian football. One of the main reasons for that has been their ability to hang onto the same side for long periods of time with only minor changes here and there. They also have very talented coaches. Plus there is always added pressure on the teams from Kolkata. I am very confident that my experiences, skills and coaching qualifications will help in turning the tide around and bringing and end to the dry spell.
Is it worrying for you that seven coaches have come and gone at Mohun Bagan in less than two years?
At this level, you have to perform to the expectation of the management. If you don't live up to them, then you will be replaced. And the same stands for me. But I am not approaching this stint with any fear or worrying too much about the recent history of coaches. You only add pressure by thinking about all this. I am very confident about my skills. And I am no stranger to taking risks either. I left Mahindra as a senior manager and gave up a very hefty package to become a professional coach with Air-India, a team lying in the relegation zone. I could have easily stuck to my plush office job. So I am ready for this challenge.
Will you continue to keep an eye over the progress of Air-India next season?
I made a lot of changes during my time there, and brought a significant touch of professionalism. Godfrey, Thapa & Co are capable coaches, and I'm sure they will take Air-India forward. I will always be attached to Mumbai, and I'm sure the quality of the football here will go up once the Cooperage stadium is ready again. Plus I'll keep visiting since my wife and kids will continue staying here.