DEHRADUN: Whoever wins Sunday’s ISL final, it is no contest that Khalid Jamil has already qualified as the biggest success story in Indian football this season.
Domestic coaches are second class citizens in the ISL, an entity that has so far ruled as taboo the hiring of Indians as head coaches, and Jamil shattered this glass ceiling this season.
The 43-year-old became the first Indian coach to guide his team to the playoffs, after taking over unfancied – and misfiring – North East United FC, with nine games remaining and embarking on an unbeaten run to reach the play offs.
More by circumstance than design, Jamil also led an unlikely ‘uprising’ of sorts with an Indian quartet of interim coaches prowling the sidelines in the otherwise foreign-coach-only ISL. Naushad Moosa, Jamil’s ex-international colleague from the late 1990s, Ishfaq Ahmed and Steven Dias for Bengaluru FC, Kerala Blasters and Odisha respectively, gave further credence to the long-held belief that Indian coaches were more ready for the ISL than was the other way around.
Taking a well-deserved break, far from the bubble, the maddeningly taciturn Jamil spoke on how a season suddenly beckoned, and how he took it on with utmost calm and preparedness. Excerpts:
How different was this experience with the Aizawl I-League title?
The Aizawl journey began at the start of the season. As a coach, one had more time to plan and prepare. Here it was in the middle of the season, time was less, there were just nine matches to go. But the bubble helped in a way, since we were together all the time, it was effective in that sense.
How did you navigate this season?
My season started in the middle of the season in a sense, so it would have been foolish to make too many changes. Thoda sambhal, sambhal ke, that was the best way ahead. But yes, what I was completely sure about was that we had to back the confidence of the players. That was crucial. Give them more confidence, one, and two, freedom. I felt the freedom to express was something the players needed, and we needed too to work our way out of a crunch situation like we were in. For example, if you were playing striker, you can make a mistake in finishing, no problem but you must try and think positively. It was never going to be one person’s mistake. It’s teamwork, so overall, anything that didn’t work out, it was fine, it was for the team to shoulder. The confidence for the players came from this freedom.
Also, roles were more fluid with this idea. The player was given the freedom, if playing in the midfield, he wasn’t confined to the midfield alone. According to the situation, sometimes he would have to defend, other times he was free to move up and help with the attack also. Aisa nahin hai ki duty diya hai, this is your duty and you cannot do anything else. No. A defender had the freedom to move up and attack during a set-piece.
It sounds simple but it’s crucial in a tight situation for a player and the team to be communicated that. I think that’s what helped.
What about the coach’s freedom in all this? How did you draw the balance?
When I took over before the match against Jamshedpur, I just had two days’ time. You cannot do much immediately, one way was to ask the players themselves what the problems were, what was hampering the collective. On discussing, it wasn’t too something too grave or serious, just a matter of confidence that invariably creeps in in situations like this.
We decided that we needed to tweak the existing system, I had the freedom but that didn’t mean I needed to overhaul the whole idea completely. Step by step was the way to go, because time was at a premium. And like I said, it was imperative to give the players the freedom to express themselves
Has faith in Indian coaches in the ISL changed after your performance?
Yes, the impression of Indian coaches has definitely changed. There has been a change, on the feedback that I received. I believe in the coming days in the ISL, Indian coaches will get more confidence to do their thing, and more importantly, they will get more opportunities.
But there has been a resistance to employ Indians as head coaches in the ISL…
I always maintain that it’s their choice, it’s their thinking. I don’t have to interfere in that, just do the job I have been given. They must have also thought about something when they laid down these rules, they have done it for five years now, I think they will open in the near future.
With the coming up of Indian coaches in the ISL — you, Naushad Moosa and Ishfaq — do you see an emergence of the Indian flavour on the bench in the future?
It is possible. But see, I don’t go in for predictions. You cannot force anything, it is up to the owners to decide. But what is also true is that we must give confidence to the Indian coaches. You must have faith in Indian coaches.
How much credit should go to you for NEUFC making the play-offs?
I actually don’t think too much about it. I was given a job, I did it like I would do with any other team. The credit should go to the team, players, coaching staff and management.
What is the spirit of Khalid Jamil and the recent saga of comebacks and fightbacks in Indian football?
It could be a very boring answer, but I don’t really see it that way. I enjoy my job, I actually find it very interesting, enjoy each moment. I take every match seriously, I quite enjoy the preparation part. The basic principle is not to give any excuse before the match. And then depending on the situation, try to find solutions. It is a very natural process, nothing extraordinary really. Yes, but it requires hard work, that is for sure.
Are you more comfortable with smaller teams, language-wise, philosophy-wise, more of an Indian nucleus?
I work the same with everybody, Indian or foreigner. There was an interesting mix of foreign players this time. Football’s language is one. You must work hard, during practice, you must give everything and during the match game, you must implement the plan, basically when you play, you must play effectively. The same rule applies to everybody.
Would you consider yourself the surprise of the season?
Yes, I’ll admit I was definitely surprised by how it went. But where the time went, I still don’t know. All I know is, it went step by step, match by match. We didn’t try to see too much into the future. It was more important to be in the present – this match, this one step, the next match, the next step.
Is that the best way to go when you have to claw your way up and time is short?
Yes, I’d think so. You have to be patient, no? A lot of times I have seen coaches getting trapped in the idea of thinking about the future – that for this match, you are making this team, and they juggle the team in the next thinking about the third match that is to come. In this, they forget to address the present, the now. It is very important to think of the match at hand. But yes, everybody differs in their thinking and philosophy, I prefer this approach.
Which one was the most difficult time or match, specifically?
If you see, all the matches were difficult times. The ‘first match of the season’ for me, when I took over was Jamshedpur, and we needed to win. When we got that, we thought the next match was a crucial one for us to survive. When that happened, we continued in the same vein with the Kolkata team. Then we thought it was time to beat a big team, so Mumbai happened. That’s when we felt this is going well and perhaps there’s a chance to make the play-offs, maybe that time has come. In the last match, against Kerala we needed a draw to make it but if we had played with the mentality of getting a draw, it could have been a problem.
It was a similar situation when you won the I-League title with Aizawl, you needed a draw against Lajong in the last tie. How difficult is to play for a draw than to play for a win?
If you think about it, as a coach we are conditioned to go for a win. But to draw is also important if the situation demands. To be safe, that is always better. For example, if we score an early goal, the idea is we have to be safe now. How? By not to concede one ourselves. For that the best way is to try to score another goal.
If we have conceded a goal early, the key is to stay calm, stick to the plan and try to get an equaliser. That is also a favourable situation. It’s a good place to be in.
Who do you owe your coaching influences to?
I have watched a lot of Indian coaches and learnt from those whom I played under, like Sukhwinder (Singh) sir. The instructor during my Pro Licence course was Wim Koevermans, before he became the India coach in 2012. I observed him very closely and learnt a lot from him, in a very detailed, effective way. For instance, how to handle players at the start of the season, how to prepare for the start of the season. The difficult part is mid-season when it is up and down, how to handle the players and the plan at that juncture. Lessons in resilience, analysing matches, opponents, teachings in strategy and planning, I’d obediently write them down, still have those notes – what to say to the players during a game, what not to say. It’s been very inspiring to have learnt under him.
Koevermans was a decent coach for India, but players who worked under him say he was much better as a technical person…
He was a good coach for India, but as an instructor, I think he was No 1. Very adept as a technical person. It was a short course, time was less but I really learnt a lot that has helped me a lot in my coaching career. I often go back to his lessons.
But the summary of all this is that, you have to be natural. In the end, it has to be your logic. Depending on the situation, you have to find the solution.
A lot of coaches tend to copy set patterns, but situations, players, locations and mindsets vary. What works in England, may not necessarily work in India, the mentality here could be different.
How would you describe an Indian player’s mentality?
Any Indian player who comes to play through the I-League or the ISL, I have seen that he is desperate to learn. He is really eager to pick up new things, and if you teach him a good thing, a new concept, he is very receptive and takes it in quite happily. And that makes him come for more, an Indian player always hungers to learn more. Then there is hard work and Indian players are not afraid to put in the labour.
The other aspect is confidence. You have to be mindful that if you don’t make him play regularly enough, the confidence tends to dip. As a coach, you have to tackle that, since they tend to lose patience quickly too. You have to explain why it is not being played and at the same time, keep their confidence high as well.
I feel today there is only a marginal difference Indian players and the foreigners, in terms of ability. Unees bees ka farak hai bas.
In comparison, foreign players, especially those who have had a career playing abroad, require a different approach. The challenge is how to make them aware that we, as Indian coaches, too come with a plan and approach in addition to what they already have imbibed elsewhere. It could take time, but it is imperative that they are convinced to align with the larger plan of the coach.
The thing is foreigners like everything short time-wise, short practice, even the talking is short. So if you have to speak with them, you have to prepare forehand on how best and shortest way to communicate – this is what I need and this is how I want it. They listen and are quite knowledgeable and have good game awareness. Ultimately, it is all about sharing.
Surely the Indian player’s receiving of instruction and awareness would also have become better in the last 20 years or so, immediately almost after your time as a player?
Indian players are smarter today with all the exposure of live foreign football on TV and developments through social media. They are definitely faster and smarter today. When we used to play, there wasn’t so much idea about things related to the game. Now, they are aware of things like diet, practice routines and processes, fitness training, injury prevention and rehabilitation.
It works for us as coaches, makes us more open to ideas and suggestions. I always say, ‘You want to say anything, any input?’ but only before the match, not after the game is over. It has taken time, but they did come forward with ideas, and it has benefitted the collective.
You have a meeting with the club owners next week, if all goes well maybe, the first Indian head coach in the ISL? But how long can you remain assistant coach or interim head coach when you’ve proven yourself in a tough situation and done well. Isn’t there an internal conflict there, a personal push of sorts?
No, I don’t think like that. I have a three-year contract, I must respect that. I have completed two years, next year we shall see. If it all goes well, maybe another year. As for personal ambition, woh dekhenge as and when it comes…