Westwood: The key is to have all the players fresh and hungry

"I thought we did enough to win the League (last year), but that did not happen. We were undefeated in 13 matches. I’d say that finishing second served as an opportunity to take all that hurt and work even harder," says Ashley Westwood.

Ashley Westwood, coach of Bengaluru Football Club (BFC), at the team's training session in Bengaluru.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

Bengaluru FC players celebrate with the I-League trophy.   -  AIFF

The Bengaluru Football Club (BFC) coach, Ashley Westwood, says that his team did not really strive to do well in its final I-League fixture, against Mohun Bagan, in Siliguri. This negligent attitude — which resulted in a 5-0 drubbing — can be forgiven, given that his men had wrapped up the title in the previous match, with a 2-0 victory at home against Salgaocar FC.

The Englishman explains that once he came to know that the match against Mohun Bagan had been shifted from Kolkata to Siliguri, he told his wards to seal the League at the earliest. “The hotels there were not going to be ideal, and the pitch was poor. Siliguri had every ingredient that could go against you in an away match. This made us really concentrate on the penultimate match, against Salgaocar, in Bengaluru,” says Westwood in a chat with Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Question: BFC has won its second I-League title in three years. Everyone at the club must be ecstatic...

Answer: We’re feeling good. We have reached one target of the season — to win the I-League trophy back. It feels good, especially after what happened in the previous season (BFC lost the title to Mohun Bagan after conceding a late goal in the final match of the League). The boys are relaxed and looking forward to doing well in the Federation Cup and the AFC Cup.

What lessons did the players learn from losing the title to Bagan last year?

To be honest, we did not commit many mistakes last year. I thought we did enough to win the League, but that did not happen. We were undefeated in 13 matches. I’d say that finishing second served as an opportunity to take all that hurt and work even harder.

It must be very pleasing that BFC took the title with a match to spare this year...

Once we heard that the final fixture (against Mohun Bagan) had been moved from Kolkata to Siliguri, we knew that it would throw up a few complications. It would be simple for Bagan to reach Siliguri, but not for us. There were no direct flights, so we had a 4 a.m. start to get there. The hotels there were not going to be ideal, and the pitch was poor. Siliguri had every ingredient that could go against you in an away match. This made us really concentrate on the penultimate match, against Salgaocar, in Bengaluru. I told the boys before the Salgaocar match to forget that we had another game to go.

Thankfully, we won, which meant that we could take the Bagan game lightly. We weren’t too bothered about the Bagan game.

At the end of the previous season, you had said that apart from BFC, the other I-League clubs did not really challenge Bagan. Was BFC challenged this year?

Not really. East Bengal was a challenge, but we beat them 3-1 at home to put an end to their title hopes. The only challenge was there were fewer games in the League (due to reduced number of teams). This reduces the margin for error. It was more a case of the time element being against us, rather than our competitors.

Would you say that the depth of the squad was the key to BFC’s success?

We kept everyone hungry and fit, and that is the reason why we won 10 matches, instead of maybe seven or eight matches. Competing in the AFC Cup and the Federation Cup — in addition to the league — is mentally exhausting. The key is to have all the players fresh and hungry. This is easier said than done — it does not mean that you go out and sign 30-35 players. We have 20-25 players, but we keep them all very fit. There are a lot of secrets to achieving this, which people outside the club may not understand.

Can you elaborate? What sort of training is expected from a player who is not playing a particular match?

The player has to put in the fitness work, even if he is not on the bench or in the starting XI. This is because he will be called up at some stage in the year, and he has to be at the same pace as the players in the starting XI. There is a science to this. Unless you have an appreciation for the way top clubs function, you won’t understand.

Which match gave you the most satisfaction this season?

Both the wins against East Bengal were pleasing, especially the away outing, at the Barasat Stadium. The turf there is extremely poor. In Europe, that astroturf would not even be legal. It is rock hard, as is the one at Shillong Lajong. These two away wins were massive, because you’re tossing a coin when you deal with bad surfaces.

Immediately after winning the I-League, you announced that you were contemplating quitting the club over salary issues. In hindsight, couldn’t you have made this announcement at a later stage so that it did not deflect the attention from a milestone moment?

No, I would not change anything. I don’t need to be questioned about the things I say and do. My record speaks for itself.

Are the salary negotiations still on?

Yes. We’re still talking — this is key. As long as two parties are talking, the relationship is healthy.

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