Football coaches who taste success at a professional level are expected to be smart talkers. Khalid Jamil, though, is among those coaches whose teams do the talking on the pitch.
Jamil, a AFC Pro Licence holder, had helmed Aizawl FC's path-breaking rise to the I-League title in 2016-17 and is now earning his spurs in the Indian Super League with NorthEast United FC (NEUFC) as the interim head coach.
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Spain’s Gerard Nus struggled to mould the NEUFC squad of foreigners and locals into a winning unit. He made way for Jamil, a former India international, who worked with the same group of players from diverse nationalities and different levels of experience. Khalid’s squad sealed a spot in the semifinal by virtue of finishing third in ISL 2020-21, ahead of teams with highly rated foreign coaches.
NEUFC’s turnaround under an Indian, promoted from a role with the youth development players to taking temporary charge of the first team, raises the question if professionally qualified local coaches deserve more responsibility in the ISL. Foreign coaches Carles Cuadrat (Bengaluru FC) and Kibu Vicuna (Kerala Blasters FC) were asked to leave mid-way with their Indian deputies put in charge.
The 43-year-old midfielder-turned-pro coach reveals his recipe for team transformation, about working with foreign stars like Federico Gallego, Deshorn Brown and Dylan Fox at NEUFC, and moulding young Indian talents like Lalengmawia.
Excerpts from a chat on the phone from Goa:
When you were named as the interim coach, the club was on a seven-game winless run. What did you say to the squad to galvanise them?
I told them to concentrate, play their natural game with full confidence…. if mistake happens, no problem. We got the results because the players worked very hard and fulfilled their responsibilities. From Subhasish Roy in goal to VP Suhair in the forward line, each one performed.... those in the first team, those taking the place of injured players and those recovering from injury to win back places in the squad.
As an interim coach, taking over the team mid-season is tricky. How did you approach the situation? How was your experience?
The view of the club management and the quality of players available determines the approach a new coach can adopt. The foreigners coming here to play do their part, that's no problems for the coach. They are professional and committed to the team goal. Staying inside a bubble in Goa resulted in our players mixing with each other more frequently and the understanding got better. We trained together, got involved in other games together and it showed on the ground.
The NEUFC management said it wanted the club to play an attacking brand of football. With results paramount, how much emphasis did you place on following this idea?
It is not always about all-out attacking football. The situation and the opponent influenced our approach. Every match is different, if we got an early goal or managed to score in the second half, we played differently. For example, we led by two early goals (against Jamshedpur FC), the decision was to protect our goal and then go for counter-attacks. (NEUFC won that game 2-1).
Indian coaches rarely get opportunities or matches to prove themselves in the ISL. Will your success with NEUFC help change the outlook towards Indian coaches in ISL clubs?
Indian coaches getting a chance depends on their (club management's) wish and what they expect from the coach. In my case, coaching NorthEast United FC is a pleasure. I am happy to have got the chance (to prove my worth). The players also did their part, I give full credit to my players for the team’s success.
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Last season, FC Goa was guided by Clifford Miranda and Derrick Pereira into the play-offs following Sergio Lobera's departure. NEUFC's fortunes changed when you took over (from Gerard Nus). Do you feel it is time the ISL put proven Indian coaches in charge?
Sure, why not? Indian coaches are as capable (as others). If any coach is given the confidence by the management, results can happen because then it is up to the person to deliver.
Four teams have changed their coaches during the season in ISL 2020-21. Do coaches have to be ready to pack up and leave when results don’t come their way from now on?
Coaching is a tough challenge, you have to be alert every time and show results 100 per cent.
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Does familiarity with players and vice-versa make working easier for a person like you taking charge with the league in progress?
I worked with the NEUFC's youth development squad (before re-designated as the first team interim coach), hence almost all the Indian players we signed were familiar to me, they were aware of my thinking and expectations. I knew Gurjinder (Kumar), Ashutosh (Mehta), Mashoor (Shereef), (PM) Britto, Lalkhawpuimawia before they signed up for NorthEast.
How different is the challenge of coaching a team in ISL and in the I-League (East Bengal)?
The situation is different in both competitions. Changes have taken place over the years. We have to admit that foreigners in ISL have quality, both players and the coaches. The I-League was like this earlier, now with most of the Indian internationals in the ISL, expectations are higher and so are the challenges for coaches in the ISL.
You had earlier spoken about not enjoying your East Bengal stint, with reference to autonomy in football-related decisions and on the training ground. How critical are these issues to succeed as the chief coach?
Freedom for a coach to do his work is important. It is also useful to know how to tackle a situation when there are restrictions on a coach’s functioning.
SC East Bengal and Mohun Bagan (in association with ATK) are in ISL this season, at the extreme ends of the league table. Your thoughts…
I don’t wish to discuss how other teams fared in ISL, I can talk about NorthEast United.
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You coached East Bengal and Mohun Bagan before, hence this question. Did the ISL experience of the respective chief coaches make a difference… Robbie Fowler (East Bengal) new to ISL, Antonio Habas (ATK Bagan) knew what ISL is about?
ATK Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are good teams. Habas and Fowler are experienced coaches and got to work with players of quality… just that one team did not click and hence all these questions.
Based on your experience of winning the I-League with Aizawl FC and seeing success now with NEUFC, your views on what players from north-eastern states bring to Indian football?
Every player I came in touch with from the north-east states - the hard work they put in during practise or in the match is total. Game wise, they listen to you very well, go out and try to implement the coach’s plan 100 per cent. There is hunger in them, they are self-motivated and want to get better… all these are important. These young players know that getting into the national team is a possibility.
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North-east players are visible in ISL and I-League clubs, also age group teams for India, from U-17 FIFA World Cup to U-19s. Do you think those performing in the ISL, midfielder Lalengmawia in your team for example, are ready to be called for the Indian camp?
Football is a common language these players understand. They know their duties very well in defensive or offensive roles and so get opportunities under different coaches as junior players. Lalengmawia is ready for India and the U-17s in other teams are also mature for higher levels.