Hyderabad FC's success depends on how well the youth development project is built, says owner

The Nizams joined the ISL fold in August 2019, merely two months ahead of their first game. The club’s management had a mammoth of challenges to overcome in that short period.

Varun Tripuraneni

Hyderabad FC owner Varun Tripuraneni   -  Special Arrangement

“Rise and rise again until lambs become lions,” was a popular saying from the movie Robin Hood. Indian Super League club Hyderabad FC’s tale is an embodiment of the statement.

The Nizams joined the ISL fold in 2019, replacing the erstwhile FC Pune City. Their arrival was announced in August, merely two months ahead of their first game. The club’s management had mammoth challenges to overcome in that short period - they had to spruce up the stadium, arrange for training grounds and begin commercial activities.

Hyderabad FC did not play a single game at its home venue, the GMC Balayogi Athletic Stadium, until November. The club’s debut campaign, owing to its hurried entry into the tournament, was drab. The side’s disastrous season ended with two wins and 10 points from 18 games.

That would have been enough to sound the alarm bells at the club. However, the panic did not creep in as team owner Varun Tripuraneni had quietly begun rebuilding the club from the January transfer window. He appointed a football director, pooled in inexperienced but promising Indian players and set the process in motion.

Tripuraneni, who has been involved in the ISL in various capacities since its introduction in 2014, saw his plans fall into place. Hyderabad FC came out all guns blazing in the ISL 2020-21 season. From being left with the wooden spoon in 2019-20, the side took the league by storm as it tore down oppositions and went on a 12-game unbeaten run. It seemed like the underdogs would seal their spot in the top-four, but were undone in their final league game.

Hyderabad FC narrowly missed out on a play-off place in the 2020-21 ISL season.   -  ISL/SPORTZPICS

 

In a candid chat with Sportstar, Varun talks about the club’s rebuilding phase, its emphasis on youth development, the partnership with Borussia Dortmund and the impact of Albert Roca’s departure.

Hyderabad FC fell short of a playoff spot by just two points this season. What did you make of the club’s second campaign?

We went into the season on the back of a very poor season in 2019-20. There was a lot of pressure on players, support staff, and everyone involved in the club. There was a transition from one coach to another, but we stuck to what we wanted to achieve. We knew we couldn't end up as champion considering the previous season we had and we didn't have any such expectations.

We're very happy we achieved what we set off to do at the beginning of the season. The circumstances were tough for everyone and the fact the ISL was pulled off in the manner which it was, I think credit has to be given to everyone involved in the league. It was a good season for us overall and I would say it was a bit of a relief towards the end that we could turn things around.

READ | No more a one-dimensional job - the changing role of goalkeepers

It was a satisfying campaign because till the last game of the season, we had a chance to push for the top four. We were disappointed and a couple of days later it sunk in that season was over us, but we did start understanding what we achieved. We had a great mentality, not just in the squad, but all across the club. Everyone was working towards the same goal and I think that was great.

Tell us a little about the challenges you faced ahead of the club’s first season. 

We knew the 2019-20 season was going to be a very challenging season for us as we had very little time to prepare. We had a lot of limitations and a lot of things to focus on at the same time. We had to get our stadium ready for matches and at the same time look at the best training ground options. Since we didn't have too much time, we knew we couldn't do our training ground from scratch and had to work with the existing infrastructure. At times, we even had to use multiple training grounds, just in the interest of time and availability. 

Even commercially, we had little time to go out in the market to bring in good brands on board as sponsors for the season. It was pretty much about getting the season started and finishing it. We were happy that we had a good crowd for our opening match. That was very encouraging because we didn't know what we were going to expect with our limited marketing activities on ground.

What was the idea at that point? What was the plan to take things forward? 

As a couple of games went by, we knew we had to start planning for the next season and beyond. And that's when we thought the January player transfer window would be the best opportunity for us to start building the team. Until that point in time, we did not even have a management or an operations team on board, we were using external agencies for operations, social media and marketing. We knew that was not going to work going forward and we started recruiting.

ALSO READ | Midfielder Anirudh Thapa tests positive for COVID-19 in Doha

We brought in Sujay Sharma as our director of football. He was a key recruitment for us and it was a priority because we wanted someone to be there before we start making signings in the January transfer window. I think that set the tone for not just the remaining six, seven games of the 2019-20 season but also in terms of building towards the 2021 season. 

Hyderabad FC made quite a splash in the January window by bringing celebrated coach Albert Roca on board and signing a few young Indian players...

We, unfortunately, had to make a change in the coaching staff (Phil Brown was sacked) and Albert Roca came in. Though he was not involved fully in the touchline from January, he was part of the team-building process. I would say that was a turning point. We needed to sign players specific to the characteristics we were looking at. The players we brought in, like Souvik Chakraborty, Hitesh Sharma and Liston Colaco, had not played too much football for the last 12-15 months before that.

The idea in January was to sort of finish the last few games strong. I wouldn't say we did exceedingly well, though, there was a great result against NorthEast in the last game of the season, but it at least gave us and also the coaching staff a good idea of where we are in terms of the sport and the areas we needed to improve.

You mentioned getting Roca on board was a turning point. How difficult was it to deal with his sudden departure to Barcelona?

I would say it was easy and tough in a way. It was tough because we’d done a phenomenal amount of work from mid-January till July-August and till then there was daily communication between Roca and Sujay. And then all of a sudden (he had to leave) and that came as a bit of a shock to us.

I would say the good part was we had very little time (to find a replacement). We didn't have to go through a very long process because we knew we had to get a good coach on board. I think we got very lucky with Manolo Marquez. We had a great conversation when we first discussed the project. I’m very happy that he took up the role and understood it extremely well, considering the time he had to prepare.

100

Hyderabad FC manager Manolo Marquez at the GMC Stadium in Bambolim, Goa.   -  Sportzpics

 

There was the concern that we had chosen players who would fit Roca’s style of play. As you know, when there is a change in coach there is a tendency to change players because usually, the new coach’s mindset and approach are different. I think Manolo handled it extremely well. He knew that we didn't have too much time and that he had to work with the best available resources and he got the best out of our young players. It worked very well for us in the end. 

Hyderabad fielded a fairly young squad in the last season. Was that a conscious decision - to focus more on the up and coming Indian players?

We knew we had talented players who weren't tested too much in ISL, like Liston and Hitesh for example. They didn't play too much football for their respective teams previously. We also had seasoned players like Adil Khan, Subrata Paul and Halicharan Narzary come in. The balance was going to be very important - the right mix of Indians, foreigners and young inexperienced players.

I would say the positives from the 19-20 season was that players like Mohammed Yasir, and Asish Rai got a lot of game time. It could be because of injuries to some key players that season but I think playing more games gave them that extra bit of confidence that they required and they were completely different players in the 2021 season. We wanted to build a good core of young Indian players. 

The club had announced a partnership with Bundesliga giant Borussia Dortmund last year. How has the experience been so far and what are the key areas of focus?

Our partnership with Borussia Dortmund mainly focuses on grassroots and youth development. Some of the things we'd planned, especially on-ground activities, have been halted due to the pandemic. We’ve pushed a lot of the plans we have to this season and are looking at the best solution of how we can achieve them in the next six to eight months.

We are in the second year of our two-year deal, which can be extended to five. But as I said, we've not been able to do any meaningful activities on the ground. There's a great rapport between the two clubs and we're hoping to roll out some of our programs this season.

100

Hyderabad FC's partnership with Borussia Dortmund mainly focuses on grassroots and youth development.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Borussia Dortmund is widely known for its youth structure and world-class academy. Are you looking to adopt a similar strategy with Hyderabad FC?

We are surely looking at setting up an academy and have had some positive discussions with people in Hyderabad. It could be schools that have good infrastructure and can invest a bit more in the existing infrastructure to make it a full-fledged facility. We have also spoken to a few individuals who are keen to invest with us for a good residential academy. 

We did a lot of market research in Hyderabad and saw that participation levels are extremely high in the city. There is a lot of focus on football as a sport in schools and some have invested in full-size artificial turf as well. That’s a big positive for us and it shows that we've got to tap that market. I think there's a good opportunity to focus on the grassroots space. 

We were keen to announce a 12-month grassroots calendar, but we've just put everything on hold because of the current situation. We're pretty confident that in the next couple of months we should be able to finalise a partner. We aim to have this operational at least by the next academic year in 2022-23. 

Would you say having an academy that would work as a feeder system to the senior team would be the most sustainable way going ahead?

We’ve seen in last season that we've done well with a good young team. We would continue with that philosophy and that's going to be the key. We would like to bring in players through our ranks. Right now we can't say these are players who've come through our system because we don't have a strong foundation as yet. As I said, we’ve not even completed two years since we've joined the league.

Results do matter and the key would be to be as consistent as possible. We have seen with some of the established clubs, who focus on youth, that they don’t necessarily win titles every year but they are consistent. I think that's how we would like to be going forward. We may not necessarily be in a position where we will sign the most expensive players or the bigger names.

We hope to have a decent youth setup in place by the end of the upcoming season.

ALSO READ | India shifts focus to match against Bangladesh after loss to Qatar

I think the success of Hyderabad FC will depend on how well we build the youth development project. It’s one of the ways we could stand out or be different from other clubs. I'm not saying other clubs are not focusing on it, but I think our focus should be on youth development. I believe that that is the right approach for our club specifically.

How vital do you think it is to focus on youth development?

We've seen really good young Indian talent emerge in the ISL every year. I don't think we've had any season where so many youngsters have emerged. We saw so many young players making their debuts for the national team as well recently. I think this just gives enough confidence that investing and youth will work.

It's important to create the right environment. They need to get the right competitive exposure regularly, the right coaches and nutrition. We’ve got to work on all factors. Just bringing in a top under-15 or under-16 talent won't work. We need to focus and invest in having the right environment. 

Hyderabad FC recently let go of Liston, who has joined ATK Mohun Bagan for a record fee that makes it the most expensive transfer for an Indian footballer. How does his departure change the team’s dimension?

It is tough losing players, but it was in the good interests of the club. It was unfortunate that Liston did not play in front of the home crowd, the fans were looking forward to that.

When you are looking at a player transfer, you always consider the players you have in your squad to replace the outgoing player. We were confident about that before we entertained the thought of Liston’s transfer or any player for that matter. We've had some youngsters who have not had many games and are eager to perform. Rohit Danu, for example, showed glimpses of what he can do and he and the other players will step up.

Manolo and the coaching staff believe we have good backup strength and hopefully, Liston won’t be missed much.

100

Liston Colaco of Hyderabad FC (left) in action during Match 24 of ISL 7 against ATK Mohun Bagan at the Fatorda Stadium, Goa, on December 11, 2020.   -  Sportzpics

 

What are your plans for the upcoming season?

We will have a competitive squad. We have had two players go out in Liston and Sahil Panwar recently. We will focus on strengthening the Indian core and we know the areas we need to work on.

Off the pitch, I am hoping to see more activities from the club. We are eager to launch and roll out our grassroots and academy plan. Our on-field performance and off-the-field activities should complement each other and it will be a successful season. I’m hoping that we go one or two steps forward this season.

For more updates, follow Sportstar on :