As keen as they come!

KEENE (right) tries to outwit Bruno Cirillo, the FC Pune City defender.-RITU RAJ KONWAR KEENE (right) tries to outwit Bruno Cirillo, the FC Pune City defender.

“I think for Indian football to improve, the players need to start training at a younger age with better facilities. If they learn their basics on a pitch which is good, I think the story will be completely different,” says striker James Keene in this conversation with K. Keerthivasan.

James Keene hasn’t made a big impact (till the time of writing) in NorthEast United FC’s campaign in the Hero Indian Super League. And the team’s coach Ricki Herbert’s admitted as much. But in NorthEast’s away match against Chennaiyin FC, the 28-year-old English striker showed a glimpse of what he is capable of. A wonderful headed pass from him enabled India’s Seiminlen Doungel to score his first goal in the Indian Super League. “He is one of the most important members of the team. We hope he’ll find the back of the net soon,” said Herbert.

Keene made his debut for Portsmouth in the English Premier League in 2005 as a striker under the famous English manager Harry Redknapp after being trained in the club’s Youth Academy. He was plying his trade for Swedish club IF Elfsborg for the last six years before coming to India.

He is enjoying his stint in the ISL, and is sure that the League will have a bright future. “Well the first season has been great. I feel lucky to be a part of the inaugural season of the ISL. In the years to come this League will definitely attract more talent domestically and internationally as well,” he says in this exclusive interview.

Excerpts: Question: How has been the visit to India?

Answer: It has been a great experience, to meet so many new people and make new friends from so many nations. I am also learning a new culture and getting the opportunity to see different parts of India during the course of the tournament. It is simply amazing. We’ve been looked after very well on and off the field, so we have absolutely no complaints!

How has it been playing for NorthEast United?

Like I said it has been a wonderful experience so far, being part of an initiative that is trying to take football forward. I think the League has started off on a very positive note with regard to promoting the game. The Indian players and our management have all made the extra effort to make this experience a memorable one.

Tell us about your debut under Harry Redknapp in the English Premier League…

It is every footballer’s dream to play in the English Premier League. It was an amazing experience to play for Portsmouth then as there were so many great players at the club.

The experience of teaming up with Joan Capdevilla in NorthEast United…

Joan is a very senior football player. I think having him and Miguel Garcia made our defence rock solid. These players have given a lot of inspiration, guidance and good advice to our young players, which have helped them a lot.

You have played in Sweden for a long time (nearly seven years). Tell us about that…

Even though the Swedish league is not the same as EPL, the standards are quite good. While I was with IF Elfsborg, I have played in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers and the Europa League Group stages for six years. We did really well and beat top European teams like Napoli, Lazio and Braga. The facilities in Sweden are really fantastic and they are very professional administrators.

You wanted to represent Sweden, but that didn’t happen. Any regrets?

I never seriously considered playing for Sweden. An interview was misinterpreted which led to these rumours.

What made you to opt for NorthEast United?

The ISL was a new challenge and as it sounded novel and promising, I decided to take it up. The NorthEast United FC is the youngest team in the ISL. We’ve got some very good Indian players with good hearts and a passion for football. I have been very excited to be a part of this club and this League and until today, I can say my decision has been a good one!

You are a product of the Portsmouth youth scheme. What were the lessons ingrained there which are helping you now?

Portsmouth was an EPL team when I joined. It helped me a lot with my basic skills and built a strong foundation.

On working with chief coach Ricki Herbert in India…

Both Ricki and Lee Taylor (NEUFC’s high performance manager) have been fantastic coaches. I think they’ve taken care of us and trained us well. I feel privileged to be a part of such a talented team.

On interacting with Indian players…

They are actually very, very good, physically strong and fit. There is a lot of energy and skill and they will only get better and better with all these European coaches coming here to train this young talent. Indian football needs to start at the grass-root level. My suggestion to them would be to train hard and to watch a lot of international games like the EPL and Bundesliga, the German league. They can then learn from the best players in the world. They can train, watch and learn and understand the game. Also the movement of players, team techniques and individual player tactics and then taking all this in they should try and incorporate the same into their game.

How far will your Indian experiment last?

The ISL has gone well and maybe some opportunities in Asia will open up from this. I would definitely like to stay and play in Asia! I love this place, the food is great, the flavours are great and the people are wonderful!

On the future of the Indian Super League…

Well, the first season has been great. I feel lucky to be a part of the inaugural season of the ISL. In the years to come this League will definitely attract more talent domestically and internationally as well.

Will Indian football improve because of ISL?

I think for Indian football to improve, the players need to start training at a younger age with better facilities. If they learn their basics on a pitch which is good, I think the story will be completely different! It will make a big difference. It all lies in the kind of grass-root programmes that are in place. The ISL is an important opportunity and maybe a goal to reach for every Indian footballer.

Who has been your inspiration as far as football is concerned?

Alan Shearer. He is a true striker, a typical goal-scorer and works really hard to score fantastic goals.