East Bengal's Robbie Fowler: Shepherding the future of a legendary club

“I think being a good player may help you at the start, but once you are into your new job, people stop thinking about what you have done; they are more interested in what you can do,” says East Bengal coach and Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler.

Regardless of what East Bengal has done in the past, Robbie Fowler’s expectations are to make the club do well in the future.   -  ISL / Sportzpics

Robbie Fowler is a familiar name to those who followed the Premier League. The Liverpool FC legend and England striker is currently a resident of India, donning the gaffer’s cap for century-old club East Bengal.

This is his third assignment in his new role as manager ever since he hung up the boots for his club and country.

Fowler opens up to the questions from Sportstar on various aspects of football and his long involvement with the sport.

You had quite a successful career as a player, and now you are enjoying success in the role of a manager. Which is more challenging?

The easy answer, I think, is as a manager. As a player, you are entirely focusing on your job of excelling in a particular role, but as a manager, you have to do so much more. You have to look at four five positions – defenders, strikers, midfield, wing-backs and goalkeepers. You are not only looking at that, but you are also looking at the staff around when you want to put a team together and get the right personnel on the pitch. You also need the right personnel to help you off the pitch as well. There is a big, big difference between a player and a manager. When you are managing things on the pitch and looking after things off the pitch, it becomes a huge challenge, and that’s what I am enjoying now.

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You had a hugely decorated career as a player. Does that help you as a manager?

To be frank with you, I am not focusing on my part as a player. Regardless of what people think of me as a player, what matters now is the job that I am presently doing. Some people really like me as a player and some don’t. Some people are really big Liverpool FC fans and may be interested in me as a player. I really take that on board as a coach, and regardless of what happened in the past, I am starting afresh as a coach. It is a new start in terms of what you know about the game and how you can develop the players and make them better. It is now about making a team more competitive. I think being a good player may help you at the start, but once you are into your new job, people stop thinking about what you have done; they are more interested in what you can do.

Podcast: The latest episode of 'The Full Time Show' features the Robbie Fowler interview with our reporters Shyam Vasudevan and Amitabha Das Sharma. We also take a deep dive into his controversy-courting maiden ISL coaching sojourn and his season with SC East Bengal.

How is your first season in the Indian Super League (ISL) turning out for you?

Looking at the ISL season, I can say that the team (SC East Bengal) has progressed a lot compared to the time when we started our journey in the ISL. The players are much more professional now.

Some people may be offended by me for saying that the team that was built was not meant for the ISL. I am not trying to be derogatory or horrible to the players by saying that, but it is really what the team was when we started the season. Maybe that’s because three weeks before the start of the ISL season, we were supposed to be in the I-League and then the new owner Shree Cement came in and wanted the club to grow in the best league of India. I am sure the fans will get right behind in this process and the plan and will appreciate how quickly we have turned this into an ISL outfit. We had only two weeks’ preparation for the ISL and I don’t think any manager in the world, whether it is Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp, will be able to get a team ready in a little over two weeks for a league where the team hasn’t been before.

How’s the challenge been like?

You have to get the players ready on the mental side, which is the essential factor now. By mental side, I mean getting the players ready for the challenge. We are in an extremely difficult situation and we have to do a lot of things to get the players ready and get them in the right frame of mind for the matches. It is not about the coaching staff alone, but the players too deserve a real pat on the back for what we have been through since the start. We have been staying in a lovely hotel, but we only leave the hotel for training and for the games. I don’t know whether I should be saying this, but essentially we are in an open prison where we can’t do what we like to do. But we know what we need to do in trying to get football up and running in the country.

“When we are talking about an unbelievably well-run league like the ISL, it should be equally unbelievable when it comes to refereeing standards as well,” says Fowler. “I know referees have a tough job, but like everyone else, they grow into the game and try to develop.”   -  ISL / Sportzpics


The job you have right now is more about protecting the legacy of a club like East Bengal with millions of supporters. What were your expectations when you took the job and how do you see it now?

Regardless of what the club had done in the past, my expectations were to make the club do well in the future. But when I started delving into the history of the club, I realised it is a huge club. Of course, you start doing your work with due diligence and want to get the best results knowing well what it means to the fans so passionate about the club. We know irrespective who the manager is, the most relevant factor is the image of the club. The club is always going to be the big thing and both for the managers and the players. They are like a stop-gap thing trying to propel the club and its image to a place where we think it should be. I know the fans are behind us as we try to take the club to be one of the most successful teams in India. It does not happen at the click of your fingers, and we know we have to work really hard for that and progress at the right speed.

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How do you rate the Indian players and what’s your impression about Indian football as a whole?

If you look at the ISL and analyse the players, the progression is huge compared to what it had been years ago. That is because the players are now understanding the game a lot better and also understanding professionalism a little bit more than the past. Teams are having academies and there is some work at the grassroots level as well. This is making the kids develop and understand the game and the whole culture of what it is about. So, you see the younger players absorbing this culture more and more and getting better with time.

Basically, if the players want to get better, they need to know when to pass and where to pass and when to run and where to run. Decisions in football are massively important, and so if you can get the players making the right decisions on the field from an early age, then they come to the adult game with a better frame of mind. Our aim in the ISL is to make the Indian players better. They are much better now than what was years ago. Let’s not stand still with that and keep progressing and get the national football team as high as possible in the rankings.

Robbie Fowler (front row, centre) celebrates with his Liverpool teammates after winning the 2000–01 UEFA Cup.   -  Reuters


How do you see the standard of refereeing in the ISL? What’s your advice for developing their performance considering that you have been vocal about it on a few occasions?

I have not been [more] vocal than a lot many managers in the league. For the simple fact that maybe I am a big name and it resonates more, to get people hearing of what I am saying. When we are talking about an unbelievably well-run league like the ISL, it should be equally unbelievable when it comes to refereeing standards as well. I know referees have a tough job, but like everyone else, they grow into the game and try to develop.

I understand there is a lot of pressure on referees and similarly there is a lot of pressure on managers and players too, and sometimes they can get frustrated. That is a part and parcel of the game, and you cannot agree with every decision, and sometimes it is hard to accept. I am not the only manager who is saying this. I know they are trying hard, but so are we, to develop Indian football. Look, the referees could do with a little bit of help and that’s obviously useful for the development process and the league [administration] knows that. We are having conversations all the time to get things better and we’ll keep up with that.