ISL 2020: Jamshedpur FC playoffs challenge excited me, says Owen Coyle

In an interview with Sportstar, Coyle talks about his move from Chennaiyin FC, the challenges as the head coach in a bio-bubble-secure ISL tournament, testing positive for COVID-19 and more.

“The player that plays one game for you is as important as the man who plays 18 or whatever the number of matches,” says Owen Coyle.   -  Getty Images

In the short history of the Indian Super League (ISL), British coaches have been synonymous with pragmatic football. But when Owen Coyle took over at Chennaiyin FC, six games into what was turning into a forgettable campaign, the Scotsman helped the players break free from their shackles to be remembered as one of the best attacking teams in the competition. A remarkable run to the 2019-20 final saw the club dismantle Kerala Blasters, Jamshedpur FC, eventual champion ATK and league winner FC Goa.

However, there wasn’t to be a second crack at the prize with Chennaiyin as Coyle went on to sign a two-year contract with Jamshedpur. In an interview with Sportstar, Coyle talks about his move to the Red Miners, the challenges as the head coach in a bio-bubble-secure ISL tournament, testing positive for COVID-19 and more...

Your last match with Chennaiyin was against Goa in the final. A lot has happened since then. How did the move to Jamshedpur come about?

Football changes very, very quickly. First and foremost, we were disappointed with the result in the final. We were the better team, and with all due respect to ATK, they took their chances. Of course, on returning home, there was lockdown in the UK within five days. Of course, COVID-19 has played a huge part in everybody’s lives. Within football, everybody has to look after their own club’s finances. When that final finished, my contract with Chennaiyin was finished. I got a number of offers both at home and abroad. People knew the quality of work under my belt in the Premier League and recently, of course, with Chennaiyin, so it was flattering. Post-COVID-19, I had to weigh up my options.

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When Jamshedpur came on and had a chat about their ambitions, I was taken by that. My first game [for Chennaiyin] was against Jamshedpur, and I got to see the wonderful stadium and it was sold out for every home game. The training facilities, the academy were brilliant. If you go around world football, you can see that what they are implementing here is on par with a global club. I had a feeling it was the right thing. That doesn’t take away my feelings for Chennaiyin with the people there. It is an exciting challenge to take Jamshedpur to the playoffs as they have never reached that stage.

What changes have you made to the squad?

Jamshedpur had good teams in their three years. They have had wonderful coaches, but they have been unfortunate with injuries. They started really well last season, but [Sergio] Castel and Piti got injured. As coaches, you need your best players playing. So if we have injuries here and there, I don’t want us to drop two or three rungs down the ladder. We have to be conscious of it. If [Nerijus] Valskis or someone misses out, of course it’s going to make it difficult. There are huge challenges within the bubble. I want my teams to play attacking football.

How different will be the challenges of ISL-7 with the bio-bubble in place when compared to the last season?

This is going to be 100 percent different. This is new to us all with the new challenges. The biggest thing is we don’t have fans because they are the lifeblood of the game. And Jamshedpur, in particular, you can’t get any more fans in it [Tata Sports Complex]. In fairness to the fans, they are supporting a team which hasn’t reached the playoffs. What’s it going to be like when we get to the playoffs? We want to be sure we are representing them on the field. When we are there and they look at us and think, “Yeah, that’s my team and I enjoy watching them.” As long as you show we are doing the right things, they will support you even when things are not going well.

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The mental aspect will be huge. Keeping the players focused both physically and mentally will be a challenge, when you come back to the hotel after training, and matches will be the biggest challenge. We have very restricted access, so we have to keep them stimulated and keep them focused and keep the togetherness going. Our aim and focus is for the wider population; for the people watching on TV, to give them something to enjoy. As a group of football clubs, we have an obligation to put a smile on the people’s faces.

Nerijus Valskis scores for Jamshedpur FC off a penalty against Odisha FC on November 29. “If Valskis or someone misses out, of course it’s going to make it difficult. There are huge challenges within the bubble. I want my teams to play attacking football,” says Coyle.   -  Sportzpics / ISL

 

With these challenges, what is your role as head coach in keeping a pool of 25-30 players — some of whom who won’t get minutes on the pitch — motivated?

What you find in football is ultimately you can start 11 players. The player that plays one game for you is as important as the man who plays 18 or whatever the number of matches. I like to think that we try to build a group dynamic where we are all in it together. Everybody who trains must feel they have an opportunity to play, whether you are a foreigner or an Indian player. It’s always a fair fight for the places. We don’t put players out of the teams; it’s the players who do it by their performances. If you get the jersey, you hang on to it. It’s important on the mental side when you are not playing that you still feel you are part of the group and have an involvement. It’s very easy to get detached. So that’s why I always say to them, “We are watching all the time, and if you impress in training, you will get your opportunity.” So you have to be ready for the challenge.

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When you reached India, you tested positive for COVID-19. Did you feel any kind of trepidation during your quarantine period?

I was fortunate looking at how it’s affected many people. I tested negative when I left home. After two further tests, it showed I was positive, but I had great health and absolutely no symptoms. I felt really strong; absolutely no time did I feel poorly. I certainly thank god for that. I wasn’t unduly worried. I suppose I was one of the lucky ones. Had I not had those tests, I would have never known.