On right track

Bob Houghton (right) has tremendous faith in his senior-most player, Bhutia (left).-PICS: S. SUBRAMANIUM Bob Houghton (right) has tremendous faith in his senior-most player, Bhutia (left).

India is finally learning how to win. Team India under Bob Houghton caps off another successful August triumph, writes Vijay Lokapally.

Celebrated coach Sir Alex Ferguson believes that relationship between a manager and a player can be complex even if there is mutual respect and liking for each other. He avers in his autobiography that the manager must think “collectively” as his reputation is at the mercy of the talent and the will-to-win of other men.

Bob Houghton, a noted Englishman now in charge of the Indian team, came with a reputation of being uncompromising in many areas, especially discipline.

When he took over in 2006, the national team was in disarray. Bhaichung Bhutia, one of the finest strikers to have worn the Indian jersey, was contemplating retirement. The popularity of the game was at its lowest. The future was bleak indeed.

Hope, ambition and credibility was restored by this man who believes firmly that India has the potential. Only it needs to be guided. To be guided professionally. And Houghton has the credentials to ensure India plays good football. He has worked out a strategy that has found unstinted support from the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

Writing on his website, Bhutia observed, “How things have changed for the national team over the years! Five years ago if anyone had told me we would win the Nehru Cup twice and win the AFC Challenge Cup to qualify for the Asia Cup, I would never have taken them seriously. I had even thought of retiring about three years ago. Being with the national team was just about taking part and touring new countries in those days.”

Houghton quickly changed the way India prepared for tournaments and played football. He dictated his terms for the benefit of the players, who were now prepared to die for Indian football. As Bhutia said, “For the last three years we have had great training facilities, accommodation and most of all, great pre-season tours in Europe. The reason is Bob puts his foot down for better training facilities and accommodation. He wants his players to train at proper grounds with a decent pitch so that they don’t get injured.”

This was indeed a pleasant departure from the times when the Indian team trained at the Thyagaraj Nagar Sports Complex in south Delhi. The ground was poor even for a club team.

When Houghton signed a contract with the AIFF, there was gloom in the Indian camp. The 0-6 thrashing in Japan (in the 2006 World Cup qualifier) had dented the morale of the team. Japan was the best team in Asia and the margin of defeat obviously pointed to the gap between the two countries. And then, India lost 0-3 to Yemen at home. Nine goals in two matches were obviously heartbreaking. There were other developments too that disturbed the team.

Bhutia’s conflict with coach (Syed Nayeemuddin) was at its height. The team was disjointed. During half-time against Yemen, a top AIFF official had reportedly slammed the Indian team in the dressing room, “You are the worst team in the world. I can’t watch the match any further.”

Bhutia came close to quitting football even after Nayeemuddin was sacked. It was the most testing time for Indian football when Houghton took charge. Houghton faced opposition. He made it the most expensive Indian team ever in terms of money spent on the preparation, travel and support staff. The biggest achievement for Houghton lay in making the players and their fans accept the ground realities. India was not even among the top teams in Asia. But it could always work towards becoming one.

His methods demanded qualitative improvement in every area and he was unflinching when it came to backing his players. His support for the team and football in general knew no boundaries. He would spare none. Houghton gave the Union Sports Minister M. S. Gill a public lashing for his alleged remark that even a collection of schoolboys from Australia would beat the Indian team. Houghton would not tolerate any unqualified criticism of his team. He fought for the pride of his players even if it meant causing discomfort to the AIFF.

Bob Houghton… inspiring his players.-

It was to Houghton’s credit that he lost little time in adopting very humane methods to understand his players. He spent lot of time with them, remained easily accessible, and unlike Greg Chappell, who tried making sweeping changes by taking on the top guy (Sourav Ganguly); Houghton placed his faith in his senior-most player, Bhutia. He convinced Bhutia to give up his retirement plans and made sure that he was in the starting line-up. That he would not play 90 minutes was part of the coach’s tactics. The results have begun to show.

Today, the national football team is an entity with a rapidly-growing fan base. The team has brought the audience back to the stadium and much of the credit goes to Houghton, who has taught the “boys” to win. The AIFF spent close to Rs. 1.5 crore on the team’s 45-day preparation in Dubai and Barcelona. The investment was worth every penny.

The two title triumphs (in Nehru Cup) have boosted the confidence of the players and the football administrators in the country. It was Houghton’s idea to host the Nehru Cup and the AFC Cup too. India won the AFC Cup and qualified for the Asia Cup after a gap of 24 years.

Bhutia summed it up nicely, “Bob came up with the strategy of playing the Nehru Cup with teams that are of a similar standard and ranked a bit higher or lower. As a player do I want to play big countries and get hammered? I would rather play a tournament that feels competitive.” And that is what Houghton has made certain.

Houghton’s planning has been impeccable. He wants the team to develop the habit of winning. Under his stint so far India has played 25 internationals and has lost just five, winning 15 and drawing the rest.

He is now concentrating on raising the standard of the bench strength and also the size of the support staff.

Houghton’s mantra is “professionalism” and he has the backing of the players, administrators and the fans. He promises “good times” for Indian football.