In one of his first interviews with Sportstar and in most pre-game pressers since, Owen Coyle has quietly repeated one point.
“Our objective is to take it one game at a time and keep improving. These are some very good players and our job is to try and get them to the maximum level.”
It made sense then as he took over a Chennaiyin FC side that had just registered the worst season in the brief history of the Indian Super League (ISL) — in terms of points won, fewest wins and most matches lost.
It was a very comfortable point that the Chennaiyin coach made, one that many wouldn’t argue against, as it also served as a reminder of the state the team was in under John Gregory, Coyle’s predecessor. Fail, and his reputation barely gets tarnished. Succeed, and, well, not many thought of that extreme then.
Three months after coming in without fanfare, Coyle has grabbed the imagination of his team and the league, and upset several odds to take his side to the playoffs.
Were there still doubts about his team? Probably. And what was Coyle planning to do to silence those voices?
“We’re in the playoffs, but it’s just another game. Forget the occasion. We’ll take it one game at a time.”
As we sat down to discuss his career — from his current revolution in India to his initial steps in the English Premier League — we realise this is the man who had pulled off a miracle at Burnley and was once touted to succeed Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, less than a decade ago.
The Scotsman was, in fact, an EPL manager (for the last time) on the day of Sergio Aguero’s famous last-minute title-winning goal for Manchester City in 2012.
“It was a wonderful experience, one that I will always cherish,” he says when quizzed of his time in England.
Now, after spells of varying degrees of success in England, the USA and Scotland, Coyle finds himself in India.
“I have loved every bit of my time here so far. The people, at the club and outside, have been very welcoming. It has helped (me) settle quickly,” he says, before adding, “But there’s a lot of work to do. We want to take it one game at a time, but we want to finish the season as best as we can.”
Coyle, however, has been plotting his team’s turnaround since his appointment on December 4. A mid-season friendly game (versus Gokulam Kerala) early in his tenure offered a glimpse of the man. In the sweltering midday heat, he walked up and down the touchline yelling instructions as if his job was on the line. He probably took as many notes as he did in his entire EPL career.
“More than the tactical stuff and other things, I was also getting to know my team. The strengths and weaknesses. What we are capable of. And we soon figured out that we had a very good attack on our hands,” Coyle says, thinking back to that day.
And he did figure out a winning combination. He took a team that had scored four goals in the first six games of the season and exponentially increased its output to 2.34 goals per match. Twenty-four points were picked up in 12 games, and a place in the top four was sealed with a game in hand.
The most telling of stats, however, happened off the pitch. Fans began coming back to the stadium, with a steady increase in every game under his tenure, and a connection was re-established with the team.
The first leg of the playoff against FC Goa saw more than 17,000 fans cheer their team on. The last time the Nehru Stadium was that full was more than two years ago – which was a playoff game against the same opposition.
“The team was like a jigsaw puzzle we had to put together when we came in. We had to convert draws into wins and do so while being an entertaining side on the pitch,” Coyle said, “and I think we have been doing that.”
After thoroughly outplaying an FC Goa side that has scored the most goals this season, and in the history of the league, it is hard to disagree. The convincing win meant the talk of another final — and a record third title — gathered steam even before Coyle’s post-game presser.
You would think that most managers after dragging a side like Chennaiyin out of the hole to keep one foot in the final would have a satisfied look, if not an air of deserved arrogance. But not Coyle.
“We finished one game. And it is only half-time. We have the away leg to negotiate. We’ll take it one game at a time and see how it goes.”
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