Seeing the positive side of the Indian game

Ashley Westwood-PICS:K.MURALIKUMAR

“My grand vision for Indian football would be no different from that of any Indian. The aim of any country would be to compete in the World Cup and, hopefully, that’s the vision for Indian football,” says the Bengaluru FC coach, Ashley Westwood, who is in the running for the post of India’s national coach. By Ayon Sengupta.

Traditionally, imported managers have taken time to adjust to the peculiar work culture that prevails in the Indian football system. Only three foreign managers have tasted success in the country’s premier tournament, the I-League. Zoran Dordevic guided Churchill Brothers to the title in 2008-09 and Salgaocar under Karim Bencherifa won in 2010-11.

Englishman Ashley Westwood guided Bengaluru FC to the I-League summit last season — the club’s year of inception. He is now in the running for the post of the senior national coach. The 38-year-old former Manchester United Academy graduate spoke to Sportstar about his experience in India so far, and his future plans for the game here.

Excerpts:

Question: Bengaluru FC went for a pre-season tour to China earlier this year. This is something unheard of in Indian football. What prompted you to tour China?

Answer: There were two reasons behind our pre-season trip to China. The boys have a long time until January for the I-League to start, so we wanted (to do) something that would help us in our preparations for the forthcoming season. Being in line for the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup made us want to travel to a foreign soil and see how our lads adapted to playing and training abroad, so that when it comes to these games — which are important tourist games — we didn’t want them to be a first or an unknown. We thought long and hard about it, and it was something that was of good value.

How many games did you play there? Were you happy with the performance of your players?

We played three games in China — two against teams from China and one against a team from Hong Kong. They were progressive games, which was always the plan. The first game was against Guangdong Sunray Cave FC, a Chinese First Division side that was a good opposition for the start of the tour. We won that game 1-0. It was a good performance from the boys, considering the fact that it was the first time some of them had played on foreign soil.

In the second game, we faced Eastern AA, which is currently joint top in the Hong Kong Premier Division. It is a side with high standards, with four foreigners and two or three localised players, mostly Brazilians. We lost that game 2-0, but we adapted well and I thought we could have got something out of the game.

The final game was against Guangzhou R & F, which was probably the strongest side that we played against. The team had finished third in the Chinese Premier League and is managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson. We gave a good account of ourselves, especially on the physical front. Despite the 3-0 loss, it was another good game of football that showed us the level of performances required if we are to be successful in the AFC Champions League.

Bengaluru FC has retained most of the squad from last season. What are the additions this year?

We have retained most of the squad from last season, and have made four additions in the summer. We are now a champion team, so all our signings were made with the intention of getting players who will come in and challenge for places in the first team. It is important to strengthen the side, which we did, and because we have managed to keep most of the squad together, hopefully, we will be stable and consistent for the upcoming season.

Will the late start to the football season hamper the club?

No, I see the late start as a positive. It has given us four or five months extra, which otherwise we wouldn’t have had to train and prepare the new boys with our system. Once the League starts, everyone will know what is required and how we play within the club. Having the boys on the field for a longer time helps because we get to train them physically and get them tuned in with the system better.

You joined Bengaluru FC as a coach with a relatively modest experience as a manager. What were your initial expectations?

To be honest, my expectation was nothing. When I came here, I came with an open mind. I had a blank canvas and a chance to put my own stamp on things. I had the opportunity to put systems that I believe in into place, so it’s been a good first year and a half.

I know I wasn’t the most experienced first team coach, but I was experienced in coaching at a higher level. As a player, I was very vocal on the field, so I’ve arguably coached every time I’ve played over the last 20 years, so I wouldn’t see that as a negative. Experience wise, I thought it was my time and, thankfully, it has worked out quite well.

What do you think were the reasons behind Bengaluru’s success last term?

There were quite a lot of reasons behind our success, but mainly it was our unity and our team spirit. We do things properly with regard to preparation on and off the field. We have a system that works and one that everyone believes in, and we have the players and staff, all pulling in the same direction. So that’s certainly one of the secrets of our success.

Bengaluru FC’S striker and captain Sunil Chhetri (right), coach Ashley Westwood (centre) and ceo Parth Jindal with the I-League trophy during a road show in Bangalore in april this year. Westwood is confident of repeating the success in the coming season too.-

What are the challenges that a foreign coach faces in India?

As a foreign coach, the initial challenge in India is in adapting to the climate and the systems in place and the facilities around it. But once you get inside the system, you learn to be patient and relaxed, and you realise that it’s no different from any other football club. Wherever you are in the world, a football club is about a squad, players, a training field… It’s like anywhere else, you just have to coach and go and do your best. Be it India, England or Germany, it’s the same game.

Do you think it will be difficult to replicate last year’s success, considering there will be an added burden of expectations this year?

No, hopefully it won’t be too difficult. We are focussed, ready and we know what we’re doing. We’re well prepared and if we stay lucky and relatively injury free, then I’m sure we’ll have another successful year as long as we keep improving. We’re still only 12-18 months old, so as long as the application remains the same then, hopefully, we’ll have a decent year.

What is your vision for Indian football?

My grand vision for Indian football would be no different from that of any Indian. India is a learning country, and the aim of any country would be to compete in the World Cup and, hopefully, that’s the vision for Indian football. India is a few years behind other countries, but it is improving rapidly. We’ve all seen the I-League last season and we’ve seen the Indian Super League this season. The eyeballs are on football now, and with careful planning and the right people involved within the game, I’m sure it will go from strength to strength and hopefully the vision will be for India to compete in the World Cup.