The winning formula

Dempo Sports Club with the NFL Trophy-PTI

Continuity in coaching and stability in management. That's the buzzword of the top teams in the National Football League. Nandakumar Marar reports.

Dempo Sports Club, Jagatjit Cotton Textiles and Mahindra United, the top three finishers in the 11th National Football League for the ONGC Cup, benefited from stability in management and continuity in coaching. The management support enjoyed by the chief coaches of these teams — Dempo's Armando Colaco, JCT's Sukhwinder Singh and Mahindras' Derrick Pereira — in the form of multiple tenures, free hand in recruitment and time to mould talent enabled them to fine tune their squads, a mix of contracted foreign and Indian players, into competent units.

Armando has been in charge of Dempo since 2000. He doubles up as the sports secretary and team coach.

Sukhwinder switched from playing to coaching JCT in 1992. He took charge of the team for the inaugural NFL in 1996 — when JCT emerged champion — and has since remained at the helm.

Odafe Onyeke of Churchill Brothers attempts to beat HAL's Prashanth Jaggi to the ball in a NFL match in Bangalore. Onyeke emerged the top scorer in the League.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Derrick moved to Mahindra United as coach from Vasco SC three years ago on contract. He remains firmly in charge of football matters at the club and is already planning for the 2008 season. Teams with big names and large budgets such as Mohun Bagan got trapped in an atmosphere of distrust between the paymasters and coaching professionals. The vibes were felt down the line, and the players were confused as to what was expected of them. Bagan changed three coaches, but still failed to forge a cohesive unit and despite signing up Baichung Bhutia and Jose Barreto it ended up eighth in the NFL.

The East Bengal management expected instant success from coach Carlos Roberto Perreira, and when that did not happen — East Bengal finished fifth — the Brazilian had to go.

Armando put his heart and soul into the job. Enjoying total freedom in decision-making, he hit upon the winning formula in 2007. The champion club came up with a combined effort over 18 rounds, as six of its players shared 14 Man of the Match awards between them — a fine example of selflessness and good teamwork. Dempo also scored the maximum number of wins — 11 — and goals — 37 — for the best goal difference in the League — 16 plus. "There is warmth and affection between the players. The juniors look to the experienced players for guidance and the seniors look after their young colleagues well. We smile a lot during training sessions, go out and enjoy our football during competitions," said Armando of his outfit.

JCT's Chidi Edeh opens his account against HAL.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

The Dempo coach added: "We went for all-out attack from the start of the League and it paid off. We scored the most number of goals. I had confidence in my bench strength, so when striker Ranti Martins had an off day, Anthony Pereira or Roberto Silva (Beto) would get the goals. When Clifford Miranda was not available, I knew Climax Lawrence would take on the workload. Even Samir Naik came up with match-winning efforts in the defence. All the players covered up for each other.

"The management was very supportive. I take the decisions. There were no payment problems, the players were happy, almost the entire squad will remain with us for the next season."

Dempo's success in retaining the same group of players helped Armando, who had to deal with a series of mixed emotions. First it was the death of Brazilian forward Cristiano Jr. during the 2004 Federation Cup final. His team then clinched the NFL for the first time the same season. Later Dempo lost to Mahindra United in 2006 before getting back to the top in 2007 and winning Rs. 40 lakh.

Armando negotiates a three-year contract for his players to ensure continuity in his team. "Keeping the squad together is very important for the players to grow as a group, whether it's a NFL club or a national team. My club management understands and supports it. I feel the federation should do its utmost to keep the U-23 boys together, be patient with them and provide foreign exposure. Indian football can move forward."

The list of Man of the Match award winners in the NFL proves the extent to which team effort has dictated Dempo's performance in the home and away matches. Nigerian forward Martins picked up two awards and Brazilian playmaker Roberto Silva three. Forward Pereira (three), creative midfielder Miranda (three), defender Naik (two) and midfielder Lawrence (one) were the other winners.

Martins finished as the second best forward in the NFL with 16 goals, behind Odafe Onyeke (18). His understanding with Pereira was one of Dempo's high points in the League. Roberto's smooth passing and Miranda's vision and creative ability were top class, while Naik's tackling and surges down the left flank sharpened Dempo's attack.

Sukhwinder led the star-studded JCT to the NFL title in 1996. A decade later, he used his experience to create a new talent pool, bringing out the best in home grown Indian internationals like Sunil Chetri and foreign professionals such as Chidi Edeh. Strikers Chetri and Edeh ended up with 12 goals each.

"When a club management chooses the best person for the job and places its trust in him, results will happen," said the ex-Indian senior coach who is credited with the longest tenure in NFL. Sukhwinder has the distinction of coaching the Phagwara side in all its 11 NFL appearances.

Talking of the JCT team of 1996, when it became the NFL champion, and the current side which finished second in 2007, Sukhwinder said: "We were ready for NFL when it started in 1996, had the big stars then and finished as India's champion club. This time the team was the best balanced in the fray, and so should have won again."

Sukhwinder was upset that his team finished second behind Dempo this year. "Our performance in the first leg pulled us down, otherwise JCT's second leg showing would have carried it past Dempo," he said.

Ranti Martins of Dempo Sports Club gets the better of his marker Mohan Raj of HAL. Martins was the second best striker in the NFL, scoring 16 goals.-K. GOPINATHAN

Chetri's impressive strike rate is good news for Indian football. He netted 12 goals and shared the spotlight with Nigerian Chidi (12), as the duo accounted for 24 of JCT's 31 goals in 2007. "In the preparatory stage, the talk in the team was to get two foreign strikers. I convinced the management to give Indian forwards a chance, otherwise our young and talented strikers like Chetri and Praveen Kumar would have been on the bench," said Sukhwinder.

Mahindra United pinned its hopes on Ghanaian imports, captain Yusif Yakubu and Andrew Mensah. However, Mensah's failure to find the target despite being in scoring positions put the 2006 NFL champions in a quandary. Yakubu tried hard but lacked support from team-mates.

Coach Pereira's effort to build on last season's success came a cropper and the third place (one point behind JCT) is small consolation for a side packed with quality players like Sandip Nandy, Mahesh Gawli, Surkumar Singh, S. Venkatesh, K. Ajayan and Steven Dias.

Mahindra United qualified for the AFC Cup quarterfinals with the same team. The effort is a positive sign for India's club football which is trying to make an impact in Asia.

Churchill Brothers, under Moroccan coach Karim Bencherifa, finished fourth in the League. Bencherifa guided a bunch of Tata Football Academy trainees through the minefield of NFL's home-and-away competitions, as their spearhead Odafe Onyeke won five Man of the Match awards. The Nigerian was one of the crowd-pullers of the NFL.