‘You got to have dreams’

K. RAGESH

Now in India, as the technical director of ISL franchisee Kerala Blasters’ grassroots programme, Terry Phelan spoke to P. K. Ajith Kumar about his illustrious football journey — which includes a shock win over eventual finalist Italy in the 1994 World Cup as part of the Republic of Ireland squad — and also his tryst with various top English clubs.

On YouTube, there is a grainy, short video — captured on a camera from a television screen — of a breathtaking goal from the 1993 FA Cup quarterfinal match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. It is one of the most impressive solo efforts in football. Surprisingly, the scorer was a defender, Terry Phelan.

The 48-year-old, now in India, as the technical director of ISL franchisee Kerala Blasters’ grassroots programme, spoke to Sportstar about his illustrious football journey — which includes a shock win over eventual finalist Italy in the 1994 World Cup as part of the Republic of Ireland squad — and also his tryst with various top English clubs.

Question: This is your second innings in India… You had worked with Sesa Goa earlier.

Answer: Yes, and I am delighted to be back here. I was the chief mentor of Sesa Goa from 2011 to 2013.

There was no ISL then, only the I-League. What’s the difference between the two?

The difference between the I-League and the ISL is ten-fold. I followed the entire ISL and watched a couple of games from the stands in Kochi and New Delhi. The ISL brings new hope for Indian football. I hope they keep up the good work. The youth academies are probably the best thing to come out of it. But, we have to keep in mind that this is a long term project.

Phelan congratulates Ray Houghton, who scored the winner against Italy in a group game of the 1994 World Cup at the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Are you happy with the current age-group — players born between 2002 and 2004 — the academies are targeting?

That is a good group to work with. Though, I feel, we can invite even younger kids, say someone born in 2005 or 2006. I am happy to see the enthusiasm in the ground. Over 500 kids came for our selection camp on the first day. Young Indian footballers need proper guidance. It is a wrong notion that India cannot compete at the top level because of the prevalent physical structure of its people. I am 5 feet 7, and I was a defender, and played in a World Cup. Indian players need to have mental conditioning. They should try to play abroad. They could play for other Asian clubs. The climate won’t be a problem then.

How do you think the ISL will help Indian football?

The ISL has already helped Indian players greatly, when they got the opportunity to train with top international players. Indian footballers have learnt how to train properly, how to prepare for a game, to eat the right food, to sleep right and how to relax. These international players have been doing all this for years. They are great players, who have played in the World Cup and in the biggest leagues. Playing with them is bound to make you better. The ISL has also attracted someone like me to come here. It must be doing a lot of things right.

Do you expect to see younger, current international players in the ISL soon?

Phelan (right) with Wimbledon goalkeeper Dave Beasant and manager Bobby Gould after winning the FA Cup, beating Liverpool in the 1988 Final. "We were rank outsiders, but we won 1-0," Phelan recalls.-GETTY IMAGES

That will happen when it becomes more lucrative. The ISL has to become bigger, involving more clubs and running for a longer duration. We need to have at least 10 teams and it should be spread over five months. But, players in Europe are already talking about it, they want to play here. They have been asking me about the ISL. And these are good players, who have played in the major leagues, the EPL.

Tell us about the 1994 World Cup, when Ireland shocked Italy?

Qualifying for the World Cup was a great thing for us. Then to beat Italy at the Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, in front of a huge crowd was unbelievable. Italy was one of the favourites at that World Cup and eventually reached the final.

It was a great Italian side too, with players like Roberto Baggio, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Donadoni, Franco Baresi, Daniel Massaro… Do you remember Ray Houghton’s goal?

I remember it very well. The ball was played over the top, Tommy Coyne knocked it down. Houghton got it on the edge of the box, went inside, it bubbled a bit, he shot over the goalkeeper, and the ball was in the back of the net. It was like living a dream. People say, you got to have goals, I say, you got to have dreams. My dream was to be a professional player, to play in a World Cup. I did all that.

What was the reaction back home after that win?

They thought we could even win the World Cup. Before the World Cup, we had beaten Holland and Germany, on their grounds, in friendlies. We had also drawn with Spain in Spain.

You finished second in the group, above Italy and moved into the next round…

We faced a star-studded Dutch team. They had Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergcamp. We lost 0-2 to them, but it was still a memorably campaign.

You have had great success in English club football too, playing for teams like Chelsea, Everton, Manchester City, Wimbledon… You were actually one of the costliest defenders in the world then.

Yes, I was sold by Wimbledon to Manchester City for GBP2.5 million in 1992. I have several fond memories of playing in England.

Such as winning the FA Cup for Wimbledon against Liverpool?

We were playing at Wembley in front of 98,000 spectators. And we were playing the best side in the world at that time. Liverpool had players like Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge, John Barnes, Ray Houghton, Bruce Grobbelaar and Steve McMahon. We were rank outsiders, but we won 1-0. A dream came true.

The goal you scored for Manchester City against Tottenham Hotspur in the 1993 FA Cup quarterfinal too looked right out of a dream…

That match was played at Main Road and we had started off well, taking a 1-0 lead by half-time. But we collapsed in the second half, and were down 4-1. I was peeved and I got this ball on the left, just outside the 18-yard box. I dribbled and opened up the defence, before going through the gap to score. Those are happy memories. You can’t take them away.

How do you look forward to working with the young kids at the Kerala Blasters academy?

I was very happy when the offer came to me last July. I think it is a big honour. I was working at the Blackpool Football academy at the time. I have been a head coach and football development manager in Australia, England, New Zealand, Mexico and the United States. I have worked with footballers of various age-groups and I am familiar with the Indian culture. So I am really excited to be here with Kerala Blasters.