Baxter: Want the people of Odisha to enjoy our football and our results

Odisha FC confirmed the signing of Stuart Baxter as their new head coach last week for the seventh edition of the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL). The Englishman comes to India with an abundance of experience across three continents at the club as well as international level and has previously also coached in Asia having been in-charge of J1 League clubs Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vissel Kobe.

After his appointment as Odisha FC’s head coach, the experienced Englishman spoke to in an exclusive interview and explained how his move to the Bhubaneswar-based club came about. “The process was cordial. I think I got a right feeling from the very first conversation that this is an ambitious club… the ownership wanted to know what can the coach give us, what can he add to what we have got at the moment. There was never any discrepancy with the way we were thinking. So really, it’s been cordial, it’s been interesting,” Baxter revealed.

He continued, “They were as inquisitive as I would have been if I am the owner of the club hiring a foreign coach. (I would want to know) how much will he embrace our culture and its effect on the game. So, I think they wanted to understand my way of thinking about football. Am I concerned about entertaining people or is it just about winning? I think they have done enough homework (to know) that I would like the people of Odisha to enjoy our football and then enjoy the results as well.”

Embracing Indian culture will be key to success

As alluded to, Baxter was keen to stress the importance of embracing Indian culture to be successful in the Hero ISL. “As soon as you walk into a different country, you walk into a different culture. If you walk in and impose your beliefs and your attitudes without considering the culture, then I think you are doomed to fail eventually. The first thing that I have got to understand is how the culture of the country affects the mentality of its sportsmen… I think my expectations are that I will be listing and trying to pick up as much that will help me to get on the right way,” he said.

“Trying to speak the language they can understand, that presses the right buttons and that describes what we want to do together. So, my expectations are that it’s going be a process, it will not be something that will happen right the first time. In the beginning, hopefully, I can describe what I want to do in an inspiring way that will bring everybody together and onboard until I find all of those burdens are aside to start the development process. So, that’s how I see my initial times. And, after that it’s managing people, winning games of football, making tactical changes. Then it’s normal coaching. But first of all, I have to go to their page as much as they have to get on my page,” Baxter asserted.

Odisha have been one of the most busy Hero ISL clubs of late, making several signings for next season with many of them like Kamalpreet SinghHendry Antonay and Saurabh Meher and midfielder Thoiba Singh Moirangthem adding to what’s shaping up to be a young squad. Baxter, who has coached England’s U-19 team in the past, is no stranger when it comes to developing young players and believes that his experience of coaching in many countries stands him in good stead to get the best out of youngsters.

“I think when we talk about experience; one of the things that I know in my development as a coach is that if you have more challenges or different natures of challenges, which for me is working in different countries with different cultures and different ideas of how to play the game. It just equips you to get more keys to open the boxes. I think when you are coaching youngsters, there is no hard and fast way to coach young players,” Baxter opined.

“They have preferred methods of learning. The more keys, the more weapons you have got under your belt; then the more chance you got to get in on the right wavelength with the players so that they can understand whatever messages you are trying to get across. They can understand them more quickly. So, hopefully, young players don’t have to play 400 games before people say, ‘well, he looks an experienced player.’  Hopefully, the younger players will learn quickly and be well enough equipped and learn faster,” he added.

Maximizing potential of domestic talent and breaking into top four

Baxter also spoke of the need to maximize the potential of domestic talent for the betterment of Indian football. “I think the (Hero ISL) games that I have seen have been on a decent level. Some of the passing of the players have been very good. I think in most of the leagues which are in their developing process, the constant conundrum is how much do you rely on the foreigners. How many foreigners? How many foreigners allow the Indian players to develop and how many foreigners suffocate that development? I am trying to work out in my own mind how we can empower our players maximum. I think the Indian players have potential. We all, everybody in Indian football, have to maximize that potential,” the 66-year-old insisted.

While admitting that development and finishing in the top four remain his immediate goals with Odisha for the upcoming season, Baxter was keen not to get too far ahead of himself since he’s yet to meet his squad. “I think the project is about development. Our first target is we want development and we want the result of that development to dictate how high we can pitch in. If you are asking me as a professional, I want to take the team to the semi-finals definitely because sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth is all the same really. We want to play the semi-finals and after that, let’s see if we can win it. But, in my experience, I have been in a situation like this where you have a young squad and you don’t expect to win because people say ‘kids will win you nothing’ and they win the league,” he explained.

“The power, the willingness to learn, team spirit and once development starts taking place; it takes on its own life and I think we should try to harness that and just see how far that take us knowing that if we do our job properly then we do have a force to reckon with. But at the same time, I don’t want to make rash predictions because I haven’t seen the group, I don’t know their mental strength, I don’t know how they would react. So, until then I just want to say, as a professional, the best that we want to do (next season) and that’s top four to start with and then I want to see how the group reacts to my work,” Baxter added.

Odisha finished Hero ISL 2019-20’s league phase in sixth spot with 25 points, four points behind fourth-placed Chennaiyin FC. With Baxter at the helm, Odisha will be eyeing their first-ever top four finish in Hero ISL 2020-21.

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