John Abraham: NorthEast’s passion for football is unmatched

The Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2018-19 season was a memorable campaign for NorthEast United FC fans, as their beloved team reached the top four for the first time in its history and achieved the feat overcoming, arguably, much better-equipped squads in the league. The achievement was a culmination of the effort and passion put in by the players, the fans and owner John Abraham, who has poured in his heart and soul in the team over the past five years despite his busy schedule in Bollywood.

John recently spoke to about the emotional season gone by, his unadulterated passion for the game - one which he shares with the entire fanbase at NorthEast - and the long-term vision for the club in general. Here's what he said:

Q. A much-deserved semi-final appearance last season, how proud were you of the team?

I'm always proud of our boys, they really play with their heart and soul on the pitch. But last year, we made it for the first time to the semis and it is a completely different feeling.  It feels like all the effort you put in all year round gives fruit and that's what was frustrating for us for the seasons prior. We always think about things from the long-term perspective, so we are continuously trying to make little tweaks here and there on the squad and off the pitch as well.

Q. How would you say the NorthEast region has responded to NorthEast United FC and the Hero ISL?

I always think of the NorthEast as the region in India that truly understands football and has this passion for the sport that is unmatched. I'm incredibly grateful for the way the fans have come out and supported and embraced the team.

Q. What have been some of your favourite memories of the Hero ISL so far?

There are the matches that are just unforgettable and it almost shifts you internally on some level.  One of those matches last year was against Chennaiyin FC when we were down 3-1 at halftime and everyone thought it was over for us. We came back so strong the second half with Bartholomew Ogbeche scoring three goals and Rowllin Borges scoring one goal and won the match. Another such match was the first leg of the semis when we played at home against Bengaluru FC. The odds were against us, but again Redeem Tlang scored the first goal, making him the first Indian to score in the semis. Then they equalized but Juan Mascia won it for us with a penalty. You truly cannot recreate the emotion of a match in even the greatest film.

Q. Several players across clubs have players from the North East on their roster. Is this organic grassroots environment something NorthEast United FC will be looking to capitalize on?

We have always stuck to our long-term vision of being sane about spending on players. We've proved that last year, making it to the semis and letting go of a few key players who asked for too much money that was not justified. The platform we give them is really something because we are a club that really develops each and every player and doesn't just have a bunch of players on the bench not playing. We stick to a certain increase for a player and if they are asking for more than that, we release them. We have signed our players for multi-year contracts now as we have seen that works better for the club. Because we are a single owner club, they are not dealing with layers of management, but really dealing with the key stakeholders at the club and we are one big family. We're trying to set things the right way for the next many years to come.

Having tasted success last term, both NorthEast fans and John will be eager to do even better in the upcoming campaign, and the work to build for the future is already underway at the club with World Cup bronze medallist Croatian star Robert Jarni being roped in as the club’s new head coach.

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