Manuel Marquez's Hero ISL story: He came, he saw, he conquered

Manuel Marquez’s arrival in Indian football as he was appointed the head coach of Hyderabad FC, just months before the start of 2020-21 season, was met with more question marks than exclamation marks.

This was a result of the context in which he took charge of Hyderabad FC, a team that had finished bottom of the table. Marquez wasn’t the first choice candidate for the club to manage the team and instead it was the former Bengaluru FC head coach Albert Roca who was set to lead Hyderabad FC into their second season.

But Roca’s sudden departure to FC Barcelona meant Hyderabad FC had to make fresh plans to appoint a new head coach, a new footballing leader for their project with just a few months to go for the season. Marquez was chosen to be that man.

Read: A team never beaten: How Hyderabad FC overcame one hurdle after another to be crowned Hero ISL champions

His recent track record wasn’t the most inspiring as he had managed just 13 matches across his three previous jobs and willingly or unwillingly built a reputation of leaving a job prematurely.

The squad that he had in front of him was quite young. He had just four players above the age of 30. Three of those were foreigners and the only Indian player in that age bracket was goalkeeper Laxmikanth Kattimani who hadn’t had the best of times in previous campaigns.

The average age of the Indian players at his disposal was just 21.5. It was a young but promising squad but severely lacked the experience that is needed to deliver results under pressure.

However, for Marquez it was the perfect age profile. He had a bunch of relatively unproven Indian players who were probably rejected by the teams competing at the top and with a lot to prove.

Unlike what many saw, they also had the talent. Crucially for Hyderabad FC, Marquez was able to identify that. From a fairly direct side under Phil Brown in their first campaign, Marquez’s Hyderabad FC had a clear identity.

They would keep possession and were not afraid to pass it around even against the most talented teams. Hyderabad FC surprised many in the Hero ISL 2020-21 season with their football which was a breath of fresh air.

Behind this progressive brand of football was a structure that gave the team stability. Marquez’s side finished the league with the second-best defensive record conceding just 19 goals, one more than eventual champions Mumbai City FC.

However, for all their possession, Hyderabad FC lacked a cutting edge and also the killer instinct at the top. A combination of inexperience, injuries to key players and absence of multiple players who could make a difference in the box meant Hyderabad FC finished fifth despite suffering just three defeats all season and ending the campaign on a 12-match unbeaten run.

Hyderabad FC drew 11 times and that proved to be their downfall in Marquez’s first season but it was still a solid platform to build on.

Unlike his first season, Marquez began his second season with a bunch of youngsters who didn’t just have more experience of the league under their belt but were also well-versed with his demands.

Some of them received Indian national team call ups that further boosted their morale. Hyderabad FC lost Liston Colaco, their highest Indian goalscorer in 2020-21 season but Marquez recruited smartly bringing in another budding Indian attacker in Aniket Jadhav.

His season-changing recruitment though was in the foreign player department. He brought in Bartholomew Ogbeche, the kind of a proven goalscorer the team were crying out for, Juanan, a former Hero ISL winner with Bengaluru FC who brought in his leadership at the back and Javier Siverio, a perfect support striker for Ogbeche.

The team had a different look as it strengthened all its weak areas and it was there to see on the pitch. They retained their solid structure from last season but had the experience and quality of the likes of Ogbeche and Juanan to turn draws into wins.

Read: Bartholomew Ogbeche’s season of dominance, glory and triumph

Hyderabad FC may have started the new season with a defeat but even in that loss, there was enough evidence that they were going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Their next defeat came after seven matches and this one like the first one was just a blip. Hyderabad FC bounced back stronger after every defeat and it was a part of the character of the team that was on display in between the matches as well.

Marquez’s side came from behind more than any other team in the Hero ISL 2021-22. This was the quality that was on display in the final too when they remained patient despite trailing by a goal to eventually equalise as late as the 88th minute.

It’s a reflection of their head coach who is always composed and confident on the sidelines and even when speaking to the media.

Marquez also kept every player in the squad on his side and the proof of it was the way Sahil Tavora stepped up to the plate when it mattered the most in the final.

After his goal saved Hyderabad FC in the final, he was quick to give the credit to the coach.

“We have a coach who is demanding and he demands 100% every day and in every game. So, we know we have to be on it. For example, in the second leg against ATK Mohun Bagan, we didn’t do our best. He told us that today we have to put on a show and give our best and that’s what we did,” said Tavora after the final.

Kattimani, another one of Hyderabad FC’s heroes in the title clash hailed the Spaniard for his impact.

“Our coach Manuel. He kept us up every day, asking us to play compactly. We did our job and you can see at the end of the season that we are the champions of the Hero ISL,” he said.

Marquez masterminded Hyderabad FC’s rise from the foot of the table to the very top. They have become just the fifth team in history to win the Hero ISL title.

What makes Marquez’s achievement even more incredible is that he did it with a group of young unproven players who have now become a mainstay in the Indian team.

The next step for Manuel Marquez will be to sustain their success in a league that’s full of competitive teams who will be out to get their throne. But as long as the Spaniard is that the helm, Hyderabad FC will continue to believe they have what no other team has: A mastermind.

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