Since their inception in 2014, NorthEast United FC have treaded a rocky path in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL). The Highlanders, as they are fondly known as, have made it to the playoffs just twice across nine seasons in Hero ISL history.

Despite several managerial changes, the side has struggled to emerge as a strong contender for the highest of honours. However, the Guwahati-based side can hope for an optimistic future with the appointment of former Bengaluru FC CEO Mandar Tamhane.

Tamhane — who has been entrusted with the role of CEO at the club earlier in May — brings forth a new dimension to the club. Tamhane has laid the foundation for the Blues and helped the club win several laurels during his time with the Blues, from winning the Hero I-League to participating in the AFC Cup Final.

While BFC’s on-pitch success has been indisputable, it has been largely made possible by the vision, dedication, and hard work of Tamhane and his team. His relentless work has led to Bengaluru FC being one of the best clubs in the nation, having built it right from scratch. Be it youth development, grassroots football, proficient scouting or off the pitch management, Tamhane has propelled the club to higher ceilings during his time.

Having been accustomed to winning trophies with his former club, he now faces new frontiers with a club that has been devoid of silverware. The vision of Tamhane and his considerable expertise will be of paramount importance for the Highlanders as they begin a new journey. 

With the North East region boasting of some of the most talented footballing individuals, some which even represent the Indian national team, the vision of Tamhane presents itself as the key to unlock new spheres at NorthEast United FC, and that might just be the beginning of a new era.

Tamhane sat down for an exclusive interview with the Hero ISL media team as he spoke in-length about his decision to join NorthEast United FC, his project and vision for the club, and a lot more.

Here are the excerpts from Tamhane’s interview:

What made you choose this club over any other offers? What challenges do you see coming in here?

I had around six offers, but all the jobs are challenging. So, it’s about where I see the opportunity, more than how difficult or how challenging it is. I thought that (NorthEast United FC) was the best option for me. When I held my talks with John (Abraham) and Priya (Runchal), I liked the people and for me, it is very important who I work with.

They are passionate people who want the club to do well, who want the club being from the region (in the Hero ISL) to do well. Those are the things which I felt that maybe I can contribute in some way to help them try and achieve something, not just on the pitch but off the pitch because the region has got a lot of talent available as we all know, the fans are passionate.

You want to give them something they can be proud of, which doesn’t necessarily mean you have to win competitions, obviously, that will happen once the systems and processes are in. There are so many other things that we can do which can contribute to not just the development of the club, the development of the region, but also contribute in some way to Indian football.

NorthEast United FC haven’t been able to achieve silverware since their inception in the Hero ISL. Where do you think the problem lies? What’s the first step or first change you want to bring about as the CEO?

There are many things that need attention, but you have to go step-by-step, you cannot change everything in one year or two years’ time. It’s a long-term vision. I presented my plans which I felt can help NorthEast United FC grow as a club. Primarily, what I feel the two things I immediately need to address is: putting systems and processes in the total functionality of the club. Basically, you want to change the perception of the people looking at NorthEast United FC and that can only happen when I can bring about this change.

The second thing is to have good people to work with at the club. It’s not just the coaching staff, it’s not just the support staff, it’s everybody working within the club. Unless and until we don’t have the right people working in the club, we’ll not be able to grow as a club whether it’s on the pitch or off the pitch. Obviously, players are there, coaching staff to put the coaching team in place but I feel that will happen, that’s not a big concern. Obviously, you have to be very conservative at the same time with the kind of spend you are making, with the kind of sustainability that is needed at the club. It’s also about how I can get the best people to work with me, maybe just three or four, but the best people who can help me work with me to grow the club. 

With respect to the immense local talent in the region, what kind of approach are you looking forward to?

At the end of the day, we are in a place where the local talent is not just in the region but with other clubs throughout the Hero ISL, the Hero I-League, or even in the lower divisions. So, I think it’s our responsibility to ensure that we try and encash on that talent, try and bring that to the club. But at the same time, you want to develop Indian football so it has to be throughout a pan-India lookout that you have to keep overall. As a club being part of the region, it is important to know how we can integrate them in terms of representing them not just by the talent but how we represent them in the kind of communications that we give to them as a club.         

We would want to focus more on the younger talent right now so that we can groom them over a period of time to be the best players in the country. Right now, running behind the best players from the region, who are already playing at other clubs, will cost a fortune.

What are the learnings from Bengaluru FC that you plan to take forward to NorthEast United FC after spending some successful years at the club?

The learnings are that you have to be very cautious and you have to be very humble. You have to take things in a very structured manner, if I try to create Bengaluru FC in one year, it is never possible because it took ten years for BFC to be what it is now. It took us three-four years to start our residential academy.

You have to be realistic with your targets, it’s not about replicating the same things at NorthEast United FC, that’s not possible. It’s about putting the foundations right so you can build something on it which can have a long-lasting effect on it rather than just a one or two-year effect. So, for me, it’s not about comparison but about my learnings at BFC, that is to be patient with everything and try and build slowly that will help me in the longer run.

What do you say about BFC’s overall contribution to the development of young talent with respect to Indian football as a whole?

I think it’s massive, it’s huge. The ownership is very keen to ensure that we represent India in every sport they are associated with. India has to be amongst the top in whatever sport they are whether it’s the Olympics, cricket, or football. The kind of support the ownership had given us when I was working at the club, it was immense. The way BFC is contributing is immense and I hope they continue because I feel we need more clubs like BFC in the Indian ecosystem for Indian football to develop.

What is your take on the owners of NorthEast United FC? How has your relationship been with them so far?

I feel they want me to do what I feel is necessary for the club, they believe in me and they trust in me. It is my responsibility that if somebody is trusting me so much, I have to ensure that I’m doing justice for what they expect me to do. Hence, I have to be cautious in my approach, in whatever I’m doing. The reason I chose NorthEast United FC is for the owners, they are very humble people, they are down-to-earth.

Additionally, John understands a lot of football. He understands how football is played technically, tactically, you can have a proper debate and an argument with him, which I didn’t know of before. If you have got such a passionate owner who wants the club to do well then people like me who are interested in contributing to the development of Indian football, I think he’s the right owner for that.