Owen Coyle interview: Be it Burnley or Jamshedpur FC, the feeling of winning is the same
Owen Coyle came to Indian football as a head coach who had proven himself at the highest level in the Premier League. Having made a name for himself with teams like Burnley and Bolton Wanderers, the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) presented a different challenge to the 55-year-old.
But like he has done at most places in his career, Coyle came, he saw and he conquered. Taking over a Jamshedpur FC side that had made a habit of narrowly missing out on a semi-final place, the Scottish manager didn’t just take them to their first-ever appearance in the knockout stages of the Hero ISL, he guided the team to a top-of-the-table finish helping Jamshedpur FC win the League Winners’ Shield with a record points tally.
The Men of Steel under Coyle have scripted a great story but the Scot is not ready to rest on his laurels and is now eyeing a Shield and Hero ISL trophy double.
The 55-year-old caught up with the Hero ISL Media team for an exclusive interview ahead of their semi-final against Kerala Blasters FC where he spoke about Jamshedpur FC’s journey from being the nearly men to becoming the table toppers.
Here are the excerpts from the interview:
Congratulations on winning the League Winners' Shield. When you took over as Jamshedpur FC head coach what was your impression of the squad and what did you feel the team needed to challenge for the big prizes?
The first thing was to assess what we had in the squad because when I came to Jamshedpur FC, there were some good players but they were not my players. So, I had to make the best of that scenario.
Incrementally, each transfer window we changed things. In January 2021, we brought in Boris Singh and Len (Seiminlen Doungel). I said at the time that I wanted speed, I wanted more pace in my team. We got Farukh (Choudhary) back from Mumbai City FC for Jackichand Singh.
My ambition was to take the club into the semi-finals. They had never been in the semi-finals. The season before (I took over) they had finished the last ten games with five points. If we look now we took 30 points from the last 33 available. That shows the improvement. But we had to do this step by step. You can't go from the bottom of the ladder to the top by sprinkling fairy dust. It takes hard work, it takes repetition and it takes good players and that's what we had to assess.
The teams that you were trying to chase also strengthened in the transfer window. So did you reassess your plans accordingly or were you set at what you wanted to do with Jamshedpur FC?
It would be naive not to understand what others are doing but it didn't faze me. Whatever they were doing, they were going to do. If I had Mumbai City FC's budget or ATK Mohun Bagan's budget, then I'd be doing things differently. They may go and buy Liston (Colaco), (Hugo) Boumous or Apuia. Good luck to them. We work differently. I go and target young players that I think I can improve. I have done that this year with Pronay (Halder), Mobashir (Rahman) and Jitendra (Singh) who have been sensational.
The standout characteristic of Jamshedpur FC this season is that the team can win different types of matches and you have more ways than one to win games. Did you always plan to build a team like this or the team or the players have developed the character along the way through the season?
I think like most things, there is a gradual evolution because it doesn't happen after just one session. Firstly, we had to get a place where all players were comfortable with the roles and responsibilities in the team and how we wanted to play. We obviously then had to build that winning mentality about how you win games, how you manage games. Sometimes, you have to find other ways to win games.
This group goes out to win games. Every substitution I make unless it's an injury is an attacking substitution. You don't see us being 2-0 up and putting extra defenders to see through the game because that's detrimental to everything that we are doing. Firstly, to the mindset that we are out to win this game but also because we are not at our best when we do that. We are at our best when we are on the front foot and playing at a high intensity. That's when Jamshedpur FC is a good team.
Can you talk to us a bit about the Nerijus Valskis' departure and mainly the arrival of Daniel Chukwu because he became like the missing piece in the jigsaw. What made you feel he was best suited for the role?
There were a number of reasons for that (Valskis' departure). I got to say that the bubble is challenging for everybody. It really is. I had a word with him about how he was feeling. He said to me that he was a bit unhappy. I was very conscious of that and I said to him that if you are unhappy then you tell me because I don't keep people who are unhappy because it doesn't help the person and also it doesn't help the team. We had a really honest conversation and I told him that if there's anything that makes you feel better, I won't stop you from doing that. I knew Chennaiyin FC were interested, so I told him, we are not looking for a fee, you go and be happy. That will also allow me to do what I wanted to do. On that note, I went to SC East Bengal and said I'd love to get Daniel Chima and it transpired.
I always liked Daniel Chima, I knew Chima before he came to SC East Bengal, I have seen him be a champion at Molde, I have seen him in Poland because we are football lovers. When I watched SC East Bengal games, Daniel Chima played well in those games. In India, the fans and in general the audiences, if the strikers don't score goals they think they are not good players. That's not the case. Players can contribute to a team without scoring. Chima was working his socks off holding off defenders but he lacked support. But he was such a good team player that I thought he would be perfect for what I wanted. Of course, because he is scoring goals now people think he is a different player. But he is still the same player, working so hard as he did at SC East Bengal.
But what we do with all due respects is that we get lots of players forward so when Chima gets the ball he knows he has Greg Stewart or Ritwik (Das) or Boris of Len to play the ball off to and that's why Chima has worked really well within our system. He is still the same player but we have just given him some other options to help with his qualities.
The spirit and bonding of your team is quite special. That can make or break any team even if there's quality. How did you build that bond between the Jamshedpur FC players?
I think it is very important particularly in a bio-bubble that you are all together. Of course, there are little bits you do like team bonding and rest of the things but if I'm honest the biggest key ingredient is that when you are signing players that you bring in good people to your club. If he's a good footballer, yes, great. But is he a good person, is he a good team player and that's important as when you bring good people with each other (it helps).
Jordan Murray is such a good lad. He has been suffering a few injuries but he is a huge part. Anas didn't have many minutes because he had a terrible injury and he is still working on it but I can't tell how good Anas has been as a team player in the group.
Ishan Pandita, a real team player. These are players who deserve more minutes but they are there for the team. So, for me as a head coach that's brilliant to see. The eleven that play are always going to be happy because they are playing. I probably spend more time with the boys that aren't playing because they have a big role to play as a player that plays just half a game or few minutes is as important as a player that plays every game. We wouldn't have won the League Winners' Shield if Ishan Pandita didn't pop up and score late goals. That was a four-point differential. My point is that they are all playing a part.
You've had a great career and achieved some fascinating things at the very highest level in the Premier League. But where does helping Jamshedpur FC win the League Winners' Shield rank in your list of achievements?
Football has different levels but football still is the same game. The feeling of winning and being a champion is still the same. The other night was as good as when I won the richest game in football to win the playoff final to take Burnley to the Premier League. I won a league in Scotland. I've been very successful with some punches in the nose as well. But the other night with what we had to do and how we had to do it because we weren't the biggest team with the biggest budget and that's special.
Looking ahead to the semi-finals and finals. Your team is riding high and you have already won a big prize. How do you now ensure that the players remain as hungry as ever for the knockout stage?
We had dinner together the other day and I told the players you go to your bed now. Yes, we are the champions of the League Winners' Shield and it's a great feeling but we have got other business to attend to, so there is going to be a recovery day and we have to prepare now because Kerala Blasters FC are a wonderful team.
We played them twice in the league, also twice in pre-season and since we have competed a lot, we know there's not a lot between the two teams and also the four teams in the semi-finals.
What we have shown is that over the course of the season that we are the best but in these knockout matches, anything can happen. We are going to have to face the best version of Kerala Blasters FC because they have a tremendous fan base. I love how they get behind them and support their team. So we have to be ready for that and be at our best and if we are, then we know we can win these games.
Where do you see Jamshedpur FC in the future with the AFC Champions League to come next year. What is your vision for Jamshedpur FC?
I have not thought about that for the simple reason that if you look too far ahead in football then you get punched in your nose. So we have to concentrate on Kerala Blasters FC. If we are to overcome them which will be difficult but if we are, then it's the final. Thereafter, that's when we will look ahead. What I would say is that when it (AFC Champions League) does come, it will be very exciting because for a club that had not even qualified for the semi-finals to get to that level is an incredible story and it's one that's been done against all odds. That's what makes football special. We are a fantastic club with great owners but we don't spend what the big ones do. So, to be able to do that within our structure, it's obviously been a great achievement. But we want another one and the only way to do that is by performing at our very best and trying to achieve the double.