NorthEast United FC assistant coach Paul Groves has urged his players to look at the positives from the last game and focus on themselves as his side prepares to host reigning Hero Indian Super League (ISL) champions Hyderabad FC at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, in Guwahati, on Thursday.

The Highlanders went down to Bengaluru FC in a thrilling game during their season opener. Groves spoke about the areas of improvement for his side, and backed the Highlanders to get stronger as the Hero ISL 2022-23 season progresses.

NEUFC, though, will be without head coach Marco Balbul, who received a suspension in their season opener. With fans returning to the home turf of the Guwahati-based club after a period of two years, Groves believes their presence in the stadium will be key with regards to the performance of his players, stating that the voices of the fans will pump the adrenaline amongst the players.

The 56-year-old attended the official pre-match press conference along with defender Gurjinder Kumar prior to the match.

Here are the excerpts from Groves’ press conference:

It was a disappointing result against Bengaluru FC. How do you overcome that as you performed well but the results didn't go your way, and does that affect the team spirit?

From a performance point of view, we’ll take the positives as we come home to Guwahati, and we have to make this game about the fans, and give them something to get behind and enjoy. The players and staff have been working extremely hard throughout the pre-season and we want to bring our game to the fans.

What are your thoughts on facing Hyderabad FC, who were the champions last season?

They are champions for a reason. They are a good team and they’ve already shown that in their game against Mumbai City FC. So, for us, it’s a challenge but it’s one that we’re looking forward to and I think our focus will be on ourselves, and how we play, but obviously we have to try to nullify them as best as we possibly can.

We’re realistic and we understand that when you play against the likes of (Hyderabad FC and) the teams that have won the league previously, with no real changes, continuity in players and team staff, they all make a difference. You go to the top teams in the world, there’s continuity and consistency in the way in which they play, and in the way in which they’re structured. Those factors are the same in any top team in any league.

Will the absence of head coach Marco Balbul on the sidelines affect the team’s game?

I think when you lose a player or a member of staff, they play an integral part in everything that goes off. So, for sure, we’ll miss the head coach, especially when he shows his passion for his role, for his job. But his absence is something that we’ll have to overcome and it again becomes another challenge that I think the players, the staff have shown over the course of my period at this club. They have followed on because we got through plenty of challenges during the pre-season period.

What are the areas you want to focus on attacking wise? How do you aim to work at that?

First of all, we look to improve in each game whether it is a small percentage of each game. In that, scoring goals, creating chances, being defensively sound by not giving too many opportunities. So, improvement comes over time and it is a long season, and we’ve gone far in the Hero ISL, and I believe we can do so. Improving each day, each game, and focusing on the aspect of creating more chances and scoring more goals.

Are there any injury concerns for your side?

No, the majority of the squad is available. One or two, maybe, have a little bit of doubt, but we have players who can come in and replace them for the match.

Overall, what do you have to say about the quality of the Indian players in the Hero ISL?

Obviously, I’ve been in the league before (Groves was the assistant coach at Chennaiyin FC during the 2018-19 season), and I think the national team has bore fruit with regards to the improvement in the Indian players when you see the Indian players certainly from my time before. That’s evident, with the improvement in the national team, the improvement in the individual players collectively alongside the team, the coaches that have come into the Hero ISL have improved them a lot.

The Hero ISL as a project has made sure that everything is correct. First and foremost, it is to make sure the fans feel that they can turn up and watch football, get entertained, support their team, and be about football.

As a coach, is it easier to manage players without the bio-bubble being in place?

I think there are lots of variables that make it different. I think it’s far better to be involved where fans are the part and parcel of football, and they are a major part when it comes to the difference in the performance levels. I’m pretty sure that if you look at the data with respect to the playing in the bubble and playing in front of the fans, I know for a fact that the performance is higher. The adrenaline, the hormones are pumped up and going, and it makes a big difference.

NorthEast United FC started their pre-season preparation much later than other Hero ISL teams. Do you think that’s going to affect the team in the first few weeks?

We would like to believe, from a fitness point of view, that, in the first game, we were getting stronger in the second half, and we expect our team to get stronger as the game starts to progress and only time will tell us about our improvement on a daily, on a game-to-game basis. Do we expect to get stronger and get better as time goes? Certainly, hopefully we start to see that on the pitch with the results as well.

Hopefully, we’ll see improvements as time goes certainly from a tactical, technical, and physical point of view. Even from a confidence viewpoint, I think the players have grown through the game, we have perhaps been spotted as a little bit shaky which is understandable because there are one or two players there that haven’t played any football in the Hero ISL but as they progress, they’ll grow into the game. So, there are lots of positives to look at and areas that we can improve in and it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.

Do you have any message for the fans who are coming to the stadium to watch their team play their first home game after two years?

First and foremost, a big thank you to the ones who attended our first game against Bengaluru FC. We will give our 100%. We see that in training every day and hopefully we can get them something to get behind and we’ll create a fantastic atmosphere. Hopefully, we can come out on the right side with regards to the result, but it won’t be for a lack of effort for sure because the players give absolutely everything. And I know, fans work hard for their money, they want to come, they want to enjoy and see some football. Let’s hope we can give it to them. 

Here are the excerpts from Gurjinder’s press conference:

This is a season where players are playing in front of the fans after a period of two years in the bio-bubble. As players, how do you think the presence of fans will improve your performance?              

As a player, you always want to learn and improve every day. This season, we have a different team and a different coaching staff, so of course, we are learning and at the same time, we have our first home game tomorrow that we really look forward to enjoying especially when the fans are coming back. So, it’s a great moment that we (players) are getting to play in front of our fans and we want them to enjoy and give them something.

Do you have any message for the fans who are coming to the stadium to watch their team play their first home game after two years?

We wanted to play in front of our fans, so yes, come in numbers to support your team and we will give our everything to give something back to them.