The Mumbai Football Arena has been an old stomping ground for Stephen Constantine. Back when he was coach of the Indian men’s team, the venue was his preferred choice when it came to hosting the national camp and international friendlies alike.
He’d later talk about how the only match he had ever lost in Mumbai was when New Zealand had beaten a second-string Indian team in a dead rubber at the 2018 Intercontinental Cup. On Sunday, the 60-year-old returned to the stadium, this time as coach of East Bengal, but continued to find success as his side beat League Shield winners Mumbai City FC 1-0 in the Indian Super league match.
This was the first time the hosts had lost a home match and failed to score in the 2022-23 season, albeit, Mumbai City coach Desmond Buckingham had fielded a younger, inexperienced squad that included four debutants.
“I’m delighted with the performance of our players from start to finish. I thought, we were the better team. Obviously, congratulations to Buckingham and his staff for winning the Shield, which is a great achievement,” said Constantine in the post-match press conference.
“The only time that we were outclassed in any game was when we lost to Mumbai in Kolkata (a 3-0 loss). All the other games we have been competitive. We have made a lot of mistakes that have cost us games, but I have to remind everybody that when I arrived on August 4 at the Maidan, I had 12 players.
“There was no doctor, no physio, no staff, besides the 12 players. What we have managed to achieve this year is not what we wanted, we could have had another 10 points, but I have to give these boys credit because they have fought with whatever they have there. They know they’re not the best players in the league, but they have given everything for me and I appreciate that.”
This is the third season in which East Bengal has competed in the ISL. They’re currently placed ninth in the league – their joint-best (they finished last, 11th, in the 2021-22 season). However, this has been the most successful campaign for the team in terms of matches won (6) and total points (19). Given that the club is one of the oldest and one of the most successful in Indian football, expectations have always been high despite the disappointing results. It’s led to fans voicing their desire to see Constantine being replaced.
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The Cypriot-English coach however is not perturbed by fan reactions. He believes that coaches need to be given time when it comes to rebuilding a team, or even getting players to gel together. Of the five teams that have qualified for the ISL playoffs so far, only Bengaluru FC have had a new coach this season. Mumbai, defending champions Hyderabad FC, Kerala Blasters and ATK Mohun Bagan all have coaches who are into their second season — third season in Hyderabad’s Manolo Marquez’s case — with their respective clubs.
“My contract finishes in May and if people are unhappy with my performance, no problem. But if you keep changing the coach, don’t expect to win too many football games. (East Bengal) has changed 10 coaches in the last four years. And you want to go into the top 6. We lost some players who had interest in coming to East Bengal because I couldn’t tell them that I am here next season, for sure. Players want to know,” he said.
“If you want consistency, you get a coach, and you stick with the coach. I will find a coach. If that’s what I want, he stays, through thick and thin. If you keep changing the coach, that means you want to change the players, you’re going to change the formations, the staff and there’s no consistency and this is what the problem is generally in football. Not here, generally.
“Last year, Buckingham had just come in. New team, new players, people can’t expect a coach – however good they are – to wave a magic want and suddenly everyone is playing like Manchester City, Arsenal.
“You look at Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, screaming for his head last year. It doesn’t happen, very rarely it does. And you can throw as much money at it, that doesn’t help in chemistry. Yes, quality player. But does this quality player like to play with that quality player. There are lots of little things,” he said.
The problem in India though, Constantine said, however goes well beyond teams not giving coaches time and opportunities. He’s been head coach of the national team over two stints, but asserted that the Indian football ecosystem hasn’t quite managed to find a breakthrough when it comes to developing players from a young age and coaches as well.
“We are not doing what we’re supposed to be doing, in India, generally, in my opinion,” he said.
“We don’t have an Indian coach in the ISL. Half of the coaches in the I-League are not Indian. Where are Indian players playing outside? We need district leagues, we need coaches coaching the players from the age of five to seven. Not 16, that’s too late. We are five years behind the Asian countries, forget Europe.
“We don’t consistently win the SAFF Cup, we aren’t consistently playing in the Asian Cup. We are paying the Indian players big money because there’s a shortage of good quality Indian players. Why? Because we’re not focusing on what we’re supposed to.
“How are you going to teach a six-year-old how to play if there are no games? We have the reserve league that plays six or 10 games. At 15 I was playing Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning. By 16 I had played 300 games. Our boys aren’t getting that, so how are they going to develop?”
Constantine’s East Bengal team has reached a crossroad this season. This is the best ISL performance the team has had – albeit the bar was set low. But now they have momentum behind them as the team looks towards the final match of the campaign on March 25 – against fierce rivals ATK Mohun Bagan. A win in the Kolkata Derby is a good way for any coach to try and silence critics.
“When you’re managing a team like East Bengal, you’re not going to please all the people all the time. I’m not trying to. I’m trying to win football games with the players that I have,” he said.
In the previous Kolkata Derby, Mohun Bagan – who have qualified for the ISL playoffs this season – came away 2-0 winners over Constantine’s men.
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“I know what the derby means to everybody. It’s an important game. We want to win it,” Constantine said.
“We will try to win it and it will be, as it always is, a really tough, difficult, hard-fought game and I hope that we take the confidence from the performances like today, against Kerala Blasters FC and Jamshedpur FC, where we have shown that we are more than capable of beating anybody on our day, we beat Mumbai with a full team in Durand Cup. We may not have the best players, but they work their asses off. When they keep their shape, we will have the result.”