Bengaluru: John Gregory’s debut season at the Indian Super League saw a fairy-tale ending, as his team Chennaiyin FC beat title favourites Bengaluru FC in a stirring finale surrounded by thousands of the opposition’s raucous rooters at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. After trailing 0-1 in the sixth minute, Gregory’s men scored thrice to clinch the title for the second time. The supporters of Chennaiyin, in blue and yellow, chanted the names of their stars and thanked their new coach for bringing the 26-inch tall trophy back home.
Gregory was also awarded by the League Managers’ Association for becoming the first Englishman to win the ISL title. More than the award, the 64-year-old Gregory would probably cherish a particular congratulatory from someone he admires. Sir Alex Ferguson had called to wish him luck.
In professional football, however, there is no scope for living happily ever after. One season follows another. After the celebration dies down, new challenges arise. The grateful fans turn expectant again, wanting more wins.
This, Gregory knows. He and his team are ready to defend what they won last season.
Excerpts from his interaction with the media ahead of the new ISL season:-
On inspiration from Alex Ferguson
The great Sir Alex Ferguson, when he won his first championship in the 1990s, all he wanted to do was to go and win it again. He did it 13 times and that’s the true sign of a champion.
Real champions don’t just win it once, they go back to win it again the following year and the year after that. It’s more a mental thing than a physical thing. My boys have always been physically fit, always able to compete with the opposition physically.
There is that mental toughness you need to have. It literally started on the first day back in the pre-season. I and my staff look at our players every single day, we assess our players every single day.
One of the things that we look at is the attitude. The players have come back in an even better attitude than they had last season. They have all got exactly the same kind of desire and the hunger they had 12 months ago.
Obviously, as a leader of the group, it’s my duty to make sure they maintain the hunger and desire. It all starts again next week. We’re very positive, determined and still very hungry.
On the upcoming season
Last season we had a difficult opening game. Once we got back to winning ways in the next match against NorthEast… We worked really hard. That’s the most important thing for me. I think we have a strong work ethic. Off the field, we are all very relaxed and the players get along well. I said this in the last season as well: “we might not have had the best players but we had the best team.”
Even though we have lost our captain Henrique Sereno and a few changes in the coaching staff, I have seen that there’s an amazing atmosphere among the players. They are together. That was a key ingredient to winning the league last time. And, there’s always competition to be in the team. As a player, you were not able to take the foot off the gas.
On the changes in the team
That’s something I looked after this summer. I assessed everything that we did last year. I wanted to just make one or two changes to the backroom staff. Following the leaf out of Sir Alex’s book, he changed it on regular occasion. He would change the set-up every two or three years.
I made a couple of changes. I brought in Paul Groves as my assistant coach and Kevin Hitchcock as my goalkeeping coach. It kind of brings in a new voice in the training pitch. They have different methods and bring in different ideas.
Change is always good and so far it’s working very good.
On lessons learnt from last season
I was learning all the time last year, because it was my first time [managing Chennaiyin FC]. One of the key lessons is my behaviour. I am the leader of a team. I am the captain off field. I am the head coach. And, I have to behave in the right manner. I got banned for three and a half games, which I felt was unjustified. I threw the ball in joy because [Chennaiyin FC goalkeeper] Karanjit [Singh] had saved the penalty. The officials thought I was showing disrespect, which I wasn’t. And, unfortunately I had to suffer, sitting in the stands for three games. And, that was really difficult.
On AFC Cup
We are not looking too far ahead. We know that the AFC Cup won’t be there until February. And, we get a break in December. Obviously, it’s in the back of our mind and we signed Carlitos as our Asian player since we can only play three foreigners and another Asian player. We know when it comes it’s going to create some congestion. I’ll speak with Albert Roca and maybe get some information on how they [Bengaluru FC] prepared for the Cup. Some of the opposition in the AFC Cup are weaker than the ISL teams. So, we might be able to rotate our squads. We have got younger players in our squad who are pushing the senior players. There will be more planning when we get to that stage. We play 12 games between now and Christmas. I know some of the other teams only play 11. So hopefully we’d have got a couple in the bag and create a little more time for us to prepare or recover from what the AFC Cup brings us
On Bengaluru FC
Albert Roca was here last season [as Bengaluru FC’s coach]. I have huge respect for him. And, Sunil [Chhetri] of course, for what he’s done for Bengaluru FC and Indian football. He’s played a big part in making the ISL a successful competition. And, Bengaluru are a great addition to the ISL. At the end of the league stage, they were No 1. Everybody must be delighted that they joined.
On the rivalry between Chennaiyin and Bengaluru FC
Fans tend to enjoy this maybe more than we do. They like to create this southern rivalry between these clubs. There’s a lot of banter in social media as well. As long as it’s done in good taste, it’s great for the game. It’s great for the fans. Back in England, because of the proximity, fans of home teams travel to the away venues as well. But here it takes a lot of time, sometimes even a day, to get to the venues. We still had an amazing turnout for both our games here in Bengaluru. I love the rivalry. But it shouldn’t be hooliganism like it is in some places in England and Europe.