In the brief history of the Indian Super League, FC Goa have been one of the most consistent sides but when Akshay Tandon took over as President during 2016, his first season with the club was nothing short of dreadful.

The Gaurs had finished rock bottom of the table in the 2016 edition, which proved to be their worst since the inception and under coach Zico’s era. The club was under fire. In a football-crazy state of Goa, it was not acceptable.

But since then, FC Goa have been a force to reckon with in the league – qualifying for the playoffs on all occasions.

They may have not won the ISL title yet but have cemented a reputation for themselves by treating fans in Indian football with a high-risk and an enterprising style of play alongside promoting local players.

That consistency has culminated with a spot in Asia. The Gaurs made history by becoming the first Indian club to secure direct qualification to the group stages of the AFC Champions League earlier this year, under the new criteria.

It has been a rollercoaster journey for Gaurs under the leadership of the 33-year-old who is a graduate from Boston University. spoke to Tandon on his vision for the club, the departure of coach Sergio Lobera, the road ahead for his team and a lot more.

Excerpts from the interview:

What were you looking at establishing since you took over?

Honestly, we were no experts, and had no fixed agenda. For me personally, it all happened a bit last minute as well. It wasn’t something I was intending on doing. But as season three was progressing and I was overseeing the activities of the management, I felt like as an entrepreneur, things could be done differently.

I started my research. I travelled around the world, read a few books to see how things were done. We started with the basics – focus on the youth, on the locals, stick to one style of play and have a young coach who is hungry to prove himself. So everything we did was a first-principles approach to decision making. We wanted to keep things simple and stick to the process.

When you have the pressure of performances on the pitch, the media, the fans it becomes emotionally challenging. And keeping your cool is not easy. It’s about keeping a steady hand and that has really been the only big difference. The three-year cycle that we started has come to an end. We are starting a new cycle now which will have its own set of challenges.

You took over the club at a time when Goan football wasn’t doing well and FC Goa has reignited that lost pride. How important was that?

Indian football is doomed if we don’t do the basics. Technically, we are still a decade and a half behind what is taught from the grassroots level to the first team. So to say that winning trophies is a priority, is kind of missing the point sometimes. There’s no point of us competing only at a domestic level and feeling good about ourselves. So the only way to do it is with local players.

The previous owners did a fantastic job of building FC Goa as a brand and consolidating the Goan fandom around the franchise. We inherited a team that was already filling the stadium. So our job was not to compromise what had already been done. What we will take some credit is for continuing what they started doing.

Season three was so terrible that everyone was thrashing us. We were the butt of jokes for a while. And what I realized quickly that the only thing that’s going to matter is how many goals we scored. Because the more we score goals means that we are a better product on the pitch.

Even we’ve made our fair share of mistakes of in terms of expensive signings. But as we move into this next phase, the focus remains very much on promoting more players from the youth system. That was the whole point of getting involved with FC Goa. To promote Goan players and give back to the Goan community. If it was just about spending money and winning, anyone could do that.

Sergio Lobera’s departure raised many eyebrows during the season raised quite a lot of eyebrows. How tough of a decision was it for you?

Definitely, the hardest decision I’ve had to make. Not only myself but also a couple of others. It was very important to us that we don’t tarnish the legacy that Sergio had built for himself, not only in Goa, but also in Indian football. But at the same time, we knew it was sort of time for us to expedite to our next chapter. Touch wood, things have gone smooth and that didn’t derail us.

It was an extremely difficult period, not only for us but everyone at the club and even the fans. What I’m hearing is a big chance we could be seeing him in another team next season, so looking forward to playing against him.

A lot of the FC Goa developmental team players didn’t receive enough game-time in the first team. Did that aspect have a big role to play in your decision?

I’m not gonna isolate one or two items as a reason of what played into our decision making. I wish these things were as simple as that but for us they’re not. Whether it’s Princeton [Rebello] or Saviour [Gama], or Kingsley [Fernandes] there’s a whole bunch of other boys that are also there.

In our defense, I would say we weren’t yet structured enough to ensure a smooth flow of players from one squad to another as and when difficult matches were reaching either the youth team or the first team. We have learned from that. What we are trying to build now is that we’re gonna have bigger squad for ISL and that means more players sitting on the bench. So it’s about getting them game time and that remains our priority.

Even despite the success the club has achieved, Lobera’s departure has caused quite a lot of commotion on the outside. How do you react to that?

We are very committed to ensuring that FC Goa waves not only the Goan flag but also the national flag as wide and as hard as possible. We have spent over 200 crores into this project now. No one feels that pressure more than myself. We have been cognizant of what we have built and what is our responsibility for not just the coming season, but the seasons after that. It’s a very difficult balance between spending and technical achievements. It’s not that we’re afraid of spending but spending in a way that may not be sustainable. We are planning not just for next season but right till the tenth season. We are all in. If kind of money we invest doesn’t signify our interest, I don’t know what would. And we have done it with Goan players and done it the right way.

How does the club plan on sustaining itself?

As of today, the world has literally been turned upside down with the Coronavirus pandemic and this raises more question marks. But removing COVID-19 from the situation, we are on track to have visibility on much more manageable sort of losses which we accurately budget for. I know now what I can expect for sponsorship, what kind of ticket sales we have. We can predict certain amount of revenue and central revenue. We’re also optimizing our costs year on year. We have been decreasing our costs. Over the last three years, every season we have lost lesser money that we did since we took over. So that way there is light at the end of the tunnel but there’s a long way to go.

What time period are you looking at before the club breaks even?

I would say breaking even in five-six years from now could become optional. We aren’t the lowest spenders in the league by any means. So maybe by then, we’ll be able to start having options to do multiple things like spending big on signings.

What has been the most difficult challenge you’ve had to deal with?

I would say emotionally, it’s quite taxing. You don’t always recognize how much pressure you’re feeling when you’re in it. I am involved in running five businesses so a lot of my emotional bandwidth goes into dealing with what’s happening on and off the pitch.

That takes a toll on your emotional bandwidth and how much you have left for other things – my personal life versus like the kind of leadership that other people require from me in other businesses. So the biggest challenge has been me lying to myself about how much time this actually takes, because if I’m quite honest, it’s 24x7. It doesn’t stop, it never does.

What do you want to see the club achieve in the future?

We want to build a squad again that can keep doing what we’re doing. We are going to have a lot of changes and much of that is forced upon us because of age and the Asian [AFC Champions League] format or having more players in the squad.

And for me, the challenge would be that for the next three years, we cement a leadership transition as well. We have to build an organization that can work professionally and work without the same people all the time. It’s building leadership, on and off the pitch and create a winning culture. So far it’s been like a survival culture. After season three, our goal was to make it to the playoffs. That can’t be our goal now, it has to be to be making it to Asia all the time. The target will keep moving.

Originally, we thought that by season nine or ten, we’d make it to Champions League but we are there now. I suspect that the next six months, nothing is going to go according to plan for anybody. Things like negotiating involving players or coaches. No one’s gonna have clarity on where they should play. It’s a challenging time. So we need to keep our head down and pray for the best.