What were you doing at 27?

Many would have impressive success stories to share but few would catch the eye quite like Yan Law. Not because he has the world at his feet, but because he’s trodden on a less-travelled path.

Law is the head coach of I-League side Punjab FC, the youngest in the division by a mile, but also younger than some of the players he manages.

At 27, a footballer usually begins to hit his peak. Law is hoping to achieve similar results but as a coach.

In his debut season in the I-League, Law guided Punjab FC to joint second place with East Bengal, a massive improvement from the ninth-placed finish of the previous campaign. More importantly, he transformed the team from a battling, defensive unit to a tactically sound team that played progressive football and kept opponents guessing.

“We gave most teams a tough time this season. Nobody could predict what we’re going to do on the pitch,” Law told Scroll.in in a telephonic interview.

Unpredictability has been a theme of Law’s life, so it comes as a little surprise that it reflects in the way his team plays.

Budding youth footballer

From being the only one among his group of friends to not make it to his school team in the fourth grade, Law went on to become a vice-captain of the very side in just two years’ time before being the only one from his group to make the football team of the senior school.

The progress of the Kolkata-born Law was rapid after that. He was signed by a first division Calcutta Football League club while still in school before being selected for the junior team of West Bengal. Law didn’t stop there and was eventually called up for India’s U-19 football team camp. George Telegraph, a top division team in CFL, also acquired him.

His future looked bright but fate had other ideas.

‘License’ to not play

Joydeep Mukherjee one of the officials at George Telegraph who was also an assistant secretary at the Indian Football Association urged Law to do a coaching badge. At 18, and with his playing career well on track, it was a suggestion that left Law baffled.

“I was 18 and playing well for club and country and a man was asking me to do a coaching license. Who does that?” Law said recalling his emotions at the time.

The All India Football Federation had just introduced the D License course at the time in Indian football. With a low level of interest for the course, Mukherjee forced Law into doing it as he saw potential in him to become a coach.

A young Law stood out among the group that consisted mostly of middle-aged men.

“They often pulled my leg and made fun of me. I was left to wonder what I was doing there, but when I completed the course, it completely changed the way I looked at football. Initially, my outlook was very individualistic, but after the coaching license, I realised how every player affects the game,” he said.

However, what should have been a boost to a promising football career, proved to be anything but. Licensed coaches in Indian football were a rarity, being one at the age of 18 was perhaps a first.

“My teammates at the club used started referring to me as ‘coach’. Even though they were making fun of me it became too frequent and it pricked the ego of my club coach who himself didn’t have any coaching license,” Law said.

He went from a regular starter at George Telegraph to a bench warner to a complete outsider, sometimes getting excluded from the squad and being made to sit in the stands.

“There were people at the football club who told me that I should move away from football. I wondered what I had done wrong. It was just a coaching license,” he added.

Exclusion from the team made Law turn his attention to coaching. He started coaching kids at his father’s academy who was a state-level footballer in Kolkata. As he started enjoying it he drifted further away from his playing career.

The problems didn’t end there. There were no takers for a 20-year-old coach. His attempts at finding a coaching job failed.

“It was a depressing time in my life. I didn’t know what to do as my career both as a player and as a coach was going nowhere,” he said.

First coaching job at 20

But then, Mukherjee – who had pushed a young Law into coaching – came to help. He appointed Law as coach of Calcutta United Football club, a brand-new team that was owned by Mukherjee himself.

Albeit in the lowest tier of CFL, Law’s coaching career took off. The youngster repaid the faith of Mukherjee as Calcutta United won the division to get promoted.

“It was the first real achievement of my coaching career and it gave me big confidence,” Law said.

The early success helped Law in getting a coaching role in the West Bengal junior team set-up. In the meantime, he had kept doing his coaching badges and had acquired higher licenses which helped his cause.

The West Bengal side won the all-India championships beating all the teams in it. His stock kept growing as he earned himself a chance to work with the AIFF for the Fifa U-17 World Cup. He also completed the AFC A License at the age of 25.

Making a mark

His first senior break followed as he was signed by Mohammedan Sporting as head of youth development. Playing a highly tactical game in the Second Division League, Mohammedan’s displays impressed Ranjit Bajaj, the owner of I-League side Minerva Punjab.

During his visit to Kolkata, Bajaj invited Law for dinner and offered him the head coach’s role at Minerva Punjab.

“I was shocked. At first, I thought he was joking, but as we discussed in detail, I realised he was serious. I had a few concerns about taking over a team that had just escaped relegation the previous season, but Bajaj convinced me to join. I feel that’s the best decision that I’ve taken in my life,” he said.

A master tactician in making?

Law’s reign started with the AFC Cup where Punjab drew five games and lost just once. However, on his I-League debut, Punjab FC were defeated 3-0 by Churchill Brothers. The team had not got used to his style of football yet and it needed time.

“I want the players to play for the full ninety minutes. In a game, even the best players don’t get the ball for more than three minutes. My system is all about what the players do for the remaining 87 minutes. Even if a player has the ability to influence the game during the three minutes he’s on the ball, his selection depends on what he does when he’s not on the ball,” Law said.

The players slowly bought into his methods as they went on an 11-match unbeaten streak. Law used more than five different formations during the season, but his principles were the same. Smart work off the ball.

Tactically, Punjab FC were superior to most teams in the I-League last season.

Read: Armando Colaco interview: Indian clubs don’t have faith in local football coaches

Age just a number

Bajaj was vindicated for putting faith in a 26-year-old coach with no experience of top-flight football as Punjab had a fine season. For Law though, his age was never a factor.

“Having a good one-on-one relation with every player in the squad irrespective of age is of paramount importance. If you develop that, the age of the coach doesn’t matter,” Law said.

Law’s dream is to be the coach of either Mohun Bagan or East Bengal and also manage the Indian national football team at some point. But with Indian football clubs and AIFF putting a lot more faith in foreign coaches, the dream is a distant one for Law. He’s made a strong case for trusting Indian coaches with big jobs through his talent and achievements at such a young age. For the rest, he hopes twists of fate would get him there as they have so far in his life.