It has been a strange Indian Super League (ISL) season thus far if you are a NorthEast United fan. The side started their campaign with a hard-fought victory over title favourites Mumbai City FC and went on a six match unbeaten streak. Although that run featured just one other victory which came against newbies SC East Bengal, it was enough to underline the fact that the Highlanders were a threat on the counter and had some genuine gamechangers in their ranks.
However, they were brought back to earth soon enough. A defeat at the hands of Jamshedpur FC was followed by an underwhelming performance and a draw against Odisha. This preceded two more losses against ATK Mohun Bagan and Hyderabad FC respectively and it looked like all the good work from the first month had been undone. Gerard Nus was sacked, resulting in the maverick Khalid Jamil being promoted to the position of head coach from his youth development role. And thus began their turnaround which has boggled pundits and fans alike.
The soft-spoken former India midfielder weaved his magic wand for the first time on 17th January as NorthEast defeated Jamshedpur in the return leg. Thereafter, his side have taken all three points against both ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City, something that would have been unimaginable even a month back. Draws against Goa and Hyderabad since then may have stopped their charge for the time being, but Jamil is still unbeaten in five games, the first time an Indian head coach has managed such a run in the ISL. Furthermore, his side are currently sitting in fourth position on the points table, one point ahead of FC Goa having played a game more.
Which brings us back to the question, does this prove that Indian coaches possess the required skills to helm affairs for ISL clubs? The answer to that isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. Jamil has a record of doing well with limited resources. He won the I-League with Aizawl FC in 2016-17 when no one really gave them a chance. A sound tactician who knows when to be pragmatic and when to shift gears, Jamil is also a great man manager, something that most of his wards will attest to.
When you compare his situation to that of Naushad Moosa, who is the interim coach at Bengaluru FC, you’d realize that the difference lies in experience at the top level, something Moosa clearly lacks. Another aspect which often gets overlooked is that coaching in modern day football is often a collective effort. Most foreign coaches have an entourage of trusted colleagues who specialize in different aspects of the game and work closely together. For Indian coaches, that is as yet unheard of. This is also a reason why most ISL team owners tend to go for the ‘entire package’ as opposed to a promising young Indian coach.
Of course, with increasing attention being paid towards coach education in our country, the time is not far when we will have a steady supply of licensed coaches ready to take charge at top clubs. However, for the time being, the body of work and (sometimes misplaced) optimism that foreign coaches bring with them is probably going to continue to tilt the scales in their favour.