Erstwhile Indian Super League (ISL) franchise FC Pune City had build a proper squad for the 2018-19 season with the aim of making it to the playoffs for a second consecutive time. They retained their core players, they had Marcelinho, and they signed a host of new players including the league’s all-time top scorer Iain Hume. However, the Miguel Angel Portugal-coached side could only finish seventh in the league, winning just six of their 18 matches.
Matt Mills, a former Manchester City and Leicester City defender, who was also a part of that squad, recently announced his retirement from football. The Bridge caught up with the 34-year-old to discuss his time in the ISL, Indian football and more. He explained why he enjoyed the ISL experience, his perception of Indian footballers, and how the league has helped grow the sport in the country.
Mills further spoke how foreigners need to come in with a mentality of helping domestic players grow, not just in a player capacity, and why ISL clubs need to scrutinise and bring such players from abroad who are willing to help Indian football. Following are excerpts:
Q> How would you describe your time in the ISL? Although your team did not do well on the pitch, you must have some good memories?
Mills: I had a fantastic experience in the ISL... playing abroad was something that I always wanted to do. And I'm really glad that I did that. We had, you know, a lot of young players within our team and also some good foreign players who, obviously, had great pedigree... Marcelinho, Iain Hume to name a few.
So it was a great experience. I think kind of Humey was a big attraction for me. Obviously, coming from the UK, not knowing anyone, wanted to make sure that I kind of had someone on the team that I knew. So I'm really glad he was there. He was a big part of my experience. And, I had some fantastic memories, that goal against Jamshedpur was really, really memorable. And I have to say, the camaraderie in the squad was great on a day to day basis.
Q> What is your perception of Indian footballers in general? Can they become one the Asian heavyweights in the near future?
Mills: In terms of the kind of work in the national team, going in the future, I guess there's no limits, is there? I think the ISL has been fantastic for Indian football. Again, I'm referencing Humey, but he will testify, that the standard of Indian players has really gone up.
The standard of football has gone up since ISL 1. I think their exposure to foreign players really helped. Also, the fact that foreign players are willing to go over there and kind of pass knowledge on can only be a good thing. I was really impressed with the standard of some of the players in our team. I thought Ashique (Kuruniyan) was fantastic. And obviously he's now gone on to Bengaluru.You know, I try to keep up with everybody's career through Instagram, and have been watching some ISL games.
Q> Which ISL team did you enjoy watching the most last season?
Mills: Last season I watched a lot of the football on my phone. I always managed to pick up some of the games. Obviously, Pune changed to Hyderabad, but it was pretty much the same team, minus one or two. I liked watching Goa. I think they were a very good team, although defensively they said they were not one of the stronger teams like Bengaluru.
I really enjoyed the games against Goa we had when I was there. I just like watching football in general, so I'm so happy to pick up any game.
Q> What are your thoughts on the foreigner policy in the ISL? Do you think reducing the number of foreigners will help improve the quality of the domestic players?
Mills: Definitely not. I think the way that they improve the standard, particularly for the Indian players, is to have the foreign influence. Obviously, kind of doing background checks into their characters and making sure they go in there for the right reasons, to kind of work with the players there and understand that they're not only there in a player capacity, but also in a developing capacity... to have conversations with players and try to improve them so they can learn of those experiences of high level performances in Europe.
Q> What are your plans post-retirement? Do you want to give coaching a shot, if yes, can we see you back in India some time in the future?
Mills: In terms of retirement plans, I'm taking a step back from football completely, I'm actually going to be working within the family business, which obviously, you know, I'm really passionate about. And, for the foreseeable future, that's what I'll be doing. May I return to football one day? Possibly. I may return to India in the future. Who knows? Never say no.