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Indian hockey's great survivor resigns - Decoding the David John era

Indian hockeys great survivor resigns - Decoding the David John era

Subhashish Majumdar

Published: 22 Aug 2020 5:38 AM GMT

A declaration that Sjoerd Marijne would keep his job as Chief Coach sent the bewildered Indian sports media into a tizzy in late April 2018 – this, after news had leaked that women’s team coach Harendra Singh would be taking over the Dutchman’s role in the men’s camp.

The statement in question which appeared to contradict the leak emanated from the man in the know - Hockey India’s High-Performance Director, David John himself.

The befuddled media houses questioned their respective sources with regard to the veracity of the explosive news story that an Indian coach would, indeed, be taking charge of the men’s team after nearly a decade - but, it was the May Day announcement that followed which proved David John’s prowess as a diplomat par excellence.

It was true that Harendra Singh was being entrusted with the grueling task of guiding the Indians through the Champions Trophy, Asian Games, and World Cup, all scheduled for the same calendar year.

It was equally true that Sjoerd Marijne had indeed kept his job as Chief Coach - the catch, of course, was that the Dutchman was asked to return to the women’s camp where he had begun his India stint in early 2017.

Time has proven that the decision to move Marijne back to the women’s team was indeed the right one with the Indian eves breaking into the top ten in the FIH rankings.

Harendra’s chargers too moved up the ladder to become the fifth best side in the world after a resounding show in the Champions Trophy where the team won a silver medal.

Harendra Singh may well have lost his job following the Odisha World Cup, but Indian hockey fans gave their beloved coach an emphatic thumbs up with social media campaigns being launched to re-instate the man who had guided the Indian juniors to World Cup glory.

Meanwhile, David John who played a key role during the coach swap - and, who was in the thick of things up until the 2018 Commonwealth Games (where the Indians failed to win a medal) faded away from the limelight ever so gradually.

So much so that the High-Performance Director did not have much of a role to play in the lead up to the Men’s World Cup according to well-informed insiders - only reappearing into the spotlight as the makeshift coach of the Indian men’s team in the 2019 Azlan Shah Cup after Harendra Singh was shown the door.

With the redoubtable Analytical Coach Chris Ciriello by his side, David John’s boys failed to get past the South Koreans in the final at Ipoh but the think tank, arguably, made a heroic move by sending in young Kishan Pathak for the big shootout in the finals ahead of seasoned custodian PR Sreejesh who was fit and ready.

It was just the kind of step that typified the Australian, who, along with Sjoerd Marijne, blooded in young rookies like Vivek Sagar Prasad and Dilpreet Singh at Gold Coast 2018 - and, who dared to dispatch a second-string side for the 2018 Azlan Shah Cup much like what champion teams like Australia and Germany did in the past.

The bravado cost Marijne his position in the men’s camp - but, the team selection for the Azlan Shah Cup and the Commonwealth Games were done with David John’s blessings without a shadow of doubt.

With emotions running high post Harendra Singh’s exit, many in the Indian hockey fraternity questioned why the High-Performance Director was allowed to continue while the Chief Coach was unceremoniously axed after the Odisha World Cup.

The fact that David John, supposedly, had a role to play in bringing about Sardar Singh’s downfall did little to enhance his popularity either - it was true, however, that the High-Performance Director who had served as Physio and Scientific Advisor for the Indians back in 2012 had a vision for the future that could not accommodate ageing legs for too long.

In the final of the 2017 Asia Cup in Dhaka, Fitri Saari beat Sardar Singh’s outstretched flat stick to advance menacingly before finding Ramdan Rosli who set up Muhammad Shahril’s goal which reduced the deficit for Malaysia.

With the score line reading 2-1 in favor of India and just over ten minutes to go, Sardar watched the proceedings from the side lines and played no further part in the match which the Indians went on to win.

The midfielder found no place in the team for the prestigious Hockey World League Finals of 2017 which followed and was also left out for the Commonwealth Games in early 2018 only to make a comeback into the side for the Champions Trophy.

The veteran who stated before the Champions Trophy, in June, that he was looking forward to playing the World Cup slated for December unexpectedly announced his retirement, in September 2018, after the Asian Games fiasco where the Indians lost the semifinal to Malaysia.

Through it all, David John came through unscathed - also, post the Commonwealth Games media tirade which was sparked by a minor rebellion amongst the players. The Australian High-Performance Director will be remembered as a tacit survivor who managed to tactfully negotiate through tricky terrain until he hit the final roadblock.

Incidentally, David John replaced Roelant Oltmans as High-Performance Director when the Dutchman was appointed Chief Coach of the men’s team in November 2016.

As per the announcement made by Hockey India back then, Oltmans was to continue as Chief Coach until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics but was sacked in late 2017.

Clearly, three years and eight months or so may well be considered a long time as far as Indian hockey is concerned. It has been a period that has seen a fair share of tumult but also been one in which the overall graph of Indian hockey has moved staunchly and unwaveringly northwards.

Whether a hitherto silent Hockey India decides to credit David John for the new-found ascendancy - or chooses to dismiss the uptrend as incidental remains to be seen.

David John’s resignation, coming as it does less than 12 months before the Tokyo Olympics - and which, ostensibly, has little to do with on-field performances of either the men’s or women’s teams does raise eyebrows, but pales out when compared to the seemingly irrational and horrendous incidents which were the hallmark of the erstwhile Indian Hockey Federation.

After all, Gerhard Rach was appointed coach days before the Athens Olympics while Cedric D’Souza was sacked while the 2002 Kuala Lumpur World Cup was still on.

Hockey India, in comparison, has set its house in order to a substantially higher degree which is evident from the recent performances of the Indian men’s and women’s teams.

On the face of it, David John’s departure is unlikely to have a telling impact on either the men’s or the women’s teams given the fact that a solid structure is now in place.

For the sake of Indian hockey, however, one hopes that his successor, when appointed, will coalesce seamlessly with the current coaching staff as the ramifications of that not happening is not something that either the players or the ardent fans deserve ahead of Tokyo 2021.

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