It was an evening of chaos at the club offices in Goa. The phones would not stop ringing, the text message notifications kept on coming. Of course, news of Sergio Lobera’s termination had just broken and everything was not okay.
Which sane club management would sack their most successful coach with an almost impeccable record in the Indian Super League (ISL)? That was what people were asking.
What they should have been asking, instead, was what happens to the team from here? What do the players do when their favourite coach’s suddenly leaves? Something as big as that is sure to unsettle the dressing room and make them unsure, maybe even, demotivated. The club management was under the scanner, the pressure was massive, the potential fallout among fans if the team had failed on the pitch was looming large…
But no, nothing of that sort happened as Goa came out on top, beating stiff competition from ATK FC and Bengaluru FC en route to becoming the first Indian club to qualify for the prestigious AFC Champions League (ACL). And they did so in style, romping in 14 goals in their final three league stage matches, as if Lobera had never been there. The club, the players moved on, even though the fans didn’t.
— FC Goa (@FCGoaOfficial) February 19, 2020
This is where the two Goans — Derrick Perriera and Clifford Miranda — came into the picture. They had two of the most difficult jobs on the planet. While Derrick took over as the technical director after Lobera left, Clifford was handed the responsibility of coaching the team.
“It’s a part of the story for football really. But at the end of the day, we know that players and managers come and go. The club remains,” asserts Derrick, a little philosophically. “I was asked to take care of the overall functioning of the team. I had Clifford (Miranda) and Roma (Cullinera) alongside me. We had to keep the focus on the remaining games.”
“We kept it simple, we let the flow go on as the way it has been. The situation was stiff and ambiguous when I arrived, as is normal when certain changes are made – whether it is in personal life or professional,” says Clifford. “We tried to get back to normalcy which was the need and there on, it was not difficult as the players were motivated to do well and achieve the objective – that was finish at the top of the table.”
The fact that Derrick and Clifford had already been part of the Goa system, albeit in the youth setup, for the last three seasons helped.
However, it would not have been possible had the players not been absolute professionals and went about their jobs. After all, as per reports, Lobera’s departure had had an effect on many of them, as Mandar Rao Desai admitted after the game against Hyderabad.
“The players have my full respect,” says Derrick. “They are and have been top notch professionals. Every game, every minute was crucial and everyone in that dressing room approached them as such. I have really enjoyed working with them and I completely believe that we will continue to deliver on the pitch come the playoffs.”
“I am proud of my boys.” says Clifford. “The pressure was there — no one can deny that. Inside the dressing room, though, we were all determined to finish on top. That was it. And it showed on the pitch. Everything else was noise.”
One more vital thing was instilling confidence back in the players and motivating them. “The players were in need of assurance and confidence after a sudden change,” Clifford concedes.
“We were there for them at every moment and as I said, provided them with the feedback to be even better. A large credit goes to the players. They were motivated themselves as they knew and felt that they were on to something special, something never attained by any club in India. That was the biggest drive in the last few games.”
Next challenge? ISL Trophy.
Having successfully maneuvered the Lobera-episode, the immediate next challenge for Derrick and Clifford is to win the elusive ISL title. They have topped the table before, they have gone to the finals before, but they are yet to lift the trophy.
Derrick believes it’s time to forget about the ACL for now and just focus on the ISL. “We are excited to play in the playoffs. We have enjoyed our moment of glory, i.e. topping the league and clinching the spot for the AFC Champions League. Now, we are just looking ahead to the next challenge – to lift the ISL trophy,” he says.
“From the onset, we had certain objectives for the season. One of them is to reach the final and win the ISL trophy. We know that the hallmark of great teams is to win continuously and we want to be serial winners. We can also be among those teams that can win. Having said, it won’t be easy. We have to be at our best and work hard as all the teams that have reached this stage are very good and fiercely competitive,” Clifford adds.
Goa take on Owen Coyle’s Chennaiyin FC in the two-legged playoff for a spot in the final over the next two weekends. Can they go all the way and lift the title? Will there be a fairy-tale ending? Only time will tell.