A few minutes into the interview and you realise that Anthony Pilkington is obsessed, he only wants to dominate and win. Here’s a man, in his early 30s, and yet exhilarated at the prospect of a new challenge: win matches for his new football club, SC East Bengal, in their debut Indian Super League (ISL) campaign.
“We want to win matches,” Pilkington tells The Bridge in an exclusive video interaction. “That’s why we’re here. And that’s why you play football.”
“I’ve always said that… right from kid’s football… it’s not just about taking part for me. I know other people see it differently, but it’s about winning. There’s no point turning up if you aren’t going to try and win. And you’ve got to enjoy, if you’re winning, you enjoy it more. So it’s all about winning football matches.”
Having only arrived in India a couple of weeks back, amid the pandemic, the former Premier League midfielder is still settling in. “I got a warm welcome from all the fans and everybody else. I’m happy to be just getting settled in after the quarantine. It’s been nice to have our first few days of training sessions.” he says. And it’s easy to believe him.
After playing all of his career so far in England, and establishing himself there, Pilkington carries himself like a player who is certain, who knows what he is doing, what needs to be done, and more importantly, why it needs to be done. He explains the two major reasons behind coming to the ISL and choosing East Bengal — Robbie Fowler and the 100-year-old club’s immensely passionate fan base.
— Anthony Pilkington (@Pilkington_11) October 17, 2020
“Obviously, I knew about the league (ISL),” he says. “I didn’t know an awful lot, but I knew it was up and coming and that it’s getting bigger and bigger each year.
“Robbie (Fowler) phoned me and asked me if I would be interested and, you know, he explained the situation at the club, he told me about the passionate fan base. It was an opportunity that excited me. It’s an experience that I’m really looking forward to.
“He (Fowler) was a massive, massive player back home in England and around the world. He was a superstar. So it’s great to be able to work under him and learn some new things, because I believe, as a footballer, you never stop learning. It doesn’t matter how old you are. To get to learn, you know, off of someone like him, off a player like he was, it’s going to be brilliant. And obviously, it’ll be great to learn from the rest of the staff as well.”
Quizzed about the training sessions under Fowler, Pilkington concedes, “You know, they (the training sessions) have been tough. And we’re just settling and getting used to the heat and humidity and there’s a few lads still in quarantine. Hopefully, they’ll be out tomorrow (Wednesday) and could join the group and and we can get working and get ready for the season.
“It’s early days. We’ve only done maybe one or two sessions, but there’s some really, really talented (Indian) boys over here. Hopefully, we can help them with our experience, and obviously, the manager and the staff’s experience, too… help them grow their careers and become better footballers. There’s a real willingness to learn from the boys already, and that’s fantastic. You know, the desire and the work ethic has been brilliant in the last couple of days. Hopefully, they can keep impressing and we can do something really good this season.”
“It’s a lot different from back home in England. It’s very cold there, by now. Here, it’s very hot and humid. It will take a little bit to get used to, and, well, you know, you’ve got to adapt and overcome. That’s what we’ll do. This is the same for everybody else. So you just got to get on with it and embrace it,” the 32-year-old says.
Thing is, he knows what’s coming, he is already aware that the climate is going to be a challenge — and he is not afraid to admit it. He has seen how football can be rewarding and how it can be cruel sometimes also, and perhaps, that’s what makes him so determined and self-assured.
Growing up, Pilkington was seen as a prospect. He spent his youth career at Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers and the famous Manchester United before joining Stockport County in League One during the 2008-09 season. The very next season, he headed to Huddersfield Town, where he would go on to score 17 goals in 76 league appearances.
Impressed by his performances in the third division, Premier League side Norwich City came calling — this turned out to be a massive turning point in his career. The Blackburn-born winger played his heart out for the Canaries and in his debut season in the English top flight, he was able to find the back of the net eight times in 30 appearances. Next season, he managed five goals, which included two goals in two matches against Manchester City, and a winning goal against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
For a while, it seemed like he would become a regular feature in the Premier League but, as luck would have it, it wasn’t to be. After a disappointing campaign in 2013-14, Pilkington departed Norwich for Championship side Cardiff City, a club for whom he would go on to score 20 times in 103 league matches. However, with recurring injuries hindering his progress, his career took a downward curve from the 2017-18 season.
— Premier League India (@PLforIndia) October 18, 2020
He joined Wigan Athletic with hopes of regaining his form and fitness, and he certainly delighted the fans with his skills and goals. But his fitness issues meant that out of 59 league matches in two seasons, Pilkington missed 23. He started only 16 matches and came off the bench in 10, in another 10 he was kept on the bench for the entirety of the matches. While his quality was never in doubt, on many occasions, the coach used him less just to protect him from injuries.
“He’s always had talent, it’s unquestioned, he’s played at the highest level for a number of years. We’ve got to try and keep him fit for as many games as we can, especially at home. Because I certainly feel he has the ability to win games for us, which is what we desperately need,” Paul Cook, Pilkington’s manager at Wigan, was quoted saying after the attacker had helped the Latics to a win over Milwall back in February this year.
Now that he has made the switch to East Bengal, Pilkington would definitely want to turn over a new leaf. But, to add to his challenges, the Kolkata club’s late entry into the ISL coupled with the travel restrictions owing to the coronavirus pandemic have cut short the pre-season drastically.
When asked about it, Pilkington is surprisingly calm. “It’s a small pre-season, but it’s the same for everybody else. Every other club is in the same boat as well. And then there’s other players that are still arriving and still in quarantine. So there are no excuses,” he emphasises on that last word.
“There’s no excuse,” he adds. “You want to be the fittest team in the league. And you want to be the hardest working. It doesn’t matter. And you’ve got to work hard every day when you step on the training pitch. You have to look after your body around the hotel, you have to look after yourself.”
“Playing in the Premier League and in the Championship, which is a very good league back home, for a number of years now has given me a lot of experience. So, I’m going to use my experience to help the Indian players and help grow them, especially, the young lads coming through… hopefully, make them better players as well.
“Just help them whenever I can, and try and lead by example, really,” he adds with a conviction in his voice that is sure to stimulate faith among the lakhs of Red and Gold fans, the same fans he has heard so much about. Oh, and he has also heard about the Kolkata Derby.
“I am disappointed that they (the fans) can’t be involved in the games and in the stadium,” Pilkington says. “But I’m sure they’ll be watching. The first game (against ATK Mohun Bagan) is obviously going to be a huge match. And I’ve been speaking to my teammates, my Indian teammates here, and they’re explaining how big the derby is — it’s the biggest derby in Asia. They have been talking about how many fans would be in the stadium and not just inside the stadium, but also outside the stadium if they were allowed, if it was back home in Kolkata.”
“Surely, everybody in Kolkata and around India and around the world… huge fan bases… is really looking forward to it. I am not too sure anyone likes pre-season, nobody likes friendlies because you always want to play to win. We can’t wait to get going and start the first game of the season. And it’s such a big game, it’s going to be fantastic.
“I’m sure the fans will be right behind us, supporting us, and as I said earlier, I have had a really warm welcome since I’ve been here. So I’m very grateful for that. And hopefully, we can make them proud this season,” he signs off.
If everything goes as per plan, and if he can stay injury-free, Pilkington can definitely be one of the top players in the league. He can inspire East Bengal to make a run at a playoff spot, and then, the ISL title because bear in mind, at the end of the day, for him, it’s all about winning.