Indian Super League (ISL) outfit Odisha FC roped in former South Africa national football team head coach Stuart Baxter to replace outgoing manager Josep Gombau ahead of the upcoming season, the club announced earlier last week. Baxter, 66, comes in with a lot of pedigree. He is one of the most respected coaches in South Africa having enjoyed successful stints in the PSL.
The Brit spoke at length about the reason he joined Odisha FC, how the main focus is building a strong team with young talented footballers who could challenge for the title and more. Excerpts from an interaction:
What was the reason behind choosing Odisha FC?
The first impression I got was speaking to the owners, speaking to Rohan, speaking to people within the club. Being in Corona time, this is not when I can fly in and take a look and acclimatise myself with everything. The first stop was the impression I got. The impression was the ambition, it was desire and it was something that is a little bit warm to my heart. Something like in South Africa, in some of the places where social commitment and the commitment to the youth of that area is paramount. So, that came across as a desire or an ambition that is in the club and they (owners) wanted the new coach to embrace that.
The other thing is the help and support and the cooperation of the government. I think that’s also important. Many times in football, I feel, we go to people folding our hands and saying, “please help us.” Now, we don’t really ask ourselves the question that what we really do to deserve that help, where is our role in this partnership. I think those lines are pretty clear here. The government wants to help and the club wants to repay that by creating something which will be good for our supporters and everybody here in Odisha.
How crucial a part will the youngsters play in your plans for the season?
I think the young players that we have brought in…it will be impossible for me to sit here and say that I know every one of them. What I can say is that there will be an emphasis on youth. It’s my job to make sure the culture of the club is based on development, coaching, team spirit, understanding your role and the responsibilities to the club and to the state.
So, I think, no matter how we spin it, the youth are going to play a very important role in this and for us, it’s vital that we make sure that we give those young players the best possible chance of being able to develop and answer the core that we are making. Yes, it will be important to get some experienced players in. They must have the right attitude but the young players, I hope, will be looking at this as an opportunity for their own development hand in hand with the development of the club.
What is your primary goal at Odisha FC?
I think the project is about development. Our first target is we want development and we want the result of that development to dictate how high we can pitch in. If you are asking me as a professional, I want to take the team to the playoffs definitely because sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth is all the same really. We want to play the playoffs and after that, let’s see if we can win it.
But, in my experience, I have been to a situation like this where you have a young squad and you don’t expect because people say “kids will win you nothing” and they win the league. So, I think sometimes you put so much pressure on the young players and you do win the league and sometimes you can underestimate. The power, the willingness to learn, team spirit and once development starts taking place it takes on its own life and I think we should try to harness that and just see how far that we take us knowing that if we do our job properly then we do have a force to reckon with.
But at the same time, I don’t want to make rash predictions because I haven’t seen the group, I don’t know their mental strength, I don’t know how they would react. So, until then I just want to say, as a professional, the best that we want to do and that’s top four to start with and then I wanna see how the group reacts to my work.
How do you want to use your vast experience to help the young talents at OFC?
I think when we talk about experience, one of the things in my development as a coach is that if you have more challenges or different natures of challenges, which for me is working in different countries with different cultures and different ideas of how to play the game, it just equips you to get more keys to open the boxes.
I think when you are coaching younger players, there is no hard and fast way to coach young players. They have preferred methods of learning. The more keys, the more weapons you have got under your belt then the more chance you got to get in on the right wavelength with the players so that they can understand whatever messages you are trying to get across. They can understand them more quickly. So, hopefully, young players don’t have to play 400 games before people say, “Well, he looks an experienced player.” Hopefully, the younger players will learn quickly and be well enough equipped and learn faster.
Do you believe in bringing your style or will you like to continue the way things have been going for the club in terms of style of play?
The Spanish coaches before me must have given the players a certain flavour and I don’t believe in this breaking everything down and rebuilding it because there’s obviously some good work done. The players will want and I remember after I won a league a new coach came in and said, “No, just because you won the league, doesn’t mean everything is ok.”
So, he broke everything down and the team finished eighth. So, I think there’s some good work done and I will retain that good work and hopefully, I will build upon it and hopefully, I will find a way of playing which we all will enjoy and it will give us some result.
I don’t have expectations. The people I have spoken to say that the Indian players are ambitious. I had an interesting conversation with Faf du Plesis (the South African cricketer). He said that the Indian cricketers (sportsman) are fantastic when on the front foot when they go on the back foot, they have too much to do. If they don’t do that they will be totally unplayable.
So, my job, I believe, is to make sure that my Odisha players feel like mentally on the front foot in any case and I think all of those things will go together into a style. We will bring in together the works that have been done until now and new stuff that we wanna do and describe it in a way that the players feel “Yeah! Let’s go on the front foot.”
The onus is on the coaches because I know a lot of coaches (good friends or colleagues of my) they go to a new setup, not even a new culture may be in the same country they are working. They take their way of playing football and they impose it on the squad. Many times, the squad doesn’t want that. I need to be the coach that the squad needs and not the coach that I always wanted to be no matter what the culture, no matter what the personality, no matter what the style, I impose myself; I don’t think that’s right. I need to be the coach that this squad of players need.
What are you expecting here in India and what will be the challenges?
I think that’s a very good question because as soon as you walk into a different country, you walk into a different culture. And as I said, if you walk in and impose your beliefs and your attitudes without considering the culture then I think you are doomed to failure eventually. The first thing that I have got to understand is how the culture of the country affects the mentality of its sportsmen. That’s what I have a conversation with people who know the sports to get a hand on that.
I think my expectations are that I will be listing and trying to pick up as much that will help me to get on the right way. Trying to speak the language they can understand, that presses the right buttons and that describes what we want to do together. So, my expectations are that’s gonna be a process, it will not be something will happen the first time right.
In the beginning, hopefully, I can describe what I want to do in an inspiring way that will bring everybody together and onboard until I find all of those burdens are aside to start the development process. So, that’s how I see my initial times. And, after that it’s managing people, winning games of football, making tactical changes. Then it’s normal coaching. But first of all, I have to go to their page as much as they have to get on my page.
Any comments about the Indian players those are a part of the club now.
Maybe, I think I have been trying to concentrate on our players and how they match up to the sort of level. I have not been delving into the details. I will get to know the players but for my players, I wanted to know where they stand. I think the games that I have seen have been on a decent level. Some of the passings of the players have been very good.
I think in most of the leagues which are in their developing process, the constant conundrum is how much do you rely on the foreigners. How many foreigners? How many foreigners allow the Indian players to develop and how many foreigners suffocate that development? I am trying to work out in my own mind how we can empower our players maximum. I think the Indian players have potential. We all, everybody in Indian football, have to maximise that potential.
Message for OFC fans that what can they expect from you at the helm of the club
I know that it’s tough times for everyone and I hope you all stay safe and secure. Waiting for the football season to get the green light. When we do start, I hope that together we can create something for Odisha FC to make everybody proud. Ama Team Ama Game!