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Since 1st March, 1999
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The more I see of Bhaichung, the more fascinated I get: Bhowmick

Subhas Bhowmick

Not that Subhas Bhowmick has ever had much time to spare but, after the ASEAN Club Championship success, even a 48-hour day may not be enough. Despite heavy demands, the 53-year-old former India international and current East Bengal coach spoke to The Telegraph for about an hour-and-half at his New Alipore residence late on Wednesday.

The following are excerpts

Q East Bengal’s ASEAN victory is being seen as more than just a club’s success. What are your thoughts'

A I quite agree with such a sentiment... Having said that, let me add a good many sports have potential. What’s lacking is proper marketing. Soccer, too, isn’t being ‘sold’ as it ought to be. Unless the marketing is professional, neither the corporate sector nor even the public will be very enthused — certainly not for long.

How confident were you of East Bengal returning with the trophy'

To be honest, I was looking to make the semis. In fact, on the eve of our departure for Jakarta, the hugely supportive (UB Group supremo) Mr Vijay Mallya asked whether we would make the quarters. I responded by promising a semis berth. He then said he would cheer the team in person if we actually got there. He couldn’t make it for the semis, but was very much there when we won the championship.

What made you “promise” a semis berth'

(Emotionally) The players’ hunger to succeed, the fire they had within themselves… I hadn’t seen anything like it before from such close quarters. Moreover, I could see that more and more players were gaining in self-belief… From Bhaichung Bhutia to Dipak Mondal, Douglas da Silva and Mike Okoro, Alvito D’Cunha to Debjit Ghosh…

Did you live and die with each penalty during the semis’ shootout (versus Petrokimia Putra)'

It was down to that chance or luck factor… Nobody had to remind me of that… Yet, having come through the closing minutes of regulation time (and the half-hour extra session) with just ten players, I was hopeful of…

You insist you aren’t a man of emotions. Still, you must have felt something at the long blast last Saturday'

I thanked God and, for a while, went blank… I got off the bench and moved towards the dressing room… Later, many thoughts crowded my mind… I looked at our win as a step towards getting people to take note of soccer… I thought we’d won a battle in the larger war for recognition… I also reflected on the mistakes I’d made (in the final) and began thinking of areas where we needed to get better.

What did you tell the boys on the eve of the final (against the highly-rated BEC Tero Sasana)'

Enjoy the moment and don’t be obsessed with the trophy… Don’t do an Ivan Lendl, whose obsession with trying to win Wimbledon made him forget his tennis… Indeed, as nobody had predicted we would get so far, the boys were already winners… I added that if you can teach the opponents a thing or two, teach well. Equally, if you need to learn, learn well.

To what extent should kudos be directed at a coach'

Look, a coach can only contribute a maximum of ten per cent… But, yes, that ten per cent is crucial because he controls the productivity and non-productivity.

In soccer, the coach/manager is king. Doesn’t that put him under more pressure than the players'

Absolutely… What needs to be remembered is that the finished product can’t be good if the raw materials aren’t of a high quality… Speaking of the coach, he has to respond promptly — as soccer is such an instant-sport — if the opposition’s strategy is different from what was envisaged… Unless that response is prompt, the outcome will be disastrous. (After a pause) For instance, I had to redraw plans during the break in the semis… The saying that a coach earns his salary at half-time is so true. Clearly, for a coach, the thinking process doesn’t stop.

Who is an ideal coach'

Somebody who is technically sound, knows how to cut the coat according to the cloth at his disposal and, well, is patient. Also, he must have the ability to get all the players to talk in the same language and ought not to let them down publicly. As man-management is a key element, he must appreciate which players don’t like being rebuked publicly and which players only get going after getting the stick! (After a pause) Today, I confess I was impatient in my first stint as East Bengal’s coach. That’s the top reason why I wasn’t successful.

Does a coach have a shelf-life'

Yes. Just as the body, after a while, becomes immune to an antibiotic, the players can become immune to a coach…

Have you had a role model-coach'

P.K Banerjee

The PK Banerjee of old… The time I was a player and he had a dream… Besides being on the ball technically and tactically, he was a terrific motivator and I’ve tried to imitate him… I don’t have a degree (in coaching), but interacting with PK was such an education.

Any overseas-influence, so to say'

When the last (2002) World Cup got underway, I was quite fascinated by Argentina’s Marcelo Bielsa… I couldn’t forget his quote about sleepless nights and constantly inventing tactics… He regarded himself a scientist… But, as the tournament warmed-up, I began being impressed by the then Brazil coach, Felipe Scolari… I realised his tactics were more useful and, as it turned out, Brazil won the World Cup… I keep myself open to ideas and have studied Holland’s Rinus Michel’s total-football approach. (After a pause) I’ve looked at the functioning of coaches in other sports as well.

Is it true you wanted to quit even after East Bengal’s phenomenal run last season'

I wasn’t getting that job satisfaction and, so, was toying with the idea. However, a well-wisher suggested I focus on the ASEAN meet and the AFC Champions League…

Obviously, Kevin Jackson’s recruitment (as trainer) has made a huge difference…

(Laughs) It’s a long story… I think it was during the (2002) NatWest Trophy that I got a shock on seeing Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar… All the fat had gone… On learning that trainer Adrian le Roux made the difference, I sought an appointment during the West Indies Test at the Eden (last October-November)… We interacted for about three hours and I requested a month of his time this summer. Later, he called and suggested Kevin’s name. Initially, I thought we wouldn’t be able to pay $ 1,000 per week but, thankfully, our sponsors quickly gave the go-ahead. I was desperate to get him as we, Indians, have this bad habit of not listening to one of our own. The attitude changes when somebody from overseas offers the same advice. Now, my players’ food habits have changed and they want fruits instead of singharas.

What have you learnt in your years as coach'

More than anything else, to be patient… With experience, I’ve also learnt to be flexible with tactics.

Any lessons from Jakarta'

I wouldn’t say I’ve specifically learnt something, but we’ve gained in confidence… Now, our self-belief is more pronounced. If I can draw a parallel, the victory in Jakarta is probably like the Indian cricket team’s win in the Berbice one-dayer (1983)… Beating the West Indies on their own home turf, for the first time, gave us the confidence to defeat them in the World Cup final not many months later… If we keep improving and are powered by self-belief, we can beat the best across Asia.

Surely, there are lessons from the build-up to the ASEAN meet… Camping in the five-star Hyatt, getting Jackson on board…

I agree and, just as important, the attitude of certain people must change. Unfortunately, our staying at the Hyatt had become a joke in some quarters… I couldn’t believe it… Therefore, for Indian soccer to move forward, it’s essential to first think differently… (After a pause, emotionally) Among other things, staying at the Hyatt and availing of the excellent facilities allowed my players to project a different body-language. It helped, too, that Reebok supplied our kit… I mean, on and off the field, East Bengal were on a par with the other teams. Mentally, then, my boys were ready for the kill... Did I specifically ask for Hyatt' No — but, yes, I wanted the players to get out of the guest house culture. Because of the constraints it wasn’t easy, but we eventually got a handsome deal… Looking ahead, Mr Mallya has already okayed an air-conditioned dressing room (at the club) and a jacuzzi. Today, a hi-tech gym is my only ‘demand’.

How do you judge whether somebody is or isn’t professional'

(Interrupting) I believe the individual should judge himself. Has he done enough' Has he trained sincerely' Has he kept a goal in mind' Frankly, for me, attitude is more important than skill and, before we picked the ASEAN squad, I told everybody that only the right attitude would ensure that Jakarta-ticket. (After a pause) It’s because of attitude that Sangram Mukherjee lost his No. 1 goalie’s position… I gave Sandip Nandy a chance and the rest is history…

Did you strike the Bhaichung-deal'


Not the deal, but I did make the first move when he called Rennedy Singh on his cell in my presence… Bhaichung’s initial response was that I would be inviting (Mohun Bagan’s) enmity. I said I was prepared and, of course, added I needed him. Later, I quietly met Bhaichung in Guwahati and his coming back to East Bengal became more certain.

Is Bhaichung the finest Indian footballer you’ve seen'

Not the most talented, but certainly the toughest in the mind… That boy is remarkable and I keep telling my players they should treat him as their role model... There’s much to learn from Bhaichung. Really, the more I see of him, the more fascinated I get.

Are you disappointed he will be away for two months, in Malaysia'

Far from it… I’ve encouraged him to have that short-term contract with Perak FC. All these years, we’ve been looking for players from overseas. Now, teams from beyond India are interested in our players. It’s a matter of pride. (After a pause) Even Sur Kumar Singh and Okoro may, for a while, go elsewhere.

Finally, are you aspiring to coach the national side'

Haven’t thought about it… I’m focussed on the job in hand.

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