Wonder what the naysayers are thinking now. In terms of catastrophic errors in judgment, the call for Bob Houghton’s ouster after India failed to defend their SAFF Cup title would rank alongside dismissing Abhinav Bindra as a no-hoper and accusing Michael Phelps of a lack of focus.
India sailed on to an Asian Cup finals berth because their silver-haired coach never lost sight of his target. Despite a terrible pitch, tepid crowd support, the publicity mongering that demands for his head following the 1-0 loss to the Maldives essentially were and the sarcasm of former greats after Bob Houghton fielded juniors in the group game against defending champions Tajikistan.
The SAFF Cup reversal had been a lesson well learnt, he said in defence of changing a winning combination.
And India needed to beat Turkmenistan anyway to avoid North Korea in the semi-final, Houghton explained to those who still hadn’t got the drift.
Exactly two years ago going into his first match against Saudi Arabia here, Houghton had explained what he expects of players and how if they all performed little tasks correctly it could take them to a bigger goal. Houghton has since walked the talk and two titles and three finals later it can definitely be said that there is a method to the way our national team readies for games.
While his predecessor sought and never got practice games against South Korea, China Japan and Brazil, Houghton opted for lower division Portuguese teams just getting into their pre-seasons. It led to confidence-boosting results and fuelled what he calls “the winning desire.” Most importantly, it restored pride in the Blue shirt.
Decades of failure outside South Asia had translated into an overwhelming sense of ennui when it came to playing for India.
Realising that Houghton nurtured the squad but didn’t treat them like school kids.
After training and matches, he would stay away, usually in a separate hotel, again much to the disapproval of our experts who were once players of repute. He kept faith in his bunch and got them to enjoy playing for India. And they replied with three goals in 20 minutes on Wednesday.
It is for these players to take Houghton’s ways of doing things to the clubs from where they earn a living. Fate brought Subrata Pal, Gourmangi Singh, Anwar, N.P. Pradeep, Steven Dias, Sushil Singh and Sunil Chhetri -— all below 25 — in contact with a professor of football they didn’t even know existed. They are unanimous in acknowledging his contribution too. The best way to repay Houghton would be to take his vision to our clubs. So far, Bhaichung Bhutia has been the only one doing that. Time these young guns join Indian football’s pole star, its totem.
It won’t be easy but then, nothing is. It wasn’t easy for Sir Matt Busby and Bill Shankly to convince their FA that playing in Europe would complemexnt the English league not undermine it. But for them English clubs would only wow at the genius of Di Stefano and Gento not think of matching them with Law, Best and Charlton.
Meanwhile, Bob the builder can continue to put brick and mortar to his vision of an India that would improve enough in three years to make this qualification count.