How Owen Coyle revived Chennayin FC | Football News - Hindustan Times
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How Owen Coyle revived Chennayin FC

ByDhiman Sarkar
Apr 12, 2024 01:53 PM IST

If there is one player through whom part three of the Owen Coyle story of revival can be told, it is Ankit Mukherjee.

Ankit Mukherjee walked away like Sunil Chhetri does after scoring. Chhetri has 61 goals in the Indian Super League (ISL) which is 58 more than Mukherjee but if you didn’t know that while watching Chennaiyin FC’s come-from-behind win against NorthEast United, you could be forgiven for thinking that the defender scored often enough.

Owen Coyle (Source: Chennaiyin FC)
Owen Coyle (Source: Chennaiyin FC)

Fact is: his two goals this term have come after one in 2018-19.

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But if there is one player through whom part three of the Owen Coyle story of revival can be told, it is Mukherjee. Around this time last year, the right-back was barred from training with East Bengal for indiscipline and it wasn’t the first time he had broken rules. Mukherjee apologised but East Bengal didn’t want him anymore. Chennaiyin FC signed him in July. Scot Coyle returned as coach days later.

Coyle has used Mukherjee in 19 games, the most he has ever played in a season. “He needs to feel trusted,” Coyle said after Tuesday’s 2-1 win, the first time in ISL history that Chennayin FC won a home game after trailing. From 11th in the standings after 18 rounds, the result helped Chennaiyin FC seal the sixth play-off spot once East Bengal lost 1-4 to Punjab FC.

“Test of character”

That happened because of three successive victories, all of them after trailing, against Mohun Bagan Super Giant, Jamshedpur FC and NorthEast United. “It has been a test of character, a test of mentality,” said Coyle.

Mukherjee, said Coyle, played against NorthEast after being told that his father was critically ill and in hospital. It is a turnaround no one at East Bengal would have thought was possible but then Coyle, 57, is used to dealing with players deemed misfits elsewhere.

At Jamshedpur FC, whom he helped win the league shield in 21-22 with a then ISL record seven successive wins after a six-game unbeaten run in the season prior, Coyle revived Pronay Halder’s career after the defensive midfielder was released by ATK Mohun Bagan. And improved Boris Singh, Komal Thatal, Jitendra Singh and Ritwick Das who got an India call-up. “I think as a foreign coach, you have an obligation to try and improve and help the national team,” he told HT in an interview in 2022.

Never stop believing

With him, players never stop believing, said an ISL team official. “There are coaches who can get players to perform to potential. Owen can get players to go beyond. Few foreign coaches in ISL understand Indian players better. And in Alexander Stewart, Coyle has a fantastic assistant,” said the official who is at another club and hence did not want to be named.

As a mid-season appointment in 2019-20, Coyle took Chennayin FC from the bottom of the standings to the ISL final. He showed faith in Anirudh Thapa, Edwin Vanspaul and Germanpreet Singh and played two Indians as holding midfielders. “I was the only coach who did that,” he told HT in 2020. That allowed him to play foreigners as attackers and in 15 games under Coyle, Chennaiyin won eight, drew three and scored 35 goals. It was when he was under Coyle that Vanspaul got an India call.

Using his vast experience as a former international and a coach who has worked in Scotland, Major League Soccer and the Premier League, Coyle took Jamshedpur to where they have never been before or after. So it is not really a surprise that after four straight defeats, including a deflating one against Hyderabad FC, Coyle has got Chennaiyin FC back on track. He has also got Rahim Ali back among goals and it was the Chennaiyin FC striker’s smart pass that Mukherjee converted.

How he will fare at a club which believes only in building star-studded rosters is not known. Coyle may not be interested in such a project. Maybe getting teams to punch above their weight is what moves him. And there is no doubting Coyle’s subject matter expertise in that area.

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