With NorthEast’s resurgence, Jamil makes a case for Indian coaches
Since inception in 2014, the Indian Super League (ISL) hasn’t been very receptive to the idea of having Indians as head coaches. Initially barred from the role – a move many perceived as discriminatory – the league has since relaxed norms, paving the way for Indian coaches with the AFC Pro Licence to qualify for the role.
There has never been a full-time Indian head coach in an ISL team till date. But that could change with Khalid Jamil making a strong case for NorthEast United to promote him from his interim position next season after leading the club to the playoffs. Jamil is the first Indian to do so, although none of his compatriots on temporary duty have had the opportunity or time to get that far.
NorthEast had accumulated 12 points from 11 games when head coach Gerard Nus was sacked and Jamil, then head of academy after being assistant-coach in a season he also tested positive for Covid-19, appointed on interim basis in his place. They have since gone on a nine-game unbeaten run, including six wins, to make the cut for the playoffs. Friday’s 2-0 win against Kerala Blasters sealed the deal for the club.
After the game, Jamil said it was the players who deserved credit for the turnaround. “They deserve to be in this place. They worked very hard. Because of them, we got this result, that is 100% sure,” he told reporters. “I don’t have to tell anything to them. They are playing according to the plan we are putting. Inside the ground, they have the main thing to do.”
Jamil’s qualifications as a coach had never been in doubt. The Kuwait-born former India international has in the past coached Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
He had begun his coaching career by taking charge of a low-budget Mumbai FC side in the I-League and turned them into a sturdy unit that would maintain mid-table status during his seven seasons at the helm. The first season in 2016-17 without Jamil saw Mumbai FC relegated.
That same season, Jamil achieved the biggest feat of his career – leading minnows Aizawl FC to the I-League title, the first time a club from a northeastern state became champions of India. That it was the last season before I-League and ISL started running simultaneously, meaning the best domestic players were still playing in both competitions, made it even more significant.
The ISL today is a different beast from the I-League in 2017. Not only is the number of foreign players higher in the ISL than in the 2016-17 I-League but also the quality of players from abroad is significantly better due to the massive difference in resources of the clubs in both competitions.
NorthEast spend the lowest among the 11 ISL clubs, primarily due to a low franchise fee, lower operational costs in Guwahati during pre-Covid times and a low budget for players. It probably is not a surprise that the club has previously qualified for the playoffs only once, and in six seasons, has finished bottom on two occasions and second from bottom once. NorthEast have also changed coaches frequently, with Nus being the eighth full-time head coach in seven seasons and this being Jamil’s second stint as interim replacement.
However, while this season saw a coaching change again, the player recruitment has been shrewd. Mauritanian midfielder Khassa Camara had last played in the Greek second division while Belgian defender Benjamin Lambot was playing in Cyprus --- both have been at the heart of NorthEast’s run. Deshorn Brown was out of form and favour at Bengaluru FC when Jamil gave him a new lease of life after signing him last month.
The club also got Suhair VP, Ashutosh Mehta and Gurjinder Kumar from the team that won the I-League title with Mohun Bagan last season. The Kolkata giants had decided against retaining these players having inherited a full squad from ATK after a merger. The three have been key to NorthEast this season. This is the third time Mehta is playing in a team managed by Jamil, having previously worked together at Mumbai FC and Aizawl FC.
Lalengmawia, the 20-year-old Mizo midfielder better known as Apuia, has emerged as one of the brightest young prospects in this country, having cemented his place in the NorthEast first team. He scored a long-range stunner in Friday’s victory to seal off a brilliant league phase for himself.
“Apuia, I don’t have to say anything. One of the best players in India we have. I feel very happy to see his goal. He scored a wonderful goal and he is a talented player, no doubt,” said Jamil. He had words of praise for Suhair too after the forward from Kerala gave NorthEast the lead. “Suhair, he is a team man; he works for the team only. That is why he is always in the starting XI. Defensively, he helps, in attack he goes, in set-pieces also,” said Jamil.
The attention will now turn to the playoffs. But even if NorthEast don’t play their maiden final, it shouldn’t hurt Jamil’s chances of becoming the first Indian coach to be given full-time charge of an ISL club.