Panaji, Dec 18: SC East Bengal haven’t had the best of starts to their maiden Hero Indian Super League campaign, with four defeats and a solitary draw from their five games so far. However, Assistant Coach Tony Grant is optimistic of a resurgence soon and emphasizes that it is a “work-in-progress”.
In this candid conversation with sceastbengal.co two days prior to their sixth fixture against Kerala Blasters FC at Bambolim, Grant shares his thoughts about the team’s performance in the league so far, how injuries to some key players have scuppered their plans, how he manages fans’ expectations, the importance of following a ‘process’ to become successful and the preparations for the next game.
Q: We haven’t yet got the result we’re looking for and this isn’t the position we want to be in. What is your post mortem of the five games we’ve played so far?
This is a new team. We’ve come together from an isolation period of two weeks. It hampered our preparation time before our first game in the tournament. Two weeks of pre-season training wasn’t enough for a new team having players who didn’t know each other before. But I think in this short period, we’ve shown lots of pluses and also understood the areas where we need to work on. I think the whole team’s understanding of the game needs to improve. But as I said before, this is a new set-up. It needs time to develop. Most of the other teams have players who know each other. It was never going to be easy. It’s a process. You’ve to understand it, or else you’re never going to move forward.
Q: What according to you went wrong in the past five games?
I think you can question a lot of things. We know their job is tough, but we can question the officials—can’t we? There have been lots of times when we’ve been hard done by the officials. In life, people will always question the things they love and so the fans are questioning the club. But you’ve to remember that the club is going to be there for another 100 years, whereas we’re all mortals. We’ve to figure out how we can be a powerful club in the Hero ISL, which is only seven years old. This was a big club in the last area of life, but this is a new area of life. We’ve to build from here. Individual errors cost us in the last game, but we’ll have to cut down on them. Things will improve once the team’s overall understanding of the game starts getting better.
Q: Do you think the injuries have scuppered our plans?
Of course. There’s no problem in getting a brand new team, but ideally you should get a minimum of six weeks to work with the boys prior to such a big tournament. In our first match against last year’s champions, I think we gave them a good fight for a major part of the game. We showed in that game that we can compete. Then in our second game against Mumbai City FC, we lost our captain early. That was a big blow for a new team. We also didn’t have Aaron [Amadi-Holloway] in the first four games; he’s still not fully fit. You also have to remember that the foreign players have had to adapt to a different climate here, stay in quarantine for two weeks and then train with a group of boys with whom they’ve never played before. Having said that, we have to improve. That’s the rule of life. Be it in life or in football—if you don’t improve, someone else will come and take your place.
Q: You've been with many big clubs in the world and now you're at one of India's biggest clubs. How do you manage expectations from the fans and how do you take care of the morale of the team at the same time?
I think the expectations of fans are always huge, more so with big clubs. But this club had never been in the Hero ISL before, so the situation is a bit different now. The fans will always want the club to replicate its past success, but football in this country has moved on. Now we have to rub shoulders with other teams to become the best club in this new league. That will take time. It’s always hard to manage expectations from the fans because they want to see their team at the top. Eventually it will happen, but as I said before, it’s a process. It’s similar to building up a company. It takes months and years to build up a big company. The league will only get tougher with more and more teams spending a lot of money. Maybe in the past East Bengal were the biggest spenders of money, but now four or five clubs have overtaken them. The biggest clubs in the world always spend a lot of money.
Q: You speak about the ‘process’. Could you shed some light on the squad we have?
We’ve a squad of players like every other team has, and you train them and speak to them. Some players understand you better, some can’t. That’s life. It happens everywhere. Our players are fine. What has been really tough for them is the two-week period for pre-season training. Six weeks would have benefited them. It’s harsh on our players because they were given such a short time. It’s really harsh to evaluate them on the basis of just five games, but in football you’ve to evaluate. In general, the players are great lads and are always willing to learn. It’s a work-in-progress. The ones who’ll really improve and move on are the younger boys. They are like sponges who really want to soak the information up.
Q: How are we preparing for our next match against Kerala Blasters FC?
The team will lift itself up. That won’t be a problem. They [KBFC] have had their boys playing together for a longer period, whereas we haven’t had a settled team as yet because some people haven’t capitalized on their opportunities. We will be up for a fight and hopefully we will win the game.
Q: Do you think our goal drought has been addressed with Maghoma’s brace in our last game?
We should have got those two penalties against NorthEast United FC. Then we could’ve possibly got one or two more goals. As I said before, it’s a new team and Aaron wasn’t available for the first four games. In football, you’ll always get questioned, but that’s life for you. As staff, we keep learning from every game and hopefully the questions will be answered in the upcoming games.
Q: Your message for the fans…
The fans are everything for a football club, aren’t they? We’ve come from big clubs in Europe and this is arguably one of the biggest clubs in Asia. It’s a new journey now and it’s going to be an exciting journey. Clubs are built on legacies. You’re a fan of SC East Bengal because you’ve inherited it from your father, who, in turn, inherited it from your grandfather. It runs in the family. For example, I was brought up in Liverpool and so was our manager. But my family is blue, while his is red. It just passes down. East Bengal may have been a very dominant club before, but now the landscape has changed. Now we have a new league, but eventually we’ll rise again. It’s just a process of the club becoming a bigger club. The fans will always be the most important thing for the club, and hopefully in the next 50 or 100 or 200 years, your posterity will have more happy memories than sad memories of the club.