'I want us to be the first team to retain the ISL trophy' says Chennaiyin FC coach John Gregory
Scaling a peak is always a fantastic achievement, but for some doing it once isn't enough. There exists an urge to experience that rarefied airspace once again.
For John Gregory, Chennaiyin FC's head coach who led his side to the Indian Super League championship last season in his very first year in Indian football, that quest to reach the top of the mountain once again lingers.
Having signed a contract extension after that ISL triumph to return as head coach, Gregory is back in India as defending champions Chennaiyin get set to embark on a pre-season tour of Malaysia ahead of the upcoming ISL season.
With the celebrations, recognition and plaudits from last season's title triumph now firmly in the rear-view mirror, Gregory is keen to embark on this year's challenge of achieving something never before done in the ISL's four-year history - a successful title defence.
Speaking with Sportskeeda before the club's pre-season takeoff, the Chennaiyin gaffer offered his thoughts on what transpired last year and the road ahead. For starters, he says that he's a little bit more at ease going into this second season.
'A lot of things shocked me'
Gregory feels he now knows the ins and outs of Indian football and the ISL a little bit better and he's able to accept things more readily.
"A lot of things were new for me last year - like not being allowed on the pitch till 50 minutes before kickoff which I'd never come across in any other country I've been in. And not being able to use your home pitch where you can't even train on it. A lot of these things actually shocked me, it was crazy."
He promises to burn up lesser energy fretting about trivial matters as a result.
"Consequently I learnt one major thing - don't get sent off and certainly don't get into trouble in that respect. It was a big learning curve for me last season", Gregory adds referring to his sending off in the away game against Jamshedpur FC after an exchange of words with the match officials.
A call from the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson
Gregory's triumph with Chennaiyin was definitely a major story back in the United Kingdom, the story receiving much coverage.
He was even feted at the season-ending League Managers' Association awards ceremony where he received a Special Achievement Award from former Everton and Manchester United manager David Moyes.
And a United great too took note of his achievement: "Well obviously it didn't escape anyone's attention. I actually got a call from Sir Alex Ferguson congratulating me. A lot of other managers, especially my former managers also got in touch. And through all of it, my team, Chennaiyin FC, got a lot of publicity."
Perhaps the most enduring image from Chennaiyin's post-title celebrations was that of Gregory posing with the ISL trophy dressed in traditional local attire. Gregory acknowledges that that particular photo did quite the rounds.
"The fact that we were champions and my special photo with the trophy in the state costume obviously garnered a lot of space on all the social websites. So in that respect, it's been an enjoyable experience for me, to have so much of all that media coverage."
While certainly very nice, Gregory says that all of is now firmly in the past and that it was time to roll up the sleeves and get back to work.
'We're a big target'
In its four seasons there is yet to be a team to have won back-to-back titles in the ISL, a record Gregory wants to correct, mentioning it as a big part in him wanting to come back
"I want us to be the first team to retain the trophy. It's a huge target because the reason it hasn't been done before is that the champions have always been under huge pressure from their rivals in the league. Teams seem to find a little extra against you when you're champions. In our case, now we've won it twice, so we're a big target."
Gregory is keen to avoid the fate endured by ATK and Chennaiyin themselves as defending champions in the last two seasons.
"It's my job to make sure that when we come back at the end of camp we're a 100% focused on what lies ahead of us. Not one of my players can guarantee a place in the team. Last season will become irrelevant once we get back to work. Champions come back and defend their titles."
Freshening things up
Of the seven foreign players in the team last season, Slovenian Rene Mihelic and Nigerian Jude Nworuh have left the club. Their captain and key central defender Henrique Sereno's future is still up in the air while defenders Mailson Alves and Inigo Calderon, midfielder Raphael Augusto and winger Gregory Nelson will all return.
They have signed Italian Andrea Orlandi from Serie B side Novara. Amongst the Indian contingent, promising winger Isaac Vanmalsawma has been signed from FC Pune City along with experienced defender Zohmingliana Ralte and energetic left-back Tondonba Singh.
Gregory outlined what the approach was for this season - "If you look at the squad, the ones that I wanted to keep we managed to keep them. The Sereno situation is still ongoing, it may or may not happen. But the ones I wanted to stay have remained and it was paramount in the discussions that me and Amoy Ghoshal (Chief Technical Officer) had at the end of last season. We wanted to keep these guys in particular, the ones that played a key role last year. And we managed to do that."
He also spoke about injecting some fresh blood as a means to keeping the incumbents on their toes.
"We've freshened it up a little this year; we didn't want to just retain everyone from last year. I know on the first day, the old players will want to show off in front of the new players to show them how good they are. The new ones coming in will want to show all these boys how good they are. So it just totally refreshes everything and I've done it with the coaching staff as well."
The fresh faces in the coaching staff are Paul Groves, first-team coach at Birmingham City last season, who replaces Mark Lillis as the assistant coach while Kevin Hitchcock replaces Tony Warner as goalkeeping coach, Gregory making another hat tip to the great Sir Alex Ferguson.
"Sir Alex, who I mentioned earlier, very often changed his coaching staff. I believe there were at least eight different assistants during his time at Manchester United. He did it for one reason or the other.
"And that's what we've tried to do without changing too much. Generally things won't change the way we do stuff, but players will find that Paul Groves will do training slightly differently. His methods are slightly different to what's gone on before. And in the goalkeeping department Kevin will do different things compared to before.I think it's always important that you try and keep players guessing, do something different every day."
'Just trust me, you'll love it!'
There have been some key changes in playing personnel as mentioned earlier and we ask Gregory what his pitch has been to all of the new signings.
"I think one of the things I've encouraged them to do if they have the opportunity, is to watch the footage and see the quality of football. Certainly with us in Chennai, the fanbase that we have. Look at the crowds that come into most of the other stadiums in the country. Look at the quality of the pitches, the quality of football, look at the quality of the organisation. Because for a country the size of India, I think the ISL does a really good job."
The fact that the games are televised live he said has been a major selling point to the foreign players: "The television coverage is fantastic, every game live on TV. And that is a huge pull for a lot of the boys. When I mention to them every game's live on TV, they're like 'How can that be?’ That gets them excited as well, the fact that it's live and on TV. So it's the whole thing."
"Ultimately I tell them, 'look I'm here and I'm telling you, mate, you'll love it'. That they will fall in love with it as I have."
'Real, genuine teammates'
The 2018/19 season will see Chennaiyin waft into uncharted waters. They will be defending champions for a second time, but also have two more teams to compete against than during season three. They are also going to be playing the AFC Cup.
Asked where the keys to the season lie, Gregory says matter-of-factly, "Last time we didn't have the best players, but we had the best team. We had the best group. We won matches last season because of that. They were real, genuine teammates. That's what got us through many, many games last season. And the domestic boys got a huge amount of respect from the foreign players which I think hasn't always been the case with some clubs. They were so compatible, there was so much synergy. And that won us a lot of football matches last year."
He explained how the club placed a lot of importance in every player being signed fitting a certain criteria that they'd set beside skill - "You have to be a team player. It's not just about skill, they have to come in here with the right attitude. It's not about them, it's about us; that's what they have to have in their makeup."
He cited the examples of Jaime Gavilan and Mihelic from last season who displayed exemplary professionalism despite not getting much game time last season.
Likewise the players they've added ahead of this season, Gregory claims, are "not just good footballers, but terrific lads as well."
Gregory believes a lot more of the same synergy will hold them in good stead this season.
"You have to prove you're a champion. You're there to be shot at and you have to overcome all of that, show that you have the mental ability and awareness to ensure that what's gone on in the past is irrelevant now. We just need to make sure that we are prepared for a season that's going to be even more difficult than last year."
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