Interview with John Abraham: North East United will always give fans attacking football
Sportskeeda spoke exclusively to actor and owner of Indian Super League franchise North East United FC, John Abraham and Ardeshir Jeejeebhoy, director at the club ahead of the 2016/17 ISL season. Abraham had a lot to say about the club, new transfers and his personal experiences as the owner of one of the most adored clubs in the league.
Why did you specifically rope in Sérgio Farias to be North East United’s new head coach?
Jeejeebhoy: We considered a number of profiles which came in for consideration. Most importantly, we wanted someone who has had a wealth of experience, which he has. He’s been around for 20 years. If you see how Sergio started his coaching career, he coached the Brazil U-17 and U-20, team which shows his willingness and experience to work with youngsters and get the best out of them.
For example, he’s worked with Ronaldinho. He’s won the AFC Champions League, the K-League and he’s come third in the FIFA World Club Championship. We’re very happy and lucky for Sergio to accept this role. With regard to North East United, it’s a challenge that he likes.
John, what kind of football can we expect from North East United this season?
Abraham: From North East United FC, you’re always going to give the fans attacking and attractive football. We’re never going to be on the back foot and park the bus; we’re very clear on that. Even if we’re a goal up, we’re going to be attacking. Because we owe it to our fans to show them how we play.
In our case, we’ve always been about short passes, possessing the ball and moving in front. We’re not going to change that style and we’ll always keep it that way. Because the fans have to be on the edge of their seats. They have to be entertained when they watch North East United.
If you look at last season, two of the most top watched games involved North East United. I am talking about plain TRPs. We’re a top level team and never going to be a mid-table team. The first season was a game of trial and error. In the second season we missed the playoffs. We’re a Moneyball team. I don’t say this out of vanity. I say this in all humility.
What do you think new singing Katsumi Yusa brings to your team?
Jeejeebhoy: If you see his football career graph, he’s been in India now for a good four to five years. He’s been in Mohun Bagan for three years. The fans love him. He’s been a consistent performer. He brings with him speed, assists and he has goals in his game.
Another key reason for getting Katsumi is he’s been in India so he understands the conditions, the grounds and the climate. Being a key international, he’s going to be a very important communication link between the international players and the Indian players as far as the expectations from each individual goes.
When can we expect more signings?
Abraham: Next couple of weeks. We’ve got our Indian contingent together. We’re very proud of the players we’ve got. The international players, we’re still in the process. What we’ve done very specifically is left the international players choices completely to our coach Sergio Farias. He recommends, we buy.
Your thoughts on the ISL and I-League merger?
Abraham: I am in favour of a longer league. There have been talks about two more teams being added to the ISL. I hope two more teams come in. It will make the league more competitive, longer and hopefully if there is some sort of understanding between both the leagues, the country will have one definitive league.
I think it will benefit not only players and clubs but it will benefit spectators. That’s very important. I keep telling my team, we’re not just a club. We’re a philanthropic platform for everything that happens in the north-east today. People look at us as a springboard. I say we’re more than a club. I know that’s a Barcelona tagline (laughs).
John, you’ve been an entrepreneur for a while now. What have you learnt about the business of football?
Abraham: We’ve learnt a lot. In the first season, we were optimistic about the ISL but we didn’t know where it was going and how we needed to structure things. It was a new baby for us. By the second season, we understood the structure.
Our systems were still not in place. It’s only this season, with Ardeshir coming in, we’ve got our systems in place. In terms of grass roots and even in the office. The way we function every day. It’s fantastic to see everybody understanding what their function is which we couldn’t define for two years.
We’ve learnt that just getting older players on the field doesn’t make sense for us. Because at least as a club, North East United FC is always going to be a young, energetic, attractive and attacking football club. We need fresh pairs of legs to run around.
John Abraham is an action star. The team has to be an action team out there. You cannot have it any other way. We’re a team for the fans and we’re made by them. We believe that we belong to the fans. It’s a very flat hierarchy with regard to how we function internally.
What’s the process like when you’re signing players? This year you’ve already signed a host of them.
Abraham: What happens is I come in and say North East has a certain philosophy and Ardeshir tells me to wake up and smell the coffee (laughs). We kind of try and meet my ideology with the expertise and experience that he brings to the table. I can think out of the box but someone has to give a physical mould to what I am thinking about and also give me a reality check.
I think that’s why we partner well. We understand each other. The best thing is he doesn’t blow sunshine up my backside and nor do I. We’re clear that it’s a business and we want to make this work.
We have to make the playoffs and how we can do it most effectively was discussed. It’s important that I take a backseat somewhere and let the football people run the business. I am not the know all and end all of everything.
Do you think your team’s defence was the reason you missed out on a semi-final spot last year?
Abraham: Let me be very honest with you. We would have never missed that final four spot. There was a game that we were supposed to forfeit against Delhi because the floodlights went off. As per the ISL rules, we would have got the three points. But we chose to play. It’s about sportsman spirit.
We said we want to go out and give our fans everything. Because it was in Delhi and in Delhi you have more North East United fans than Delhi fans. We’ve played for the crowds. Had we got those three points and walked away from that field, we would have been champions. Because we had beaten two of the teams that made it to the playoffs, home and away – Chennai and Kolkata.
In fact, one of the coaches from the top four said we were the best team last year. I believe our weakness has always been our forwards. Last season we had Velez and he was good. But there’s only one Velez. It was difficult for him. We need to look into that a little more seriously (striker’s department).
Lastly, any message for the fans?
Abraham: I just want to tell the fans that we’re the most aggressive [team] and we want to make the playoffs this season. Obviously, we want to win the cup for the north-east region. We want to assure the fans that we’re cutting no corners. We’re going all out to make sure that we get the best talent and we get the most aggressive team, the most competitive team.
I just want the fans to feel safe and assured that we’re always trying our best to give them the best. We will always be very responsible in representing the north east region in the rightest possible way. We’ll never misuse that and never take it for granted.