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Interview with Mark Seagraves, Founder, The Football Faktory - "ISL helped popularise and create understanding of football in India"

Interview with Mark Seagraves, Founder and Technical Director of The Football Faktory.

Mark Seagraves and his venture, The Football Faktory

Mark Seagraves is a former English professional footballer, who graduated from the Liverpool academy, and then played for Norwich, Manchester City and Bolton in his career. Following his retirement, he worked as a coach at Wigan Athletic and Derby County before moving onto the role of a scout at Ipswich Town. He then worked with Arsenal Soccer Schools, before starting his own initiative, The Football Faktory. 

We spoke to Mark about his firm The Football Faktory, what they intend to accomplish, and what his thoughts are on the ISL and it’s development, and Bengaluru FC’s immediate rise to the top in the I-League. Here are extracts from the conversation:

Tell us more about the Football Faktory. What is your aim with the initiative?

The main objective of the Football Faktory is to try and generate a top-class footballer who can come through and represent the country and go on to the play in Europe. India is ranked 171 in the world, one of the biggest populations and democracies, and one of the wealthiest economies, and yet there is a lack of top footballers.

The fundamental reason is there are no coaches here, most of them are foreign. We need to take time and nurture the Indian coaches, so that you don't need to pay extortionary amounts of money and get people like me in. The emphasis on looking for the quick fix needs to stop, patience needs to be shown, both with the coaches, and with the grassroots program. 

What needs to be done is to look at the grassroots development as an investment, and give it that time it needs to grow, and not look at instant returns. Football needs investment and time, and if that's given here in India, the game will develop, just like it has done in United States, Australia, Japan and China. 

So, in essence, our aim at the Football Faktory is to help the kids develop into better children and also become better footballers. 

Consider the fact that the ISL helped get superstars here, they got the crowds in and they got sponsors interested. What do you think was the biggest contribution of the ISL?

The prime thing it did was it gave rise to popularity, and people are watching and understanding the game a bit more. However, what I am still concerned about is how the financial side of it will work. What I think needs to be done going forward is that they need to look at the very successful leagues, like the EPL, and look to copy their model, to ensure that the development continues. 

They need to be focused on the grassroots development programme, and see that what works for the successful leagues like EPL is there are good coaches, and the infrastructure is good. So that is essential here in India.

The ISL brought the big names, and that was important to create a product, and that had the desired impact that made people start following it. At the end of the day, it is all about money, and when you look at the Premier League's recent television deal, you know the money will come if you ensure your focus is right, and I hope the ISL does that. 

How do you think sports in general, and football in particular can get the importance it should? What do you think is necessary for the change in mentality?

Talking specifically with regard to football, the governing bodies in India need to realise that the rank is 171, and even though that isn't anything good, the only way forward is taking a closer look at things. The approach needs to have a lot of humility, that comes with the recognition of the fact that we need to change a lot to improve. 

For example, the emphasis here is on the AFC coaching licenses, when it is a well known fact that the UEFA coaching licenses are better, even if we just judge them on the basis of the countries and their ranks. Similarly, most foreign coaches who work in India are all UEFA-licenses, so that fact needs to be accepted. 

I would primarily focus on education of coaches and improving and getting a lot more Indian coaches in to the business of coaching, so that the kids do not have to compromise. Just as an example, I went to a PE lesson at a school here in Delhi sometime back, and there was one teacher, handling 70 kids, who were all in their uniform and school shoes, while he himself was not in proper sporting attire.

Now all these schools have the latest infrastructure in terms of classroom facilities, and technology, so why not the same with sports?  How do we expect the children to learn something if they aren't given the best of environments?

We can't all be engineers and doctors, and if one's a good sportsman, then they should be given a chance at doing that. I don't know how much time it would take, but yes, it needs to happen.

So, before we think of any future World Cup appearance for India, like say making it to the Qatar 2022 World Cup, we need to think about all this, and realistically consider if that could ever happen. It would be like me saying England actually had a chance to win the ongoing Cricket World Cup, when the reality is nothing close to it. 

Talking about the U-17 World Cup in 2017, do you think India will be able to do something of note, both in terms of performance and impact?

The kids in India have a lot of enthusiasm, but where I think they are lacking is in their technical ability, because the infrastructure is not there, and there is very less coaching. I would look at three things, all that are essential to doing well at football in general. We need to improve the fitness levels, put every kid on a proper diet, teach them the right eating habits, and then focus on building the footballing culture. 

We need to look at past history, and understand that stars like Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri were not the norm, but the exception. Them going abroad and giving it a go playing in major professional leagues in England and Portugal is something that can be used as good motivation, but we need to look to develop world-class talent who can in the future, say 15 years down the line, go abroad and emulate their achievements. We need the infrastructure here to ensure that the best footballers can be developed. 

So coming back to the U-17 World Cup, I have conflicting thoughts on what would happen – on the one hand I hope India have a good tournament so that the following and popularity of the game improves, while I also hope that watching the tournament, the AIFF and other stakeholders in India understand that this is a long-term process, and so put their money completely in to the grassroots process to develop these kids. 

What do you think is necessary to develop the grassroots football situation in India?

A footballer will not become one if he starts getting coaching at the age of 12 or 14. You need to start when the kids are 5, 6 and 7. They need to be told what to eat and how to eat and when to eat so their diet is designed well. As a parent, you need to understand the difficulty of such things if you are used to having a late dinner. One needs to understand that it’s best to eat early so that food digests better, and one doesn’t develop a belly.

What is important is to acknowledge the problem, and make a concerted effort to try and change. So, football is like a blank canvas in that regard. There is a lot that can be done, if only the thought is allowed to grow.

The Indian Super League has indicated that they want to develop, both as a brand, and focus on grassroots football, and I hope that they succeed, I hope that they are able to develop players who go on to play for India, and in the I-League and also go abroad. Romeo Fernandes has just gone to Brazil, he is a good talent to come from the ISL, and Sandesh Jhingan was very good during the ISL, he has what it takes to become a good player. 

Fundamentally, apart from everything else I mentioned, it comes down to providing good coaching, and we, as a soccer school, provide that quality, 100% quality every single day. We are doing well, in terms of kids coming to our centres and developing, but we need to get them in when they are much young, around the age of 5.

Also, it is important to understand that grassroots football development takes time, a lot of time. e.g. When Spain started producing a great bunch of youngsters in 2010, it was confirmed that Spanish kids used to play aroun 10000 hours before making it to the senior team, a lot more than the English youngsters. So, it is essential that we acknowledge the good in different processes, and use it to our advantage to improve the mentality towards football.

How do you think the outlook towards sport in India can change?

The first thing is we need to get a lot more former sportspersons onto the different committies, so that the approach towards the game is always from the sport point-of-view. Their presence will add weightage to the value of the game, and help provide some visibility.

I’ll give you an example, I met Prachi Tehlan, who is 25, and the former captain of the Indian Netball team. She retired sometime back, and wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Modi, asking him to improve the state of the sport in the country. She is the sort of person who is needed on these federations, to give an actual perspective of what is needed. 

The other aspect that needs to change is expecting immediate return on investment. Grassroots development will work only when we provide proper coaching, regular practice, and the patience to wait for a long period of time before wanting to see any development on your investement. 

The most important change should be that the belief should be communicated to everyone involved that these can be potential career options. It needs to be told that working in football can be a proper career choice. Not everyone has to become a doctor or and engineer. What is important to encourage students playing sport while they study. It should not be that they stop playing just because they have some exams. At the age of 12, that shouldn’t even matter!

As one of the world’s wealthiest countries, India has strength in numbers. If they win the Cricket World Cup, the feel-good factor will be overwhelming. How good could that be for sport in the country? It could lead to a great positive wave for sports in general, and will definitely increase the focus on different other sports. 

England spend millions on sport, but we still don’t win the World Cup, or a lot of medals in the Olympics. I definitely feel India can do much better than England, but it needs to invest that time and money to get to that level to do well. 

These things are changing, but probably will start to reflect in the next generation and the generation after that, so it requires a lot of dedicated effort and patience. 

Seagraves in a coaching session with the kids at the Football Faktory

The Football Faktory has two set-ups – one in Delhi and one in Goa. What was the thought process behind the same?

I had been here previously with Arsenal Soccer Schools, and Delhi was where they set-up. So I knew there was a lot of interest here. The only thing that parents expect in return for their money is that their kids get quality coaching, and we assure them of that, and strive to improve it every single day.

I do realise that the hotbeds are elsewhere, but we have seen that there is an opportunity for the business to grow here, and we now have 3 centres here. We also don’t want to dilute the quality by opening multiple centres where we can’t handle the expectations. 

We are working to change the mentality, and are slowly succeeding. When I first came here, it was all cricket in the parks. Slowly, it became half and half with football, and now it’s all football. So, it is a growing phenomenon. 

You used to work as part of a coaching staff and also as a scout. What did your roles entail?

One basic difference between the two was that as a scout, I didn’t really do any coaching! As a scout, I used to watch matches, prepare detailed match reports, look at specific players, analyse their strengths and weaknesses, how the teams set-up at free-kicks and corners, how they look to utilise them etc. and present them to the manager.

For instance, say I was working with Bengaluru FC, and we were playing Dempo, I would send reports a week before the match, talking about how Dempo play, who are their key players, etc.  

As a coach, you are much closer to the action, and it, so there is a lot more talking to the players and discussions involved to design strategy. 

What do you think has been crucial to Bengaluru FC’s approach and their success in the I-League?

I know Ashley Westwood quite well, and the one thing he said to me when he came here was that he needed to get the guys fit. So he went to the owner, and the owner backed him, getting him the equipment, the fitness guys, all that he wanted, and he delivered with the League title. 

The owner has invested a lot of money, in both the infrastructure and the training ground, and that explains their success. Now other teams are starting to copy them. It is never bad to copy a good thing and make it work. Fitness levels need to improve in the I-League, and Bengaluru FC have done that.  

Nutrition and fitness are essential to performance on the field, and that shows in the way Bengaluru have gone about their task. They might have lost a couple of matches at the beginning, but now they are winning, and will continue to win if they continue working the same way. 

They have had investment, a young coach, well-paid players and staff, basically all things that add professionalism, and the results will definitely come. 

You started your career at Liverpool, but then moved on in search of better opportunities. How difficult is to come through and star for your home town club?

Coming through the youth academy, and playing for your home town club is something that everyone dreams of. However, it is not very easy to do that at top clubs, as they also need to win trophies.

If you are good enough, you survive, either at your own club or at some different club. If however you aren’t, then you fall by the wayside, which is how it is at the end of the day. It is the rule of the jungle, the strong survive and the weak don’t. 

Looking back at your career, you played for Liverpool, went to Norwich, then to Manchester City, and then to Bolton Wanderers. All your former clubs are now facing different scenarios, what’s your say on the same?

Interesting you say this, if Liverpool had an oil baron for their owner, I don’t think they would be using a lot of their academy players. They would have been able to go out and buy the top players. The team haven’t won a major title for some time now.

City, on the other hand are quite dfiferent. There was a time when they were struggling to get into the Premier League, and now they have this owner for whom money doesn’t matter. Pellegrini, despite having won a title last season, could potentially be gone, and just because they didn’t win anything. 

And then we come to Bolton, who spent a lot on wages to attract players in the Premier League, which itself was a massive burden. Then they were relegated, and are now heavily in debt. 

Basically, all of this is the thrill of playing in the Premier League, the necessity to try and sustain themselves in the top league, all driven by TV money. 

Stephen Constantine is back in-charge of the Indian national team. Your thoughts on the same?

Well, my basic thought here is that he needs to be allowed to do what he believes in. The Dutch guys before, Koevermans and his crew had some plans, but for whatever reason couldn’t implement their plans effectively.

Similarly, Bob Houghton, who I am a good friend of, was not given the time necessary to implement wholesale changes needed for his beliefs to bear fruit. 

I don’t know if Constantine will be able to make a huge amount of difference, but he did go to Rwanda and do well there, which means that if allowed to work on his own, he might be able to improve the team. He needs to be given the time and the facilities he asks for to make sure his plans can be implemented well. I hope he does well!

The understanding that India are currently ranked 171st must be taken into account, and all steps taken to ensure that the only way forward is up. 

Thanks a lot for your time Mark, cheers.

Thank you, it was great talking to you!

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