ISL 2017: "We are an emotional team, we like to keep the pack together", says Chennaiyin FC co-owner Abhishek Bachchan
We are into season four of the Indian Super League and in it's three previous editions, two sides have emerged victorious. Chennaiyin FC were one of those sides when they took home the prize in season two after edging FC Goa in a thrilling final.
This time around there is a new face in the dugout with Englishman John Gregory taking over from Italian Marco Materazzi who led the side for the first three seasons. In the stands though, the sight of Abhishek Bachchan cheering on his team has been a constant and continues to be so even now.
Sportskeeda caught up with Chennaiyin's co-owner last week ahead of their game with the Kerala Blasters to talk about new beginnings, loyalty, fandom and more in the ever-evolving landscape of the ISL and Indian football.
It has been a good start to the season for Chennaiyin. Your initial observations?
I think it's been a solid start. I think the team has been tested in every match and they've shown great character which I think is very important. They've shown the fighting spirit and the character to pull themselves out of a rut. So the team's looking good, I'm happy with the way they're performing.
Chennaiyin retained five players ahead of the draft, second only to Bengaluru FC who retained six. You also went and got back a lot of familiar faces like Thoi Singh and Mailson Alves. What factored into these decisions?
Jeje and Dhana (Dhanachandra Singh) have been with us from season one. Dhana had an injury last season, but is still very much part of the family. Jerry and Thapa (Anirudh Thapa) are two of our young players that we signed last season - we sent them away to train and they came back and got their debuts with the team.
Rafa (Raphael Augusto) has been with us since season two, Mailson was also with us in season two. Ganesh (Dhanpal Ganesh) has been with us since season two, but unfortunately he had a knee injury because of which he couldn't play much. These are all people who've grown close as a family.
We are a very emotional team, we like to keep the pack together. So what happens is that there's chemistry that develops between players.
We got Thoi back - you know Thoi has meant so much to us. So it's about keeping the group together because you know that does reflect on their style of play and also augmenting it with some fresh blood as well. It's something that we've always intended to do.
This season we have two new teams in the league. We have also seen a resurgence from teams such as Goa. What do you make of the competition?
It's a competitive league and it's still early days. We're just about a month into the league and in season two we were a team that was bottom of the table and ended up winning the league. So, anything can happen. Any of these 10 teams string together 2-3 victories and they'd be top of the league.
So it's a competitive league and I don't think the league standings truly reflect the talent. Some of the teams which might not be in the top four are quality teams that can turn it around and win this. This league has got great quality in it's teams and any of them are capable of breaking into the top four.
When we met last year, we had the youngsters such as Thapa and Bodo with us and you were asking them if they would make the step up next season. Well, they have now. It must be very satisfying.
It is. To see Thapa, Jerry and Bodo (Baoringdao Bodo) - the three youngest players to debut in ISL - is a source of great pride for Chennaiyin. It speaks volumes about our intentions at the club that if you're capable, your age is not going to be an issue. We are very happy to give our youth a chance to break into the senior squad.
It looks like the fans have also kicked it up a gear, finding new and innovative ways to suppor the team. What do you make of that?
Oh they're brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! All the Chennaiyin FC fans - the Super Machans, the B Stand Blues and all the rest of the fans they're just brilliant. You know the love, support and loyalty they give the boys and the squad is immense. We never get an opportunity to thank them. And it makes a difference man!
I was in Bangalore and to see the support we had over there is fantastic. It means the world to the boys. It really does help them and they do become the 12th man.
In terms of fan engagement and facilities at the 'Marina Arena', is there anything we can expect to see new?
We have an away stand which you will see tomorrow (vs Kerala Blasters); we've started that. It's something that's far more complicated than people understand. It has to be routed through a single source. We still work in a system where fans get to buy their tickets on their own. But we are going to definitely have an away stand tomorrow. Let's see how that goes.
(The travelling Blasters fans in Friday's game were indeed all seated together in a separate stand designated for them)
We've also seen the other rather unsavoury side of fandom with two incidents involving Chennaiyin FC fans. How do you think such incidents can be better tackled going forward as the game continues to grow?
The NorthEast game was a very sad thing to me because that's not what our fans are about. Two rotten apples kind of tarnished our image; Chennaiyin has some of the classiest fans in the ISL. They are fans that are known never to boo anybody or anyone. Yes, they indulge in a lot of banter and are very competitive, as they should be.
The good thing about them is that when the match is over, they're all friends again. That's the culture we'd like to build at Chennaiyin FC. I interact with a lot of fan groups and keep telling them that we're known not to boo, so let's maintain that. Let's maintain the spirit, let's welcome the traveling fans.
Sadly that incident happened in the NorthEast game which saddened me a lot. The reaction to that, of course, we'd like to thank the Chennai police who we worked very closely with and those two boys were arrested. We are working towards opening up an away fans stand. Let's see how that goes and how we can manage that logistically. We've beefed up our security to make sure things like this don't happen.
And as regards what unfortunately happened to our fans in the Bengaluru game, we issued a joint statement between Chennaiyin FC and Bengaluru FC. Fan experience is something we take very seriously and we will do everything we can in our power to make sure that fans have as good an experience of a match.
Some of the new players who've joined the team said that the professionalism of the staff was one of the reasons they decided to sign on. That sort of endorsement must surely go a long way?
Very happy to hear that and I'm very proud of that. The credit has to go to the manager and backroom staff. We have a great team, a very hardworking team and they're very passionate about what they do.
It's still early doors and we know that you like to take it a match at a time, but what is that you are looking forward to and excited about as far as this season is concerned?
I'm excited about the longer league. I'm excited about the squad that we have and I'm excited about John helming that squad. I'm looking forward to at the end of the season having a squad that can still smile no matter the eventual result.