John Gregory will be remembered as the man who led Chennaiyin FC to a remarkable title run in the ISL in 2017/18. The Englishman took over as coach of the club ahead of the season and now stands with a winner's medal around his neck.
A day after one of the biggest nights in his managerial career, Gregory was back in Chennai talking to media in a specially arranged press conference.
“It was an amazing experience for us. I was not here in 2015. So, they've (the club) experienced it once already. This is my first time and it is more than what I ever anticipated,” said the Englishman.
“Since I sat with my players last October it has been an incredible journey. I've had a fantastic opportunity to coach and manage Chennaiyin FC,” Gregory said before going on to thank everyone involved. “I honestly haven't worked as hard as this ever because of the games, schedule and dealing with a different culture. With the help of the owners, Amoy (Ghoshal), staff and a wonderful medical team, it has culminated in an amazing journey.”
Gregory turned out for Villa, Brighton and Hove Albion, Queens Park Rangers and Derby County as a player and also has had managerial spells at all of those clubs. Yet, last night's victory was his very first trophy win in his long football career.
Gregory was understandably overcome by the moment and remarked: “It's quite incredible. It has not sunk in yet. If I sit down and watch the recording of the game, probably it will all make sense. When you see the reaction and the happiness the victory has brought to our fans, the game is like that. Last season was not good but they (the fans) have stuck with us. They were waiting for us when we got back at the airport.”
He revealed that messages had been coming in from all corners since the team's triumph including Bengaluru’s Roca: “I'll enjoy it (the win) and I have received a huge amount of messages from the other coaches. Albert Roca was wonderful with the words we shared at the final whistle. He is a real gentleman. That is really refreshing. It has been a remarkable weekend. We've got a party to come again.”
He also spoke about his journey, considering India was a country that he'd never been to before and touched upon the adjustment that it needed from him, which made the win all the more special.
“It is enormously satisfying. I've never been to India before and trying to acclimatize ourselves to the way people live, the way people drive, the way people treat you with respect. From a professional point of view, there's a lot of red tapes that we have to adhere to here,” said Gregory.
“In Europe, you can do warm-ups any time you want to. It is not so here. They give you a time much before. For me, it was a bit unusual. Obviously, some of that is frustrating, but you have to get used to it. The travelling is also different and a bit long. We were away from the hotel for 10 days... so many nuances I had to get used to. I had good people in the club though and they helped me. Without them, it would have been huge trouble.”
He added: “We have an amazing family atmosphere. We look after each other.”
Quizzed on whether he felt there was a certain turning point in the season, Gregory opted to go back to that infamous first game.
“It was at half-time in the FC Goa game, Vita was arranging my air ticket to go back,” he said laughing. “But we came back and then we beat NorthEast 3-0 and suddenly things started to pick up. Once we got into the top four, that's a playoff position and we started to believe that the season could be a good one.”
He said that it was a lot of small things that were built up as the season progressed that ultimately helped them in the big moments.
“Things just slowly started to progress and we managed to stay in the top four. But the pressure came on and staying in the top-four was the hardest part, then everyone guns for you. We had a hiccup against NorthEast with a really poor performance. We kept going and the night that Delhi beat Mumbai, that was it. Somebody was smiling on us. I didn't watch that game. It guaranteed us a playoff place which was our first goal.”
Pressure, he said, was ever present through the season and it was always going to come down to how they managed it: “Having to play a final in Bengaluru on their home patch was pressure. It has been there all season. We've had to maintain our position in the league. FC Goa were the best footballing team in the league. To beat them 3-0 was a huge match for us. That's how football is. You don't get carried away. I got a little bit excited when Jeje scored a winner and the third goal against Goa. It's a long hard season and a lot of planning and effort has gone into it.”
Chennaiyin’s success has also involved the use of a lot of Indian players, both young as well as experienced, in key positions. The English coach explained how he went about using the players: “I try to use Indian players to their strengths and not their weakness. We have one or two Indian players who do not pass the ball as well as the foreign players. But their energy and enthusiasm is an asset. I have to say that the standards since we've come in have improved in all our Indian players over the season to varying levels.”
One of those Indian players who's had a huge impact is defensive midfielder, Dhanpal Ganesh. The local lad from Chennai has had a fantastic season which has seen him earn a recall to the national side from India coach Stephen Constantine.
“Ganesh has had a season that he probably would never have dreamt of. He was a wonderful surprise for me. I didn't see him playing in the role he did when I came here. He is our dog in central midfield, who fights with everyone and tackles. He's got a really good engine in him and he can run up and down for 90 minutes. None of our other players could have scored the goal he did against FC Goa,” he said about the midfielder's campaign.
He also wished to highlight the role of assistant coach Sabir Pasha, former India international and Tamil Nadu player, in the team's success. “Sabir Pasha is very much involved in our coaching staff. He is very important for me. Amoy is my man off the field, but Sabir is my man on the field.”Published 19 Mar 2018, 00:52 IST