The Pune Marathas were the champions in the inaugural season of the Elite Football League of India (EFLI). They had a fine run in the tournament and clinched the title beating the Delhi Defenders in the final. Coach Sandeep Singh was part of that winning bandwagon, but as a player then. Come season two, he will be leading the Marathas into the league as their Head Coach. I caught up with him to talk about his expectations and the team going into the second season.
Coach Sandeep, how did your association with EFLI begin?
I was actually playing rugby for my club, Rugby Football Club (RFC, Pune), when I was approached by Tausif Sheikh and Prateek Khanna from EFLI. I had a contract then with RFC which ran till 2011, so I offered to join after the expiry of the contract and they agreed.
You will be taking over from Coach Gopi this season at the Pune Marathas. How do you reckon that’s going to be?
Actually, I have been a part of this team from the beginning, so the team and the players are not new to me. Just that I used to be a player all this while. Even earlier, there was a discussion about having both Gopi and me as coaches, but we agreed that there should be only one head coach in order to not cause any confusion and so I joined as a player cum coach. Now that Gopi has moved on to coach the Chennai team, I agreed to take over.
So you too like coach Praveen of Hyderabad have a rugby and Army background. Tell us a little about that.
Yes, I am from the Army too. In fact, Praveen, Gopi, Thimmaiah and myself all used to play together earlier; so we all know each other really well.
I’ve been playing rugby since 2004, so almost 10 years now. Before that I used to be a discus thrower. I’ve represented India in various events such as the Tri-Nations. And yes, I very much enjoyed my rugby career.
Coming to team selection, how was the selection done and where all did you recruit players from?
In my case actually, the list of probables had already been identified as the orientation program had finished. So close to 70-80 players had already been shortlisted.
As far as mixture goes, players from all over Maharashtra were chosen and from very varied backgrounds such as kho-kho, rugby, football and athletics.
Was it easy for you to adjust to American football with your rugby background or did you have any difficulties?
Obviously, it took some adjustment in the beginning. The US coaches who had come down had instructed us and done a good job to help us understand the game.
My personal philosophy with anything new is to always try it out myself so that I get a feel of it. So first and foremost, I decided to play the game first. That helped me understand what the players would have to go through, what difficulties they may face and hence what inputs they would require.
What sort of drills do you put the players through?
The entire team is basically divided into two groups – on one side you have the forward group consisting of the linemen and the defenders and on the other you have the receivers and backs.
The forward group is put through more strengthening exercises and they do a lot of pushing and tackling.
The other group, speed is the key element, as their job is to try to evade the defence and score touchdowns. They also do the tackling drills, but to a lesser extent.
What challenges have you faced so far in keeping players drawn to American football and how is the popularity of the game spreading?
There are always challenges when it comes to a new game or sport. There is competition not only from other sports but also other jobs. As I mentioned, most of these players have varied backgrounds and they always have opportunities in other sports. In some cases there are government jobs that draw their interest.
Coming to popularity, the league is still young and just a year old. But so far, whatever has happened, the game has created a buzz and there has been some good reach. This season with the matches being played in India, there will be a huge boost.
What are the other major challenges that you face?
Getting a field to play on for regular practice and for the players to feel comfortable, that’s one issue. In India, associations are reluctant to let out grounds for sports other than cricket.
The other thing is the equipment, which thankfully so far has not been an issue as EFLI has been taking care of player requirements on that front.
Talking about the team, where do you think lies the reason for Pune becoming champions in the first season?
I think we had a very balanced team with equally good offense and defense. We were combined with Chennai in the first season, on defense it was 70% Pune and 30% Chennai while on offense it was 70-30 to Chennai. So we had a good mix that helped us win the title.
When will you be conducting camps for the upcoming season?
We are going to be having an open trial very soon to scout for new players.
How is safety of the players addressed?
Even before a player can step foot onto the ground for training, it is the coach’s responsibility to have the paperwork done so that the player is fully insured. So the player’s insurance takes care of him in the event of any injuries.
Apart from that, EFLI provides equipment and shoes from Nike. I have to say that I have been really impressed with the kind of support from EFLI on this front. I don’t think any other new league coming into India has done this in any other sport.
Going into season 2, what are the things you are looking at?
I am looking to manage expectations and keep the players focused on the goal and not let them get complacent after winning season one.
The defense is nice and solid, I have no worries there, but the offense needs some work. So we are concentrating on that.
With regards to youngsters taking up sport in the country, especially unconventional ones, what advice would you give them?
If they’re passionate about the game, there is no limit to what you can achieve. There may not be a great sports scene in India, but it is changing and people are beginning to take notice.
Also, the media has the power to influence things to a huge degree. Eventually I think, media houses will start giving exposure to other sports as well.