Owen Coyle has managed some of the oldest clubs in the world in Bolton Wanderers, Burnley and Blackburn Rovers and some of the newest. There was an MLS stint with Houston Dynamo and a first season in the Indian Super League with Chennaiyin that ended with defeat in the final of the championship play-offs in March. After shaking off coronavirus last month, the Scot, still in India, hopes to go one better with Jamshedpur in the 2020-21 campaign that kicks off on Friday and win the three-year-old club a first national title.
It won’t be easy in a tournament that started as a glamorous sideshow in 2014 but has become the main event in Indian football. Six years ago, eight franchises owned by a mixture of Bollywood actors, cricket legends, big businesses and European clubs imported ageing stars such as Robert Pires, Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet amid plenty of fanfare. It has calmed down since and in 2019 replaced the I-League, not without considerable controversy, to become India’s top tier. What used to be a 10-week season will last more than four months and offers a pathway into Asian tournaments. It is a league that looks to be going places.
Well, not so much this year, but then if you do have to be stuck in a football bubble that will host all 11 teams there are worse places to be than Goa. Coyle, who joined Jamshedpur – whose first head coach was Steve Coppell – after his year’s contract with Chennaiyin ended, is not able to enjoy the beaches and restaurants the west-coast state is famous for. “We get out of our room for a meal then go back to our rooms, then go out to training then back to the room,” Coyle says. “If you are a tourist in this lovely hotel you will have a great time but for us this is a huge challenge.”
The one-cap Republic of Ireland international expects that much of it will be psychological with players and staff being holed together for four months. More than any other season, mentality and team spirit will be decisive, especially as Jamshedpur will miss playing in front of their loyal fans; their average attendance of more than 20,000 was the highest last season. Although the travel in normal seasons can be tough, it does provide a chance to see a beautiful country and experience football hotspots such as Kerala and Kolkata and would offer a fuller picture of how City Football Group, majority owners of Mumbai City, get on in a first full season in charge.
Staying put should, however, give a little more time to get some much-needed training. “We had to try and squeeze what would normally be a six-week pre-season training period into four weeks, with players coming out of quarantine at different times. A lot of them haven’t played for seven months and we are wary of doing too much too soon.” Fans should expect some initial rustiness. “The more the league goes, the better the games will become.”
It didn’t help that Coyle tested positive soon after arriving back in India in October. “We were tested two days before we came and it was negative. We arrived in Goa and I was negative again the next morning and then positive two days later. I was lucky that I didn’t have one symptom, especially when you see what has happened around the world and back home.”
Now there are two fellow Brits to discuss home with. The well-travelled Stuart Baxter is in charge of Odisha and last month Robbie Fowler took over at East Bengal. The historic Kolkata club, whose derbies with Mohun Bagan can attract more than 100,000 fans, have joined their old rivals in the ISL. It is a big challenge for the former Liverpool striker, whose coaching experience consists of shortish spells in Thailand and Australia.
“Robbie is at a legacy club like Rangers and Celtic and he will see how big it all is,” says Coyle. “I spoke to him the other night. He has signed some good players. He has a good head on his shoulders but I said to him that there are lots of cultural differences.”
Coyle’s first taste of that was as Blackburn manager under the Pune-based Venky’s, owners since 2010. He left before the end of the 2016-17 season with the club in the Championship relegation zone. “It was a different experience,” he says with a smile about working with the poultry conglomerate. “I could be here all day and there was £15m of players sold but I’ve never got a bad word to say about anyone. Whatever happened, happened.”
Relegation happened but Rovers quickly bounced back to the second tier. The news is less good at Bolton. Coyle had happier times with the club in the Premier League after controversially leaving Burnley in 2010, months after leading them to promotion to the top tier. A decade on and Bolton are in the bottom half of League Two. “With the fanbase they have, they will recover,” Coyle says. “The nature of football is cyclical and all clubs go through tough times.They have taken a step back but they will move forward again.”
Coyle will move back but not yet. “I could have taken opportunities back home and one day perhaps I will but I love it here.”