Former Aston Villa and Derby County boss John Gregory led Chennaiyin to the Indian Super League title in his first season in charge. He explains his relaxed route to success abroad…
When the owners of Chennaiyin unveiled the crest of their new club in 2014, it was a good omen. Used across Tamil Nadu to banish negativity, the yellow of the Duradrishti symbol represents hope and fun while the blue is synonymous with trust, honesty and loyalty. Since becoming manager in July 2017, John Gregory has helped to ensure these qualities run through the veins of every member of his squad, culminating in them being crowned Indian Super League champions. It was a feat that earned him a Special Achievement Award from the LMA at the end of the season.
Asked what lifting the huge Indian Super League (ISL) cup meant to Gregory, words literally fail him, but the video footage speaks volumes. This is a proud man and one who can’t wait to get back to the helm, after some well-deserved downtime that is.
“It’s been pretty intense,” he admits, “because although it’s only a 10-team league it’s a short season, from November until March, so the games come round really quickly. As soon as one game’s over I’m reviewing the video footage with the analytics team, while trying to prepare for the next one. Then there are the pre-match press conferences required by the ISL and all of the travel…”
Compared to England, India is a big place, so every game requires a flight and presents its own challenges, not least in ensuring everyone has enough time to settle in and prepare. “It can be a logistical nightmare,” says Gregory, “but fortunately we have a great backroom team to ensure everything runs smoothly, and we just face each challenge as it comes.”
UNDER ONE ROOF
While he took head of medicine Niall Clark, goalkeeping coach Tony Warner and assistant coach Mark Lillis with him to Chennaiyin, the rest of his staff are Indian nationals, including an assistant coach, as required by the ISL. Eight of the Chennaiyin squad, meanwhile, are foreigners, the maximum allowed, while the rest are Indian. “Everyone speaks very good English and we and all the players got on like a house on fire from the start,” says Gregory.
It’s a good job too, given that he and his entire squad and support staff have lived at the same address, the Hyatt Regency, for the whole season. According to Gregory, there was no segregation and a refreshing absence of cliques. “I’ve never known a group of people to get on so well,” he says, “and it meant a lot to the Indian players that the foreign players spent so much time with them.”
Living alongside your teammates 24/7 is not a prospect many would find particularly appealing, but Gregory is characteristically laid back and positive about the whole experience. “It worked really well for us and we had everything we needed to be successful; our nutritionist worked closely with the head chef to ensure we had the right things to eat and sufficient hydration, and we were able to use the presidential suite as a place to unwind, play table tennis and so on,” he says.
“We were clear from the start that we wanted everyone to feel at home, because there are enough rules and regulations on the pitch. We’ve all been away with groups, where you all have to come down for breakfast at a certain time, perhaps wear a certain shirt, and so on… Well, we threw all of that out of the window. So long as the players always remembered that they were representing the club, they were free to go to the cinema or the mall, and they’d do that regularly.”
TRUST AND RESPONSIBILITY
Training for the team took place around 4.30pm each day because of the heat, after which everyone was free to do as they please. “Often I wouldn’t see them until the next day on the bus, but I had total faith in their attitude and behaviour,” says Gregory. What’s more, he notes, none of the players drank, including the non-Indians.
“We had a 10-day gap between matches on one occasion and one of the non-Indian players asked me if I’d mind if he and a small group went off to Sri Lanka for four days,” he recalls. “I said yes, so long as they remembered who they were representing and were back by 10pm on the Monday night. They were all back by 6pm, which is very typical, all in good shape and gushing about what an amazing trip it had been. When I said, ‘I hope you stayed off the alcohol’, one of them looked very sheepish and admitted that they’d had a bottle of wine. I asked, ‘A bottle each?’ and he looked at me incredulously and said, ‘No, between us’. That sums them up really; I didn’t have to check up on them or worry about their behaviour.”
Asked what he puts the side’s recent ISL win down to, he is characteristically modest, crediting the quality of the people in his squad, not just as players but as individuals. “I like to think we taught them good habits both on and off the pitch, and I was incredibly proud of the way they conducted themselves and supported one another.”
He believes the dynamic of the team was helped no end by the fact there were no big egos, and no marquee players, as were required in ISL teams up until last year. “We carried no passengers in our squad; everyone gave their all. Credit also goes to our support staff,” he adds. “For example, thanks to Niall’s experience, there were next to no injuries throughout the entire season. We also showed the side how to win a match, because there are some areas, such as game management where the Indian players have less experience, and where the foreign players have really been able to help their Indian team mates improve.”
RAISING THE STANDARD
The ISL was formed in 2013 with the aim of growing and developing the football industry in India, and it has certainly succeeded, the quality of football having improved year on year. When Gregory came to Chennaiyin a year ago he joined a wave of English managers, including Steve Coppell, Teddy Sheringham, David Platt and David James, to fly the flag in India in recent years. But he suspects finding opportunities to work in the ISL will become increasingly difficult as the standard improves.
To that end, the LMA is working with the Association of Indian Football Coaches and the All Indian Football Federation to develop more opportunities for LMA members to find work placements in the country, while also sharing expertise and best practice with local coaches.
“We recently hosted LMA member Chris Kiwomya for a week, and he took some sessions and watched a home game,” says Gregory. “It was great for him to see what it’s like to coach out there, and also a great learning experience for my Indian assistant coach. These kinds of exchanges can only be a good thing, because you can learn so much just from watching other people on the training field, taking that knowledge away and trying it your own way.”