Robbie Fowler is out to prove himself as a coach. Having managed in Thailand and Australia, he is now leading India’s East Bengal into their first season in the Indian Super League.
From a coaching point of view, it’s never ideal when your players move their blankets onto the floor to sleep, or when they find it hard to stomach the carb-rich food you’ve served up, especially when you’re trying to implement changes quickly.
Having spent nearly 20 years playing professional football, around half of that at Liverpool and six years as part of the England squad, Robbie Fowler knows a thing or two about how to get a team match ready. But when he transitioned from player to player-manager at Thai side Muangthong United, he found the matchday preparations he’d seen so often in the English leagues didn’t necessarily translate.
“I tried to implement some of what we would consider in the West to be standard in professional football, such as the team sleeping in a hotel the night before a game, eating the right diet, and all the other things we know to support optimum performance. But as the culture was so different, we had to meet the players half way,” he says.
“To have people counter what you’ve always thought to be the best way of doing things is difficult to get your head around, but I understood that these things were new to some of the players and totally different to what they’d been brought up with. It was really important that we acknowledged that and got the balance right between creating a good environment for their health and performance, and ensuring everyone felt comfortable.”
It isn’t Fowler’s style to dictate to his people or to impose his approaches on them. “I’m still learning, but so is every manager, even those at the very top,” he says. “What they know to be right isn’t always going to be right everywhere, in every situation. It’s my job as the manager to listen to my people and try to create the right culture and environment for them, somewhere they want to come to train every day. When you do that it becomes more enjoyable, you take the players with you, and you’re less likely to lose their engagement along the way.”
Recalling the managers that he has worked under throughout his career, Fowler says it was the ones with the best man-management skills who really got the best out of him as a player. “Yes, I need to be tactically and technically astute – if you’re not, the team will see right through you – and I need a strong support team who can help me to grow and learn, but it’s the people skills that I’m focused on the most. It’s also where I think I’m strongest; I can talk to people, I respect them and I believe in treating them how I would expect to be treated.”
MAKING AN IMPACT
When his season in charge of Muangthong United came to an end, Fowler joined Liverpool’s academy for a short spell before accepting the role of head coach at Australian Hyundai A-League side Brisbane Roar.
“It was somewhat of a gamble to go over there and take the side on, because if I’d failed no-one would have touched me again,” he says. “I would have been the stereotypical has-been player, another forward who’s perceived to not have a clue about management. But I backed myself to succeed;
I took the gamble and it paid off.”
When he first came to Brisbane Roar, the club was in dire straits, languishing second from bottom in the league table. “I knew I wanted to do it,” he says. “I had huge confidence in myself and the people around me, and I knew that the plans I had, especially in terms of the team’s defence, would make a really positive impact.”
While Fowler had made an impact in Australia as a player, at North Queensland Fury and Perth Glory, he knew he had something to prove as a manager.
“Straight away we changed 15 players who were out of contract and succeeded in pulling together a team that went from being one of the worst in the league in terms of goals conceded to one of the best. The stats show that we topped the league for the number of clean sheets and were among the best for possession and pass accuracy.”
When the league shut down in March 2020 due to the emerging Covid pandemic, Brisbane Roar were fourth in the league and went on to qualify for the Asian Champions League.
“What we did turning the club around was a massive achievement and, personally, very important in showing everyone that I was a capable manager,” says Fowler. “I proved I could do it.”
OLD CLUB, NEW START
Any disappointment that Fowler felt at not being given the chance to finish what he started in Brisbane abated when he was approached some months later to take on the manager’s job at East Bengal. While the club is one of the most decorated in Indian football and steeped in 100 years of history, it is taking its tentative first steps in the Indian Super League, with Fowler at the helm. He took with him from Brisbane his assistant, Tony Grant, a fellow Liverpudlian who he played with as an U11 and did his coaching badges alongside.
“It’s a massive challenge, but one that I gratefully accepted,” he says. “I liked the idea of starting from scratch and building the team, and of course having another opportunity to show people what I can do.”
Despite starting his pre-season training about three weeks behind everyone else, and not having as much time as he would have liked to plan and prepare, Fowler and his coaching team all went into this season quietly confident that they could make a difference.
Since joining, he has found the attitude of not just the club but the country as a whole to be refreshingly positive. “It has been very different to Australia, where I sensed that, maybe because I’d had a decent career as a player or for some other reason, people wanted me to fail. There was a lot of negativity at times, which I found astonishing given everything we’d achieved with Brisbane Roar.”
The difference in India, he says, is marked. “There’s a lot of love here, and a lot of people willing you to do well. Everyone at the club is behind me and nothing is too much, because they want what is best for me, my staff and for the club.”
With his wealth of experience abroad and willingness to step out of his comfort zone, Fowler is building a strong reputation as a manager and expanding his network in the global game.
“When you’re out of work, you can wait around in England for something to come up, and you can try to find something at the lower levels of the game, but if an opportunity arises to gain experience abroad then the best thing you can do is grab it with both hands,” he says. “It demonstrates to people just how much you want to manage and what you’re prepared to do to succeed, because it isn’t easy to come and work abroad.
“I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices and work very hard, but that shows just how passionate and determined I am to get where I want to be.”