In more difficult circumstances than what Teddy Sheringham faced, Robbie Fowler will seek to disprove the notion that British coaches and football clubs in Kolkata don’t make good partners in the Indian Super League (ISL). The list isn’t long but in Sheringham, who lasted 10 games in ISL4, Ashley Westwood and Robbie Keane, all of them by ATK in a bizarre 2017-18 season, it isn’t wanting in big names. Add to that Steve Darby, who lasted months at Mohun Bagan in 2011, and you only have Trevor James Morgan at East Bengal being the exception to the rule.
But then, it is at East Bengal or SC East Bengal, as the 100-year-old club will be known in ISL7 where they debut this term, that Fowler, 45, has joined on a two-year deal. Unlike Sheringham, who had only coached in the third tier of English football before ATK, Fowler has turned around Brisbane Roar in the 2019-20 A-League before Covid-19 disrupted the Australian football season. “We have built a team which struggled and made them successful….Our stats were better than most teams in the A-League. It’s a challenge we have accepted,” said Fowler at a media conference over Zoom on Saturday from his home in Liverpool. Now Fowler said, he hopes to make ISL, “a relatively new league”, “a little more successful.”
Barring Brisbane Roar, the Liverpool legend’s only prior coaching experience was as player-manager in Thailand in 2011. But having got his UEFA Pro Licence in 2017, he and friend Tony Grant, who will also be his assistant at SC East Bengal, took a team that was second from bottom in 2017-18 and had shipped 71 goals in 27 games to fourth in 2019-20. “We went into it with our eyes wide open. We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Fowler, 45, told The Athletic in an interview referring to his brief stint in Australia.
Easy it won’t be here too, Fowler accepts. Especially because while all ISL teams are in pre-season, SC East Bengal are building their squad; the names of seven foreign players, key to any team’s chances, to be available only in the next few days. Fowler assured fans that the signings will make his team “Full of marquee players.” And that he was “more than satisfied” with the Indians in the squad about whom Fowler said he had been briefed by assistant-coach and former East Bengal captain Renedy Singh.
“We are a little bit late…we need to work harder on the training ground. That is why we have the staff we have. We have to create an environment where people will want to work hard and enjoy it,” said Fowler. The new coach promised his team would be competitive and “play possession-based football.” As Liverpool ambassador, Fowler has met Juergen Klopp and has said he loves how Liverpool move the ball and play for each other. As player, Fowler has been under Gerrard Houllier and Rafa Benitez at Liverpool.
From being on the shortlist for ISL in 2013 before the competition got deferred by one year, to taking up a coaching job in Australia, Fowler has lived up to his comment of not being afraid to try things that were out of the ordinary. So asked why he chose India in the time of a pandemic, he replied “why not” even though he had to travel to Los Angeles from Brisbane to get home.
Fowler said he spoke to Peter Reid, who coached Mumbai City in 2014, and is open to speaking to compatriots Sheringham, David James, Owen Coyle and Stuart Baxter. James coached Kerala Blasters; Coyle is in charge of Jamshedpur FC and Baxter at Odisha FC.
Asked how he thought the players would cope with what could be six-months in a bio-secure bubble, much longer than what any other competition has tried, he said: “It will be a challenge but we need to adapt. We need to create an environment where players enjoy. And we will not be at players’ throats all the time.”
Born in Toxteth, Liverpoool’s inner city, Fowler, who has thrown his weight behind laid off dock workers, knows “football brings joy.” So it fit when Fowler said he was appreciative of East Bengal’s history and knew about their storied rivalry with Mohun Bagan, now ATK-Mohun Bagan. “Rivalry drives players on. Tony and I have been involved in various derbies.” Grant is a former Everton and Manchester City midfielder.
Fowler, the sixth highest scorer in the Premiership, had a great first four years at Liverpool, scoring 188 goals in 116 games. And he has got off to a bright start as coach. SC East Bengal will be hoping that continues. He ended the interaction by referring to SC East Bengal as “our club.”