Faith in his assistant, belief in the way football should be played and the desire to grow Indian players. These are a few of Owen Coyle’s favourite things and they will stay with him as he moves from Chennaiyin FC after taking them to the Indian Super League (ISL) final last season.
What will change is how Coyle scouts targets for a season in a bio-secure bubble likely to begin in November. “You need to pick a team player because they will be spending a lot of time with each other in a closed environment,” says Coyle, now Jamshedpur FC head coach on a two-year contract.
“And the best way to choose is to really use your contacts to get background so that you get the right kind of player.”
A former international striker who has played and coached in Scotland and the Premier League and managed in Major League Soccer (MLS), Coyle is tapping into his large network to take Jamshedpur to where they have never gone before in three seasons of ISL: the semi-finals.
“I want to be the man who can change that,” he says in the interview on Microsoft Teams from his home in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley.
Coyle is 54, speaks rapidly and with enthusiasm. He terms the semi-finals challenge attractive but adds that it was infra-structure at Jamshedpur that helped him decide. Like the club having its own training ground, for instance. “Some of the clubs have to rent grounds and are only allotted a certain amount of time.”
Should Jamshedpur make the playoffs, it will be in the way Coyle hauled Chennaiyin from the bottom to “nearly champions”, a feat which has made him one of ISL’s four most expensive coaches.
From one win in the first six games when Coyle joined — his initiation into ISL was with an away game to Jamshedpur — Chennaiyin galvanised into a high-pressing team which loved going forward.
“From St Johnstone, Burnley, Bolton, Wigan Athletic, Houston Dynamo, Blackburn Rovers that’s the way my teams play. High-intensity,” he says. Burnley won promotion to Premiership with Coyle and Scotland’s St Johnstone beat Rangers for the first time in 35 years after he joined.
In 15 games under Coyle, Chennaiyin scored 35 goals notching up eight wins and three draws. “With all due respect, we were in the same position as Hyderabad (FC). They changed coaches and with all due respect, they stayed where they were. We got the players going, had to make a number of changes.”
Playing Indians as two defensive midfielders was one of them. “I was the only coach who did that. I knew boys like (Anirudh) Thapa, Germanpreet (Singh) and Edwin (Vanspaul) had the ability but needed opportunity to play,” he says.
Doing that gave Coyle the freedom to use foreigners Nerijus Valskis, who has also moved from Chennaiyin to Jamshedpur, Andre Schembri and Rafael Crivallaro in the front third.
Vanspaul’s form, as full back and central midfielder, got India head coach Igor Stimac to call him for the international against Qatar in March. It was rescheduled to October due to Covid-19 before Asian Football Confederation decided to push the Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers to next year.
“Igor knows he has an ally in that respect, someone who is trying to promote Indian players. We keep speaking. I think there is an obligation (as a club coach) to help the national team,” says Coyle.
That explains why he is okay with ISL aligning with Asia’s 3+1 foreigner rule from 2021-22. Antonio Lopez, ISL’s only coach with two titles, doesn’t think it necessary. The Spaniard has said he wanted the five foreigners’ rule to stay for “at least three-four years” because that is how ISL will improve.
Coyle says having Alexander ‘Sandy’ Stewart as his assistant helped him settle in India. They know each other since 1990 and before the role switched, Coyle was a player on loan at a club Stewart coached. Stewart will be Coyle’s deputy at Jamshedpur. Also helping in “transition” was two seasons at MLS from 2014. In terms of long flights and airport waits, Coyle finds similarities between the leagues.
“But MLS has shown that if you can create a good product, it is going to grow. At one point MLS had 10 teams (like ISL),” says Coyle. Including three from Canada, MLS has 26 teams and will expand to 30 by 2023.
Born in Glasgow, Coyle was eligible for Republic of Ireland through Irish parents. On his under-21 debut, Coyle scored inside two minutes against Scotland. Named in the provisional squad of 26 for the 1994 World Cup, Coyle came in contact with Jack Charlton. A World Cup winner for England who died last month aged 85, Charlton coached Republic of Ireland to the 1990 World Cup quarter-final and the round of 16 four years later.
“I learnt an awful lot from him. Jack had fantastic man management skills and the players thought the world of him.” They often didn’t mind when Charlton shifted them from positions they had in their clubs, says Coyle citing the example of Paul McGrath, who was moved from centre-back to midfield.
“At Chennaiyin, Edwin started as full back and was outstanding but I felt he could also play in midfield with Thapa when German was suspended. It also meant I could give young Dinliana (Laldinliana Renthlei) opportunity as right back,” says Coyle.
“Jack would say this always and I believe in it: it is great to be talented but your strength is always in a group.”