By Harsh Shah
2015 Indian Super League (ISL) champions Chennaiyin FC had a season to forget last time out which culminated with the team parting ways with manager Marco Materazzi. In came former Aston Villa manager John Gregory to take charge of the Abhishek Bachchan co-owned franchise.
The 63-year-old has a wealth of top-tier managerial experience and has been tasked with ensuring the club does not make the mistakes it did last time around. In an exclusive chat with Goal, he shared his thoughts on how the team is shaping up and what the fans can expect from his team this season.
One thing Gregory stated was that he intends to better his side’s defensive record from previous ISL seasons. “We’ve spent more time on the defending side of our game in pre-season. Last season we conceded almost two goals a game. We didn’t defend too well in the latter stages of matches and lacked mental toughness,” said the former Aston Villa manager.
Gregory revealed Chennaiyin opted against signing a foreign goalkeeper, reaffirming his faith in current No. 1 Karanjit Singh and backup keepers Pawan Kumar and Shahin Lal Meloly. ”I’ve certainly seen an improvement in him (Karanjit) in the last 6-7 weeks. He knows it’s a side of the game we need to tighten up. We can also then play 5 foreign outfield players,” Gregory reiterated.
In defence, captain Henrique Sereno, formerly of ATK; and Spaniard Inigo Calderon looks set to start with the likes of Dhanachandra Singh, Fulganco Cardozo and Keenan Almeida cited by Gregory as able deputies. “Whilst we don’t concede goals, we can nick one at the other end,” the new coach hopes.
He was also quick to praise the versatility at his disposal, with midfielders Thoi Singh and Dhanapal Ganesh impressing him in defensive positions during pre-season.
The former Derby County gaffer is optimistic about bagging maximum points from Chennaiyin’s first two games; home fixtures against FC Goa and NorthEast United.
He expects FC Goa to play the ‘Barca way’, claiming new coach Sergio Lobera is a strong proponent of the style. He feels it will be a be a challenging game, with FC Goa too looking to bounce back from a poor showing last season, which saw them finish 8th, one spot below Chennaiyin.
After the match against The Highlanders on 23rd November, Chennaiyin enjoy a 10-day gap before playing away at FC Pune City on 3rd December. Gregory believes this will help in fielding a well-settled XI as opposed to the frantic rotation seen in earlier ISL editions since they were of shorter duration.
“Rotation puts huge pressure on coaches and players. And with the foreign players, they’re generally not so young, in football terms. The quality of the team also goes down with such a chaotic system” Gregory opined.
The Englishman assured his team would not indulge in the long-ball game. “The likes of Gregory Nelson, Rene Mihelic and Jaime Gavilan are technically very gifted. They love to go past players. They want the ball on the floor.”
He also rates Chennaiyin’s Nigerian recruit Jude Nworuh at par with former hotshot Stiven Mendoza, calling Jude a ‘pocket-size dynamite.’
Gregory is satisfied with his options across the field, claiming it was a conscious decision not to spend big on a marquee signing. “They might not be household names, but then we’ve got a record of turning unknowns into household names in this country. Take Mendoza for example,” Gregory quipped.