EXCLUSIVE BY BRENDON NETTO Follow @BrendonNetto on Twitter
To Premier League viewers in the Indian subcontinent, John Dykes is a popular TV personality. From 2001 to 2010, he hosted football on ESPN Star Sports and is now lead presenter for the Premier League's content service. John has been following the inaugural season of the Indian Super League (ISL) closely. Given his extensive knowledge of the Premier League and football in general, Goal picked his brain on matters concerning the ISL, the Barclays Premier League Live concept and also his interactions with the likes of Roy Keane and Roberto Martinez...
Q: What’s your general analysis of the Indian Super League so far?
A: The company that I work for that produces the Premier League TV is also involved in the TV production here. I have a lot of colleagues who are working here and I am aware of what’s going on. What really impressed me was the staging of it. By that, I mean the organization, the structure, the stadium, the facilities; just the whole process by which the league is existing. I spoke to Peter Reid (Mumbai City FC manager) when I got here and he was talking about the fact that he has been so happy with the quality of the surfaces, quality of the stadia, the quality of everything surrounding the tournament. I think it’s a tribute to those organizing it. Because coming from the Premier League myself, we’ve tried doing things at the highest possible standard.
The ISL is clearly doing that right now. Once you do that, then the component that can be changed is the football. Let’s call that the 'software', that can be changed or upgraded. So, right now you’ve got the marquee players and the Indian players. What I’ve seen is really ambitious competitive football. There’s been a little bit of lack of quality in front of goal at times, but that’s inevitable. That’s something that will change. If the actual staging of the tournament wasn’t good, then you'd have a problem. But it’s been superb, which means that going forward, you know you’ve got a viable tournament.
Every year exponentially you should improve the quality of the foreign players, and the Indian players will improve. And as a spectacle, it will get even better. I watched the 0-0 draw between Atletico de Kolkata and Chennaiyin FC, and it was fantastic. It was a cracking game played in front of a great crowd. For a 0-0, it was exciting. So, I can't fault the teams for ambition. For whatever reason, sometimes we're not getting as many goals. But that for me wouldn’t be a problem. The fans are engaged. The crowds are being good. The TV coverage is good, and the TV ratings are amazing for an inaugural year. So, it’s very positive.
Q: You’re embedded in the European circuit, how much of a buzz is the ISL creating in that part of the world? Even Arsene Wenger has had his say.
A: If you look at it through the eyes of the press, there was coverage of the launch. What’s really interesting for me - you mentioned Arsene Wenger - is the people in the industry are very interested. And that translates to the football players. The guys who come into the studio are either ex-players or involved in the TV industry. They are all interested to see how it goes. And that includes players who have either retired or are close to retirement. They are now looking at the ISL as a viable opportunity for them to play. The older guys who are no longer playing, who are involved in broadcasting or marketing agencies, they are really interested because they want to get their players placed in it.
There’s a buzz around it because it’s creating waves, it’s a huge property. MLS was the last one to come along. J-League back in 1993-94, that was a big launch when you had the likes of Zico and Gary Lineker going there, that was a big deal but this is the biggest. Because when you look at the potential of what this could be, people are looking and saying, “What? They are going to make it work in India?” On the basis of the evidence, it’s been a yes so far.
Q: A big feature of the ISL is attracting marquee players. Is that a sustainable strategy do you see more arriving in the future?
A: Yes, virtually everything that happens in India is kind of aspirational and idol-driven. You look at the synergy between cricket and the Bollywood celebrities and it’s quite clear that this is a market place that likes to have heroes. So, if you bring in players who are iconic and heroic figures, that’s inevitably going to get the fans engaged. Now, if you bring in players who are able to impart wisdom throughout the team and the coaching staff, then that would improve the club as well. Don’t stress the ‘marquee’ thing too much. Because the marquee players, like Alessandro Del Piero, will only be as good as the rest of his team can be.
He may not win a game single-handedly, but if he has good players around him, then he will inevitably help. Someone like Nicolas Anelka and Elano are obviously delivering. Though Anelka is not a marquee player, with Freddie Ljungberg’s unfortunate injury, Nicolas is carrying the team. I think you need a secondary tier of foreign talent that’s young, that’s good, and full of running. When you have that along with your marquee players, even if they are veterans, then it’ll be a great combination.
The marquee players - more to come?
Q: How much of an impact do you believe the guidance of the Premier League has had on the ISL?
A: I can only speak on behalf of myself being someone engaged with the Premier League as a broadcaster. There’s an exchange of ideas all the time (between the Premier League and ISL). I suppose there’s a demonstration of the professionalism in terms of the standard that the Premier League sets. There’s also this commitment to put £250,000 each year into grassroots development. So, this is mirroring what the Premier League does. Those who are structuring this tournament have clearly paid attention to what happens at the Premier League level. The critics say the Premier League doesn’t impact grassroots. That’s rubbish.
I’ve been around the world with the Premier League whether it’s Asia, Africa, or elsewhere. The Premier League is constantly sending coaches out. We get referees in, coaches in, we impart knowledge and we move on. So, whenever we do a Barclays Asia Trophy, for example, there’s a whole week of work that goes on before the teams arrive; coaching coaches, getting referee courses in place, getting grassroots football energized. That’s something that a lot of people don’t see. The minute the ISL finishes, then the attention will turn to the grassroots development here.
Q: When you speak about youth development and academies, would that be more feasible with a league like the ISL that runs for six to eight months rather than two and a half?
A: Theoretically, what I would say is it’s not so much the ISL, but what happens before that. I think if you were to have structured, competitive football at an age group level (that would be the first step). So once you’ve identified young talents, whether they are going to clubs or a structure that enables them to play 12’s, 13’s, 14’s, or 15’s football so that they arrive at a club and then that club has a competition to play in. Whether that competition is a two-month tournament or of six to nine months, all they need to be doing is that work between 10 and 15 (years of age) which then puts them in a position where they arrive at whatever the league might be. I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I’d back the ISL to do this. Currently you have the I-League, and that is engaged with the AFC competition. That is the current structure. There’s no point having grassroots if there’s no viable competitive league to go into.
Q: There’s a Premier League event coming up on the 13th and 14th of December. What’s the purpose behind that?
A: Well, the BPL Live concept is the second time this has happened. Last year it happened in Johannesburg, and there was a massive response. The idea is to take the Premier League experience to a market that is important to it. So if it’s a broadcaster or a market as a whole that is a big fan of the Premier League, we try and bring what we call a BPL experience, which is every aspect of it if you were in England watching a game, but you can’t be there. So, when you go through the gates at the fan park, you’ve got the trophy tour. You’ve got the actual trophy itself. Then you’ve also got this wonderful interactive experience where you can do things like learn about your club.
You can shoot yourself in front of a green screen lifting the Premier League trophy. You can learn stuff about how big Petr Cech is, what his wing span is, something like that. You can do skills. We have a skill zone where you can test your skills. You can see how you measure up physically against Premier League players. The Premier League clubs will be sending their own teams as well. Crystal Palace, for example, are doing a search for a star. So, in the week leading up to that event, they will be here trying to find young players. I’ll be bringing Peter Schmeichel and Robbie Fowler with me. Obviously, the main game on the Sunday is Manchester United vs Liverpool. So, we’ll be doing stuff on that. We’ll be having big screens showing the Premier League matches as well as the ISL semi-finals. The main thing is to try and make you feel like you are a part of it. How many people are able to jump on a plane and watch their team? We will try and bring that here.
Q: You’ve sat down with some great football personalities? Who was the most intimidating to speak to and who the most intriguing?
A: Well, apart from Shebby Singh, whom I miss dearly... (jokes). Working with Roy Keane can be intimidating, and that was before his beard. Roy comes with this reputation and I watched him working on TV sometimes and if a guy asks him a question that’s maybe not the best, you sort of get this glare off him. The first time I worked with Roy was during a Manchester derby, the one when City won at home and went on to win the league that year. And Roy was getting a bit heated about Manchester United and how they weren’t doing well and all that. I went into the studio thinking, ‘I better not mess up here’. But as it turned out, he was brilliant, professional, interesting, engaged in the broadcast, and he wasn’t a p***y, let’s put it that way. He was gentle and nice, and that was really good.
"Roy Keane can be intimidating"
I like working with people like Peter Reid and the late Sir Bobby Robson because their love for football comes through, they’re passionate and give you everything that you could possibly want. The best one I had recently was Roberto Martinez. His tactical analysis and ability to get the broadcast was amazing. We put him on the touch screen with Andy Townsend, and Andy is the master of the touch screen, and Roberto just went, “yeah, do this, do that, do that…” He’s got a touch screen at home! He knows it, he uses these things. So, managers who are engaged in stuff like that and speak the modern technical language of the game are brilliant to work with.