Graham Stack, a part of the Kerala Blasters side that finished as runners-up in the 2016 edition of the Indian Super League (ISL), laid bare his thoughts, feelings and experiences from his time in India.
Speaking to the Guardian Sports Network, he revealed how he was in a spot of bother with regards to a contract when the Blasters came calling.
“It’s the same for so many footballers. You are getting to that nervous stage where your contract is coming up quickly and you are thinking, is this it? I had loved my time at Barnet and wanted to stay, but then the contract came up and I spent a summer without pay trying to earn another one. I eventually was offered one with Barnet, but I also had this offer which came out of nowhere with Kerala. I decided to take a gamble and go to India," he reflected.
He went on to state some of the difficulties that he faced, including personal longings and the culture shock of a new country.
“It was incredibly difficult leaving my family. I was missing my son’s first day at school and my wife’s birthday. It was especially hard knowing that I wouldn’t see them for months. I arrived in India and, within the first hour, it was sensory overload just like everybody tells you. I was shoved out of the way in a queue, then I got in a taxi with a driver going at full speed through the city. I just felt I had to go with it and embrace it.
“We were often travelling to different cities and you saw a lot of things. Some things really upset me. As a dad, it’s very difficult to see children hungry on the streets with nothing, and then in contrast there’s huge wealth. That contrast is something that everyone talks to you before coming to India, but you can never get used to it,” said the former Leeds United man.
Stack was all praise for the Indian players' attitude, but he felt that they came up short when it came to technical ability. "There was a gulf technically with a lot of the Indian players, but we loved how hard working and humble they were. You will struggle to get a better attitude than the Indian players we had. They were desperate to improve and learn, so we tried to enjoy every training session with them.”
“You have to be patient. The facilities and coaching that we take for granted in England aren’t available in many places, so we’d focus a lot of the basics. Once we got those done, you could see the improvement was incredible. They are doing the right things with the league, but they need to invest in a solid coaching infrastructure for young Indian players,” he added.
Once a part of Arsenal's Invincibles Premier League title-winning team of 2003-04, Stack made eight appearances for the Sachin Tendulkar co-owned side and was gushing when speaking about the Master Blaster.
“In India, cricket remains number one and there is nobody quite like Sachin there. He has to be guarded everywhere he goes such is the adoration that people in India have for him. We were lucky to get to spend some time with him and he couldn’t have been anymore humble or welcoming to all of us playing in Kerala,” said the 35-year-old.
Touching base about the Kerala fans, the famed Manjappada, he couldn't put his feelings into words as he narrated an incident following Kerala's 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Mumbai City FC.
“I had let in a hat-trick from Diego Forlán. It was an away game, so when we returned to Kerala I was a bit nervous about facing our fans. First time I see them after this bad defeat, they’re all profusely thanking me for trying my best and assuring me that the team would come back stronger. I thought I’m seriously a long way from home now.
“I never realised just how passionate the Kerala fans were going to be. They model themselves on Dortmund fans and create this huge yellow sea of colour. Every single fan wears yellow for games. We played in front of 60,000 fans who couldn’t have been any more passionate or loyal. I remember going to Starbucks with my missus and she couldn’t believe it when we got surrounded for autographs and selfies. That’s the level of passion there.
“There would be games when we would play badly and lose, and fans would still come up to you and thank you. They just have such a love for the game that their optimism would eventually rub off on you. It’s certainly a difference from the abuse I’d normally have been used to after a bad run of games," he signed-off.