'All great players do not make great coaches'. This is a very common notion which persists in the world of football and this phrase was bandied about at East Bengal as soon as the club lost their first three matches in their maiden Indian Super League (ISL) season.
The Red and Golds had appointed Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler at the helm ahead of their journey in the ISL and there was a lot of hype at the beginning of the season. But as soon as the season began, the positivity gave way to criticism and negativity.
Fowler was heavily criticised from all corners for East Bengal's initial bad results but what the critics conveniently ignored was how East Bengal entered the country's top league. Until September, East Bengal did not have an investor and it was almost confirmed they were going to take part in the I-League.
The club's ISL participation was confirmed only when Shree Cement Limited came on board as the club's investor. Everything happened in the eleventh hour including finalising the squad. Most importantly, head coach Robbie Fowler had hardly any time to prepare the team before the season started.
It must also be noted that the club did not have the pick of the Indian players since most prominent Indians had already signed for other ISL clubs before East Bengal's participation was confirmed.
"I have said this before, how difficult it was at the start. Pre-season was for two weeks," Robbie Fowler told Goal. "Two weeks for any club in the world, whether you are Manchester City, Manchester United or Liverpool if you have two weeks of preparation for the season then you will not hit the ground running. What we did is we used the first games as pre-season games. I know that is not what people want to hear but that is what we had to do and it is the situation we found ourselves in.
"This is a great traditionalist club with ideas and values we all love but it was tough because this season the squad was built for I-League and we can't hide that fact. It was a club that was going into the I-League and all of a sudden we are put in the ISL. We had to change our values as coaching staff and players. You are going from one league into the other and the ISL is a much tougher league. I am not being disrespectful to the I-League but it is me being a realist."
Along with an average squad, another thing that most critics do not take into consideration is the abnormality of the pandemic-affected ongoing season. The teams are staying in a bubble for more nearly six months where except for playing matches and attending training sessions, no one is allowed to step out of their hotels.
"From outside people might have thought that we were bad but we knew we weren't. We all knew how difficult it was and I can't stress enough how difficult it is to be in this environment. It is probably the toughest thing anyone would have to do. It is an environment where you cant leave or can't do something that you want to do freely. We leave the hotel to train and play games. That is the only thing you can do. We are in a lovely hotel no doubt but we can't do anything other than that," said the East Bengal coach.
Fowler also spoke about the challenges he faced at the beginning of the season including changing the mentality of the players. He feels the efforts are slowly bearing fruit now.
"We had to change the mentality of the players. We had our ideas and we knew what we needed to do and it really tough at the start. But thankfully now people may start to see the fruits whereas at the start people were quick to get on our backs and say you can't be doing this, can't be doing that.
"Everything we have done is not because we are egotistical people. It is because we want this club to be a successful club and we were not after quick fixes. We wanted to gradually grow and be better. Everyone can see we are progressing, we are competing against all the teams in the ISL and we will continue to do that."
The Liverpool great suggested that he had come prepared for a tough challenge in India and he also drew the example of his previous coaching stint with A-League's Brisbane Roar and how he and his coaching staff took a lowly placed side on the league table and made them qualify for the AFC Champions League (ACL).
"I knew that things won't be all rosy. Nothing comes easy. We need to work hard if we want to achieve great things. That is what we have always tried to do regardless of people giving us the stick, we knew we have to build something here. If you see last year, we took a team (Brisbane Roar) that struggled the year before and we were competitive and we ended up getting into the AFC Champions League.
"We changed the squad, we changed their beliefs, ideas and mentality and we became robust. That has been the plan this year as well. We knew how tough it was at the start."
Fowler stressed on the importance of staying realistic and developing long-term fixes rather than short term ones.
"We knew it was never going to be easy and there was a chance to try and build again. Regardless of what people have said about me, nobody can deny that last year we took a club that had struggled the year before and made them competitive. This club, they are huge but they haven't won the league in 17 years (the I-League), of course.
"When you are a club of the size of East Bengal with a huge fan base, people demand things. But as much as we demand things from players we have to be realistic. This is something that is not going to happen overnight. We know we have to develop and we are not after quick fixes, we are after developing," said the former England star.