S'pore coaches work wonders

True heroes as Chennai City players celebrate their maiden league title win.
True heroes as Chennai City players celebrate their maiden league title win.PHOTO: TWITTER/ ILEAGUEOFFICIAL

Akbar and his assistant Balagumaran lead unfancied Chennai to improbable Indian title

From relegation candidates to I-League champions in a year, Chennai City proved there are more to football miracles than just Leicester City's stunning English Premier League triumph in 2016.

In achieving the improbable, head coach Akbar Nawas and his assistant K. Balagumaran also showed that Singaporean trainers are capable of producing such magical moments after leading the Indian club to the league title on Saturday.

The duo are believed to be the first local coaches to win a professional football league outside South-east Asia.

Former Tampines Rovers coach Akbar told The Straits Times yesterday: "There is great satisfaction after accepting the challenge of taking over a relegation-threatened team, and then winning the league within a year."

When the 43-year-old took over the reins last year, Chennai had three games to stave off relegation from the I-League. They beat Churchill Brothers 3-1, lost 7-1 to East Bengal, before securing safety with a 2-1 win over Minerva Punjab in their final match.

A year later, the remarkable turnaround was completed in front of 8,000 fans at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu on Saturday with a come-from-behind 3-1 win over Minerva as both club and head coach clinched their first league title.

For Balagumaran, this is his second league title as assistant to V. Sundram Moorthy after winning the 2013 Malaysian Super League title with the LionsXII.

True heroes as Chennai City players celebrate their maiden league title win.

A SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT

There is great satisfaction after accepting the challenge of taking over a relegation-threatened team, and then winning the league within a year.

AKBAR NAWAS, Chennai City head coach, on the I-League side's dream season.

With 13 wins, four draws and three defeats, Chennai amassed 43 points, one more than second-placed East Bengal. And they did it in style, scoring 48 goals in 20 matches, and never relinquishing their place at the top of the 11-team league from the third match week.

The Times of India summarised their triumph as "befitting their dominant campaign, the fulcrum of which was a sustained possession-based football".

Akbar said: "Winning the title was the end result of good scouting, our attacking football philosophy, how we trained, prepared and executed our plans during the games.

"The club gave me the freedom to impart this to the players despite initial scepticism about whether this will be successful in India.

"I never lost sleep over the title race because we were focused and trusted our processes - there was great synergy among the owner, backroom staff and players. In fact, I lost sleep only after we won, with the many phone calls and text messages coming in!"

Astutely building the team around five Spaniards from Europe's lower leagues and former S-League star Jozef Kaplan, Akbar also made room for local talents to shine.

PUTTING THE SHINE ON

When we got here, the players we had were not from football academies, they were from the streets and so unpolished... now they have won their first professional league title.

K. BALAGUMARAN, on the humble backgrounds of many of their players.

Incredibly, Chennai won the league without a single Indian international in their squad. Yet, the goals flowed from every department. Striker Pedro Manzi may be the league's joint-top scorer with 21 goals, but the winning goals against Minerva came from 20-year-old centre-back Gaurav Bora.

Balagumaran said: "When we got here, the players we had were not from football academies, they were from the streets and so unpolished.

"Many of them are playing in their first professional season and now they have won their first professional league title.

"Credit has to go to Akbar for his attacking philosophy because defending was not our strength - we drew 3-3 with Neroca after blowing a 3-0 lead - and to the players for being open to his ideas.

"This is definitely the highlight of my career, but I hope there is more to come."

That could well be the case as Chennai are now eligible for the 2020 AFC Champions League qualifiers, while sources also told ST that the duo are now on the All India Football Federation's radar, with India's national coach position currently vacant.

Representatives from Swiss club FC Basel, who have a 26 per cent equity stake in the Indian club, were at Chennai's coronation and are said to be impressed by the work of Akbar and Balagumaran.

While Akbar declined to comment on speculation over his future as he has one more year left on his contract, Balagumaran said: "I hope this achievement shows there are good coaches from Singapore and opens the door for more Singaporean coaches to venture abroad.

"If we can start from humble beginnings, work hard with what we have and still find success, there is no reason local coaches can't aim for a job in a professional league in Asia, or perhaps youth teams in Europe."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore coaches work wonders'. Print Edition | Subscribe