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Indian football was at the cross-roads when Bob Houghton arrived. Disabused by the bitterness with which the Stephen Constantine era ended, AIFF decided to tread the desi path. The Federation installed two of the most experienced Indian coaches at the helm of the national team – PK Banerjee and Sayeed Nayimuddin. The initial impact was good, as Indians captured the SAFF Cup. Things really started to fall apart as the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers started. India conceded nine goals in the first two qualifiers; worse, a player rebellion brewed up. Senior players like Baichung Bhutia publicly criticised Nayim’s strategy and his obsolete training methods. The Federation acted swiftly, axing the entire coaching staff.

It was clear that another foreign coach was needed for the national team. AIFF got a host of CVs from interested coaches. Amodu Saibu, the Nigerian coach who won a gold medal in 1996 Olympics, and Home United coach Steve Darby were two notable names in the list. AIFF in the end chose English manager Bob Houghton. Houghton had a glittering bio-data; he had exceptional success in Scandinavian football, and came close to capturing the European Cup with the unheralded Malmo FF. He was also former assistant to Roy Hodgson, and is believed to have played an important role in popularizing the zonal marking system.

Five years down the line, Bob Houghton has followed a path travelled by all recent national team coaches, by getting sacked. His tenure included two Nehru Cup titles, an AFC Challenger’s Cup title and most importantly, a spot in AFC Asian Cup after a gap of 27 years. There were also numerous lows during his reign, including thrashings at the hands of Kuwait, UAE and a loss to Maldives in SAFF Cup final. The FIFA ranking of Indian national team is almost same now as it was at the time Houghton took over. Does this mean Indian football hasn’t made any progress in his tenure? Lets us take a look at some key aspects of the Bob Houghton era.

Loyalty of Footballers

The Nayim era was a nightmare for a lot of footballers. Nayim did have a lot of success in 1990s, but hasn’t changed with the times. He rarely believed in being friendly with players and treated each player as if they were in army camp. Houghton, on the contrary, had managed to earn the unquestioned loyalty of player during his era. Players were never rebellious and always praised the coach. Some sections of Indian media has pointed out that it was a case of mutual interest, as some senior players wanted to keep their place in the team by making the coach happy. Even last week Sunil Chhetri tweeted in favour of Bob Houghton and surprisingly got a warning from AIFF. Either way, team spirit was never a big issue during Houghton’s era.

Professionalism

Houghton handled the Federation very professionally in the beginning. He knew that Indian players needed better facilities. For this reason he emphasised on organizing foreign tours, so that footballers could enjoy practising on better grounds and better conditions. Houghton also started organizing month-long national camps before big tournaments, which improved the team chemistry. Before a 2002 World Cup qualifier match the Indian national team had to share practice ground with a bunch of school kids – AIFF and IFA was blissfully unaware of their predicament. Such shameful incidents rarely happened in Houghton’s era.

Houghton divided public opinion

Despite his early professional approach, Houghton has often stepped out of the line. He has often come out and needlessly criticised the football structure in Bengal, something which doesn’t befit a pro coach. In his post match conference after a thumping loss to Australia in Asian Cup, Houghton criticised the AIFF. His criticism was valid but the timing was poor – it looked like he was trying to find excuses for India’s loss. His tiff with manager Pradeep Chaudhuri before the Asian Cup was an episode that Indian football could have easily avoided.

The drama over his contract extension was probably the ugliest scene of Indian football in recent times. Bob literally held the Federation at gun-point, milking out a lucrative new contract. He joined at an annual package of $ 144,000, but almost tripled his salary later on. His current salary is $ 360,000, which is more than what Oscar Tabarez (Uruguay coach which led them to a WC semi-final) got paid. Keep in mind the fact that AIFF was cash strapped during majority of Bob’s five year reign. It is understandable that coaching is Houghton’s profession, but his approach to earn a better contract was nothing short of blackmail.

Houghton and Domestic Football

Bob Houghton’s reluctance to pay any attention to Indian football’s domestic circuit hurt the team in Asian Cup. Residing in Goa most of the time, Houghton rarely came to watch I-League matches in Kolkata or Mumbai. He chose to work with a selected group of players, regardless of their form or fitness. Players like Climax Lawrence, N Pradeep or Abhishek Yadav struggle to find their feet in I-League, and  yet they were played against the mighty Koreans in Asian Cup. Houghton also chose to ignore the in-form players like Mehtab Hussain and Denson Devadas completely. His opinion about domestic football was extremely low and he was correct to an extent. However, by picking player who would be a misfit in the same weak domestic circuit, Bob made a grave mistake.

His decision to recommend Desmond Bulpin’s name to coach the young Indian arrows team is also questionable. It may appear that Bulpin got the job because Houghton wanted him and not because he actually deserved the post.

Some of Bob Houghton’s recommendations regarding Indian football did make sense. In 2007, he asked the Federation to turn Santosh Trophy into a youth tournament. This is a sound advice, as the current version of Santosh trophy doesn’t help Indian football anyway. Using players which don’t even belong to the state has created a hollow sense of superiority among some teams.

Obsolete Tactics

In the end, the biggest critique of the Bob Houghton era will be his tactics and strategy. Bob was a staunch believer in archaic long ball game – a trend not uncommon among British coaches. These tactics are best suited to teams with physically gifted players, something not very common in India. Indian football in its heydays succeeded because the players relied on ball skills and ground passes rather than playing the aerial game. Bob’s tactics made the Indian NT unmistakably predictable. The team had only one approach – run through the wings and aim towards the strikers with crosses.

There was never a plan B, never any intent of pattern-play and absolutely zero play-making from central-midfield. It is not a coincidence that Houghton enjoyed his most successful spells in Scandinavia, where players are in general taller and stronger. This approach of long ball may work against East Asian teams but will never work against West Asian teams like Qatar. India has routinely struggled against West Asian teams during Houghton’s reign – Syria being the only exception.

One of the high points of Bob Houghton era

Another common flaw during Houghton’s era was his over dependence on zonal marking. Zonal marking is not a simple defensive system and requires great deal of practice. Each defender needs to have a telepathic connection with others and needs to be fully aware of his “zone”. None of the Indian defenders were good enough to successfully carry out zonal marking. It would have been better if India’s defensive line focused on the simpler approach of man-to-man marking. A coach cannot teach veteran defenders to defend better, but he certainly can tweak the system to make it more suitable. Bob Houghton failed to change his system, as a result of which India often left acres of space around the box in Asian Cup –  a clear indication that his defenders were not in sync with each other.

Conclusion

As a coach Houghton might have had his deficiencies, but most of his ideas about Indian football were well placed. Along with Praful Patel, he envisioned the concept of Indian Arrows, which has been showing enouraging signs so far. His focus on setting up more matches for the national team has generated new found interest in Indian team. Organizing and winning tournaments in home-ground (albeit against weaker opponents at times) has increased the confidence level of Indian players. Houghton knew how to keep players on his side and maintain good team spirit. He stood up to AIFF and earned much needed facilities for players.

AIFF’s approach towards Houghton was typically inept. When Houghton belittled domestic football in his interviews, AIFF rarely cautioned him. For the first four years, the Federation treated him with feared reverence; but with his exit becoming imminent, AIFF brought out its ugly claws. It is never a mistake to sack a coach on basis on performance, but giving reasons like alleged racism is utterly boorish. The AIFF committee to evaluate India’s Asian Cup performance included Pradip Chowdhury – the former manager of the team who had complained bitterly about Bob, after leaving his post. Chowdhury’s complaints might have been valid, but that is a different issue. The main issue was  that AIFF chose a person who would have an obvious bias against Houghton. This lack of transparency is not new to Indian football.

Bob Houghton’s era should be treated as the threshold to greater things for Indian football. His sacking is not ill-timed and the Federation must make sure that his replacement is a competent coach who can take Indian football further. Bob Houghton’s era has provided a launch-pad for Indian football, and it cannot afford to go back to the fracas of Nayim’s days.

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