Most Asian countries are not known for their footballing prowess. Not that Asians are not good in sports, just that football isn’t as popular in Asia as it is in Europe, central America and south America.
But in recent years, Asian countries have been working to increase the popularity of the beautiful game of football. China and India have spent big amounts of money in a bit to create awareness about football. Both countries have spent big on big name players (mostly those who are at the tail end of their careers) and this they do to create awareness.
The Indian Super League has attracted a lot of big name stars in recent years. One of them is former Arsenal goalkeeper Graham Stack. Graham Stack who was the number two behind Jens Lehman for some years is currently on the books of Watford as a goalkeeper coach. Before moving to Watford, he was a goalkeeper for Kerala Blasters who are one of India’s best clubs.
Before moving to India, he had won promotion with Barnet to league one. But his contract was not renewed. While he was waiting for a new contract offer from Barnet, Steve Coppell who was his manager 10 years earlier when both were at Reading called to ask him to join him at Kerala Blasters.
Both Stack and Steve Coppell had a successful stint with Reading and won promotion to the Premier league in style (many would remember the Reading team of 2008 that won the Championship by amassing 106 points and going 33 games unbeaten at a stage) and so both Graham Stack and Coppell knew each other well.
Steve Coppell had just taken over as the manager of the then lowly rated Kerala Blasters and wanted Stack to join him at the club.
“It wasn’t life-changing money, by any means,” says Stack. “It was a four-month contract that probably generated an 18-month salary for me over here.
“But the chance to embrace a new culture, a new environment, on the other side of the world, I just thought: ‘Wow, what a fantastic opportunity.”
It was one he couldn’t turn down, even though it meant leaving his wife Natalie and four children – Leila, Grace, George and Alfie – behind.
“That was the toughest challenge,” he admits. “If you’re getting paid hundreds of thousands of pounds, it becomes a very easy decision.
“But when you’re not, and you’re putting everything on hold back here – missing out on your son’s first day at school, their first Sunday league match, birthdays, christenings, stuff like that – it’s not an easy decision to make.
Although it was a tough decision to make, Stack felt compelled to move but he was not the only player who had played in Europe or in England at the club then. The law at all Indian clubs at the time was that all clubs in the India Super League must have at least ten foreign players in their squads as well as one marquee signing to boast the global acceptance of the Indian league.
Kerala Blasters’ owner at the time Sachin Tendulkar who himself was a big-name Cricket star made money available to the club for moves for the likes of Aaron Hughes who played over 450 games for the trio of Aston Villa, Fulham and Newcastle United.
They also made moves for the likes of Michael Chopra, Antonio German who both played in the English league. There were other players from Spain, France, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Chad.
Stack alongside his foreign counterparts and the homegrown player soon formed a dressing room that was more multicultural than most of what is obtainable in any European club. But it didn’t take long for them to gel.
“We had a real mix of different backgrounds, footballing experiences, cultures, religions,” he says. “It was a beautiful blend.
“We built morale on the training ground, with old v young games, internationals v non-internationals, foreigners v Indians.
“There were a few Indian leaders. A boy called Gurwinder Singh, who has captained India, and a boy called Mehtab Hossain, from Calcutta, who was also an Indian international.
“There was also a couple of boys from Punjab who liked a drop of whiskey.
“Sometimes, the Punjabi lads and a few of the other boys, along with myself, obviously, and Chops [Chopra] and Hughesy [Hughes], we’d go out and have a few drinks. We all got on great.”
Having been well mentored by Jens Lehman and the likes of Tony Adams while at Arsenal, Stack soon assumed a leadership role among his colleague at Kerala Blasters.
“I think they looked to us for a bit of guidance,” he says. “They were always intrigued and would want answers for questions, like what we were eating, what we were doing in the gym, why did we have a foam roller?
“At times, they were flabbergasted by the work we used to do, and I think we had to change their mentality.”
And this is not because the other players were not talented;
“Individually, there were some very good Indian players over there,” he says. “There were certainly a couple in my team that would have been able to come over here and play in the Championship.
“But then there were others that would find it difficult to get into a League Two side.”
“It’s a little bit like the Scottish league, in that sense.”
Although Stack and the other foreign imports could offer leadership to the Indian player off the pitch, their influence was very limited on the pitch as the rule back then was that each club could only have six foreign players on the pitch at the same time. This all in a bid to develop their league.
“There was a game where I came off, when we were losing to Calcutta 1-0, because we’ve got a foreigner in goal and we need to get our Haitian international centre forward on the pitch to try and get us back in it.
“For the manager, it’s a bit of a conundrum, as your best XI doesn’t necessarily start.”
The Indian league rules between October and December and Stack who lived in a local hotel had to travel more than most players playing the UEFA champions league. Sometimes he and his team mates had to travel more than 6,000 miles via numerous connecting flights.
But the Blasters’ major success came at home where they were able to amass 16 points from seven games and only conceded four goals in all.
“We had 80,000 people and, at times, you’d think the stadium was just going to collapse,” says Stack. “I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I never will.
“People couldn’t get in. The streets were 50 deep at times on the pavements with people spilling over onto the road.
“Real fanatics, but that was Kerala. Believe it or not, football is their primary sport, not cricket. That’s saying something.”
Their performance saw Blasters who had finished second to the bottom a season before finish one point behind Mumbai City. Having qualified for the players, they had an hurdle in the form of Delhi Dynamos to by pass and that they did in style to set up a final game against Atletico de Kolkata which was a repeat of two years earlier when both sides played in the final in 2014.
Having gone ahead early in the game, Blasters unfortunately conceded a goal towards the end of the first half. The second half and extra time produced no goals and so it went to penalties which Blasters eventually lost.
“I saved the first one and then we missed our last two,” says Stack. “Two central defenders put it over the bar. I did ask Copps [Coppell] to take one but was overlooked, unfortunately.
“There’s no doubt I’d have stuck it away. The goalie was about 5ft 8in and I just felt you had to hit the target to have a very good chance of scoring.”
According to Stack himself, that defeat alone would never spoil the experience he had in the Indian league. And he reckons it is one of his greatest footballing experience.
“It would have been a fairy tale [to win],” he says. “But it was about more than winning the trophy. It was about everything that came with it.
“It wasn’t until you started putting a few things down on paper on the plane on the way home that you think: ‘Blimey, what an experience.’
“What I experienced off the pitch with that group of players will always mean more to me than what happened on it.
“It surpassed all my expectations.”
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