The former Chennai City head coach responded to Michael Soosairaj’s allegations against him and discussed other issues pertaining to his time at the club.
Michael Soosairaj has been turning heads in Coimbatore, racking up goals and assists that have seen him earn a move to Indian Super League side Jamshedpur Football Club. Under his former manager Robin Charles Raja last season, though, he hardly had an opportunity to showcase his brilliance in Chennai City’s debut I-League season.
While many attributed Robin Charles’ alleged reluctance to play local talent, the coach explained while talking to Khel Now that the player’s being unavailable for a major chunk of the pre-season training was why he wasn’t a key part of his plans. “When you take up a team, you don’t play a player who has missed seven out of 10 days of training,” explained a collected Robin Charles, “As a coach, I work fearing God and obeying my conscience. I never wanted to please anyone. I haven’t spoken to the player since, but the comments truly shocked me, as I have known him from his Santosh Trophy days. It’s possible that somebody had forced him to say the things he said.”
Robin Charles Raja (left) was sacked by Chennai City Football Club in February 2017
The Tamil Nadu coach, however, never doubted the Thoothor-born sensation’s ability, as he claimed to have known that he’d make it even before his I-League debut. “I took interest in him when he played in Santosh Trophy,” he revealed. “After he came to Chennai City, I knew that he would do well in I-League. Once he came to the club, however, he and his brother [Michael Regin] weren’t available for practice for seven or eight days because of their father’s illness. Having missed a major chunk of training, I didn’t think they were ready to start the first home game. When you play a game every third day and have players such as Dhanapal Ganesh, Denson Devadas and Prasanth [Karuthadathkuni], it wasn’t ideal to start them, especially since they weren’t in a proper psychological frame due to family issues. That said, he’s a good player. His rise is good for Tamil Nadu football, and it’s great that he’s getting recognized.”
Although he heaped praise on his former player, he stated that Tamil Nadu players doing well on the national scene isn’t unheard of. “Tamil Nadu players doing well in the national set-up isn’t anything new, though,” he continued. “We’ve seen Kannan Das, Nageshwara [Rao], Syed Sabir Pasha, [Nallappan] Mohanraj and [Dharmaraj] Ravanan all shine on the national stage before. We now see Dhanapal and Nandhakumar [Sekar] doing that. We need more players from Tamil Nadu, though. Although I’m happy that individual players get the recognition they rightfully deserve, we should see more number of Tamil Nadu players doing well in the national leagues and in the national team.”
When asked about his reaction to his being axed, the CFA Senior Division veteran coach said, “How I reacted then and how I now feel about being sacked are completely different. I’d run here and there, with less time and the target being so high. I had to climb up a mountain with limited time, and another person came in to take your seat. You could only see the other side of the mountain and feel good that you’d crossed it. Only the good thing came out of that situation then. I’m now glad that I didn’t get stuck in the mud.” However, he claimed that he did cherish the uphill task of concocting a top-flight team in 10 days when it was put in front of him, as he said that he was ”proud to say that I did everything there.”
Save for the rise of a handful of local players, Chennai City haven’t improved on the pitch since, as they only managed to finish eighth in the I-League 2017-18 table. “Soundararajan is a good friend of mine, and his way of coaching is different from mine,” he stated. “That said, the I-League standings show you how the club has progressed under him. It’s for you to see. It’s for the country to see, and it’s for the world to see.” Asked to further explain his stance on their season thus far, he stated that he only follows Chennaiyin Football Club these days and has more or less forgotten about his former employers.
While the common consensus has always been that he hardly offered the local lads chances, India international Dhanapal Ganesh has stated that Robin Charles has played a key role in his recent revival. Plus, the coach seems to have maintained healthy relationships with his former players, including stalwarts and up-and-coming stars. “Dhanpal, Prasanth, Mohanraj and Ravanan are in constant touch with me,” he said, with a fatherly contentment. “They’re like family to me. They sometimes come to me for counselling and guidance and keep me updated about their career. It highlights their gratitude. Before this season, many didn’t know Dhanapal’s quality. He wasn’t offered any major opportunity after his injury, but I knew that his stuff was good. Now [Stephen] Constantine and John [Gregory] have taken notice of his talent. Playing him consistently during my time at Chennai City was detrimental.
Dhanapal Ganesh has been one a force to reckon with in the Chennaiyin midfield this season
“Dhanapal is now doing great both for his club and for the national team. He’ll only get better, for sure. His humility and personality will see him shine brighter. The higher he gets in his career, the simpler does he get, and that characteristic trait of his will see him achieve more.
“The three games Dhanapal played after coming off an injury for Chennai City was crucial for his development, and I thank God that I had the opportunity to highlight his talent in such short time. The club management wanted to me to play a different player ahead of him, who then had an injury problem, in central midfield. I’m glad I resisted.” Commenting further on his relationship with his players, he said, “I maintain relationships with the players I manage. It’s not just about coaching. I go the extra mile sometimes, and that’s why they want to keep in touch, no matter where they play. Prasanth contacted me to tell me that he’d been signed by Kerala Blasters. Abhishek Das, Nandhakumar Sekar and Karanjit Singh all talk to me sometimes.”
A keen observer of Chennaiyin Football Club, he reckons that ISL has instilled maturity and confidence in Indian players. “How India has climbed up the FIFA rankings since ISL’s inception is an indicator of how positive it’s been for Indian football,” he hypothesized. “[Sunil] Chhetri and Jeje [Lalpekhlua] have all done better since its inception. We’ve greatly improved internationally.
“When you see Chennaiyin play, Dhanapal wins the ball and feeds Raphael [Augusto], who then goes on to start an attack. It works effectively for them, and that’s the kind of organization it brings. Maturity and confidence of the players go up when they play there. It’s surely an opportunity for the Indian players to shine.
“That said, I personally feel that ISL should start youth leagues such as an under-21 league, which would be helpful for the younger players. We also need zonal-wise under-23 league with three senior players, two foreign talents and few under-19 players or something along those lines to ensure we supply the senior sides with exciting young talents.”
With ISL sides set to field their second-string sides in Second Division League and his hearing that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are looking to make the jump, he “doesn’t know where that leaves” I-League. Citing Nandhakumar’s ascension as an example, he underscored the importance of putting young players in professional set-ups. “For instance, had Nandhakumar not received the opportunity that he got, he might not have played for India U23 or Delhi Dynamos,” he stated.
“He might have played in the CFA Senior Division, received a job offer and quit football for good. Now his quality has greatly improved as he’s now in a professional set-up. Now his mentality must also be hugely different. We must offer the younger players the opportunity to play, train and share rooms with big names and in a professional set-up. That’s when their attitude, character and personality change. Playing in ISL will soon be a young boy’s dream, and that, I see, is good for Indian football.
“However, we need to work with a younger set of players, who are aged between 18 and 23. That will have a bigger impact on the game. We need to have the players occupied year-round, giving them the exposure they need to shine. That’s when we’ll see more Jerry Lalrinzualas, Prasanth Karuthadathkunis and Nandhakumar Sekars playing for the national team.”
Thangboi Singto (middle) is one of the very few Indian coaches to be associated with the ISL
While ISL has seen Indian players receive due recognition, Indian coaches, however, have only been at the periphery, with Thangboi Singto’s few days as Kerala Blasters’ interim manager the only indigenous appointment we’ve seen in four seasons. The Chennai football veteran, however, feels that the opportunity to learn under established overseas gaffers such as Avram Grant, Steve Coppell and Rene Meulensteen will see Indian football benefit in the long term. “Every human has to learn,” he said.
“A good coach learns from everyone, including young players. Even Jose Mourinho had to learn under coaches, working as a translator. No one comes directly into coaching. ISL now only has foreign coaches, but four or five years down the line, Indian coaches will manage clubs there. The club owners need to have confidence in the local coaches. If Sundar Pichai can have a prominent role with Google, I don’t see why Indian coaches with coaching badges cannot manage big clubs.
“Pradeep Dutta, a conditioning instructor with an AFC A license, teaches foreigners, including North Koreans. While we have such personalities be prominent in Asian football, I don’t see why the coaches cannot do it as well. Syed Sabir Pasha and Thangboi Singto have all been learning under bigger names, and coaching is an art, which is oftentimes learned by working under other coaches.”
He, who now works with Chennai Football Club in CFA Senior Division, concluded the interview that he’d surely take up the right offer from top-flight clubs, trusting in God.