The new Highlanders’ assistant talks about taking on a team mid-way through the season, returning to Indian football and more.
NorthEast United FC have had a poor start to the fourth season of the Indian Super League (ISL). As 2017 drew to a close, the Highlanders found themselves struggling at the 9th position in the 10-team league. They had accumulated only one win and one draw from seven outings at the time.
Understandably, unimpressed with the team’s performances, the owners decided to dispense with the services of then-coach Joao Carlos Pires de Deus and handover responsibilities to more able hands. In came the ex-Chelsea, Portsmouth and West Ham United manager Avram Grant as the Technical Advisor and experienced Dutch tactician Eelco Schattorie as the assistant coach.
The change in personnel paid immediate dividends as NEUFC beat high-flying FC Goa at home to restore faith among the fans that all’s not lost yet. But the same old story followed suit after a possession-dominant ATK beat the Highlanders on their own turf. Khel Now’s Guwahati correspondent Manas Pratim Kashyap sat down with the Dutchman to reflect on his newest assignment in Indian football.
Schattorie brings in loads of experience in his resume as a manager since this is his third club in India and he has managed extensively in Asia. On being asked about how he feels to be back in India, he said, “It’s good to be a part of the ISL, it’s a step higher than the I-League. But, for me, the main reason is that I can co-operate with Avram Grant. He’s a big coach with a lot of history. Also, I can make use of my experience in India. So I’m hungry for more.”
With reference to previous editions of the ISL, he recalled how some of the teams tend to turn the tables, especially after slow starts to the league. On what motivated him to take up the job despite NEUFC struggling, the tactician said, “This [offer] came on a very short notice. I didn’t have time to analyze all the teams. Hopefully, this team can make improvements. I don’t try to look back. For me, it’s just to have a fresh start with Avram and get this train going.”
Schattorie is happy with his new role under Grant. When we asked who among the two takes the final calls the Dutchman explained, “Avram is the captain of the ship. This is something that any assistant will always like. Overall, he is the boss, he will take any final decision about what we are doing. But we do everything in communication.”
“I am very happy to work with somebody who is not just like a dictator. He gives you the space and freedom, at the same time that’s what an advisor does keeping the big picture in mind”, he added.
Halfway into the league with the team reeling in troubled waters, Schattorie finds himself in a rescue mission right from day one. However, he is ready to take the risk having already crossed similar hurdles previously. “In my career, I have saved four teams from relegation. That means you get into a situation where a team is down,” he pointed out
Elaborating on the road ahead he continued, “In my opinion, there are two key elements – One, stabilize the organization, all players know their task, what to do. And two, you get everybody wanting to work together. Any coach would ideally want to have a pre-season. But, in these situations, you focus a lot on the defensive organization.”
For NEUFC, goals have been hard to come by this season as they have netted only four times in nine games so far. The new assistant pointed out that there is no readymade ingredient to scoring goals and that they need to have a tighter backline. “It’s always the most difficult part and so the strikers are always the most expensive players in football. So, to score more goals, in my opinion, starts by having a solid defence and hopefully you progress.”
Be it Oman, Saudi Arabia, India or elsewhere, Schattorie keeps a tab on football leagues in the region. Though he watched a few ISL games of FC Pune City and ATK, he didn’t have a fair idea about NEUFC. “From the NorthEast, I didn’t have a clear picture. I know a few of them like Robert [Robert Lalthlamuana] and Dika [Lalrindika Ralte], but the rest are new to me and I have to know them as soon as possible.”
Earlier, Schattorie plied his trade in India with Prayag United (2012-14) and East Bengal (2015). He believes his previous experiences give him an upper hand against other coaches in the league.
“Of course. I worked in different countries, and I am good in adapting to the culture. Maybe, someone like, Teddy Sheringham might implement his English principles, but that will clash. That I know a bit of Indian culture, I have some advantages here.”
Of late, there have been serious discussions regarding the unification of the two top-tier football leagues in India. Though nothing has been finalized yet, the NEUFC assistant coach he would prefer to have one league with 14-18 teams.
He also added, “Look, I have worked with Mohammad Rafique and Cavin Lobo, two players with huge quality. But, from what I see, both of them are now playing in the I-league. If you play in the ISL with a lot of foreigners you will have more resistance, you will become better. At the same time, if you have too many foreigners the local talents get less chance so there is a big discussion about what is to be the perfect format. But, it’s better than it was before.”
The Dutchman opined that it is very difficult to judge if the ISL has actually been beneficial for Indian football. “If you look at the strongest league in the world, that is, the Premier League, the national team for decades, till today, does not perform as they should. A lot has to do with the fact that there are a lot of foreign players there. I think for the attention of football, for the promotion of football, the ISL is good. But, at the same time in the future, it has to show how much it is beneficial to Indian football.”
With India having successfully hosted the FIFA U-17 World Cup only last year. We asked Schattorie if it can have some impact on a country that is growing in football. “For the attention, yes; it gives a good impulse and enthusiasm. But, it does not do anything specifically for the football itself. [I mean] Indian national team will play, but it will not improve your football, doesn’t matter where you organise it. You have to start at the bottom actually, technically, implementing training strategies”, he explained.
The Dutchman felt that it is very difficult to judge the exact extent of development in Indian football at present. “See, the national team has progressed. So, there is progression, but this is more in the format. Overall, it is very difficult to assess. There is talent everywhere, doesn’t matter where you go. I do believe that in India maybe you could find a Messi because you have 1.3 billion people. But to let that guy come out and to let him flourish, you need to have an infrastructure and a good football format,” he said.
Hailing from the land that introduced the concept of “Total Football”, Schattorie provided us with an insight into how the Netherlands have successfully developed a world-class youth football system in its ranks over the years. “India has 1.3 billion people, while Holland has only 17 million. It’s much smaller than many big football playing nations,” he started
“Though we are small, we try to be creative. And the good thing in Holland is if you are talented, you have a good chance to play in the first team. If a talent in England is good, his chance to play in the Chelsea first team is so much lesser than a talent in Holland with the same quality because we have to give him a chance. So, he will play a lot of games and he will develop.”
He further added, “I believe development comes from playing games. There is a necessity in Holland because we don’t have any other choice. We don’t have the money to buy big players. Since we let them play, they will develop.”
Finally, we decided to wind up by asking what the fans can expect from the team this season. He replied, “See, expectation is always the most difficult thing in life because if you expect there can only be disappointment. What I always focus on is today, work hard and do my best.”
“The only thing I can say with hundred percent surety is that I will work from morning till evening to try and get this train going. But, I will not have any expectations because nobody can look into the future.”