The new head coach of the Juggernauts spoke for the first to the Indian media.

Odisha FC have turned a significant leaf in their journey in the Indian Super League. With the arrival of head coach Stuart Baxter, the club would be looking to march ahead convincingly and attain several important feats in the coming times. Previously known as Delhi Dynamos, they have qualified to the playoffs of the ISL only twice in six seasons. They finished sixth in 2019-20, but displayed glimpses of a squad that boasted immense potential and youthful exuberance.

After Josep Gombau’s departure in March, the club were looking for an individual who could set the tone and direct the fortunes of the squad. Post a relentless pursuit, they roped in former South African national team manager Stuart Baxter to replace Gombau. Baxter interacted with the club’s Head of Football Operations Abhik Chatterjee over a video call on a variety of issues.

Speaking on his decision to opt for Odisha FC, the 66-year-old seemed to be smitten with the first impression that he garnered of the club. “The impression was the ambition, it was desire and it was something that is a little bit warm to my heart,” Baxter said. He added, “Something like in South Africa, in some of the places where social commitment and the commitment to the youth of that area is paramount. So, that came across as a desire or an ambition that is in the club and they (owners) wanted the new coach to embrace that.”

Baxter appreciated the support and the assistance of the Odisha government. He claimed that there are several occasions in sports when people ask for help from higher authorities. “Now, we don’t really ask ourselves the question that what we really do to deserve that help? Where is our role in this partnership,” he observed. Continuing on that, Baxter mentioned, “I think those lines are pretty clear here. The government wants to help and the club wants to repay that by creating something which will be good for our supporters and everybody here in Odisha.”

The club went on a rampage in the ongoing transfer window, as they roped in several starlets who have the potential of developing into promising assets for them. Already, they had the services of the likes of Vinit Rai, Shubham Sarangi and more. Now, Odisha have made it clear with their moves in the off-season that the focus is going to be on honing younger players and promoting them to perform well for the same. Baxter echoed these thoughts.

He asserted, “I can say that there will be an emphasis on youth. It’s my job to make sure the culture of the club is based on development, coaching, team spirit, understanding your role and the responsibilities to the club and to the state.” The head coach further added, “So, I think, no matter how we spin it, the youth are going to play a very important role in this and for us, it’s vital that we make sure that we give those young players the best possible chance of being able to develop and answer the core that we are making.”

However, he did point out that the younger players should have the right attitude and also remarked that it would be important to rope in some senior, experienced stars to the squad. One of Baxter’s earlier ventures in this role was managing J-League club Sanfrecce Hiroshima from 1992-94. Those were the early days of the Japanese professional football league and the vastly experienced head coach compared the Indian football circuit with it.

Regarding the ISL, he stated, “It’s certainly the league I have been curious about. I have watched the sort of progress and the changes that have been made are very similar to those while I was working in Japan. I went there in the very first year of the J-League and saw how the league developed. I was looking at the Indian league and trying to draw a certain parallel.”

The new tactician claimed that he has watched some parts of the league, as several players whom he is acquainted with already play in the ISL. He mentioned that the primary objective of this project is to ensure development. It could translate into an improvement of players, the squad as a whole and that will eventually stimulate success on the pitch. Accordingly, he wants to balance these two aspects.

Baxter affirmed, “I want to take the team to the playoffs definitely because sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth is all the same really. We want to play the playoffs and after that, let’s see if we can win it.” He believes that people often underestimate the potential of a young squad, as the group isn’t usually tipped to emerge victorious in a league. So, the Scotsman is keen to remain wary of that.

However, he also cautioned, “But, at the same time, I don’t want to make rash predictions because I haven’t seen the group, I don’t know their mental strength, I don’t know how they would react.” He added, “So, until then I just want to say, as a professional, the best that we want to do and that’s top four to start with and then I want to see how the group reacts to my work.”

For the past three seasons, the club had the likes of Miguel Angel Portugal and Josep Gombau at the helm. Accordingly, there has been an attempt towards instilling the Spanish flavour of football in the setup. Now, out of nowhere, Stuart Baxter has become the first British head coach to take over the duties in the club’s six-year history. Certainly, one wonders what sort of transition would occur in the playing style and the other dynamics of the team.

“The Spanish coaches before me must have given the players a certain flavour and I don’t believe in this breaking everything down and re-building it because there’s obviously some good work done,” Baxter assured. He recalled the time when he had won a league with a particular club. But, his successor insisted on completely altering the work done and that team ended up finishing eighth in the points table next season.

Odisha’s head coach opined, “So, I think there’s some good work done and I will retain that good work and hopefully, I will build upon it and hopefully, I will find a way of playing which we all will enjoy and it will give us some results.” The former SuperSport United manager is willing to adapt to the culture in India to develop a better bond with the players.

It is because he believes, “If you walk in and impose your beliefs and your attitudes without considering the culture, then I think you are doomed to failure eventually.” He aspires to understand the way in which the culture of the country affects the mentality of sportspersons here. Such factors are of extreme importance whilst dealing with younger, relatively inexperienced players in the squad.

The head coach acknowledged the fact that most upcoming leagues in the world have to solve the conundrum of keeping a limit on the number of foreign players who could be inducted in the squad. “I am trying to work out in my own mind how we can empower our players to the maximum. I think the Indian players have potential. We all, everybody in Indian football, have to maximize that potential,” he concluded.

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