The Indian coach spoke exclusively to Khel Now about his plans before the Paris Olympics.

In April 2019, when Australia’s Graham Reid took over the role of head coach of the Indian men’s hockey team, he had a good mix of players raring to reach new heights in world hockey.

However, it wasn’t an easy task for the new coach by any means. The team had failed to deliver as per expectations in the Commonwealth Games and FIH Hockey World Cup in 2018, which resulted in the sacking of Harendra Singh.

Harendra had created history with the junior hockey team in 2016. India had won the Junior World Cup under him after defeating a world-class Belgian side. Eight members of that team, including Manpreet Singh, went on to win a historic bronze medal at the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics.

The Indian team won an Olympic medal after a gap of 41 years, which speaks volumes of the importance of this success. Graham Reid hailed Harendra’s contribution in instilling the champions mentality in the young Indian hockey players during his tenure. He also reflected on the importance of the Hockey India League.

“I think the Junior World Cup trophy was very important. India’s victory in the World Cup and then the Hockey India League enabled the players to have a bit of belief. They understood what it takes to win at the highest level and we saw that in the third and fourth playoff at the Tokyo Olympics,” Graham Reid told Khel Now.

On initial challenges and transition

The Australian was also a member of Holland’s coaching staff during the FIH World Cup in 2018. India crashed out of the tournament after facing a narrow 1-2 defeat in the quarterfinals against the star-studded Dutch side. The Indian team lost, but Reid set his sights on a potential next job and when the opportunity came his way, he didn’t think twice about it.

The Indian hockey ended a 41-year drought at the Tokyo Olympics (Courtesy: Hockey India)

He remarked, “As a coach, you always hope that you can affect some change and get things done. I saw the Indian team playing in Bhubaneswar in the World Cup when I was coaching Holland. We played against India in the quarterfinals and Holland won, but I knew that this Indian team has huge potential.

“One of the good things was that we had Chris Ciriello, who was assistant under Harendra Singh at that time. I coached Chris during my time in Australia for 5-6 years. He understood the way I wish to play and the Indian team was moving along towards that way, so I was really just making sure that we continue that path.”

Graham Reid added, “The fitness was also the same. Robin Arkell was doing a great job and he continued it with me. We just tweaked some little things.”

Parameters for selecting the squad

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the Indian team’s preparation many times. However, it also gave them an extra year to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics. Reid also got time to assess his players before selecting a final squad that can deliver on the biggest stage. He took many things into consideration while preparing his team for the biggest tournament of their lives.

Graham Reid recalled, “The major thing was the heat of Tokyo and that turned out to be pretty valid. I think we played three round games in the heat of the day and then two playoff games at the Tokyo Olympics. Team first factor was also important for me.”

On comebacks at Tokyo Olympics

Indian started off their Tokyo Olympics campaign on a good note with a 3-2 win against New Zealand. A heavy 1-7 thumping against Australia in the next match had the fans on the edge of their seats as the horrors of the previous Olympic Games resurfaced in front of their eyes. However, Reid revealed that the mood in the dressing room was not as tense as it appeared from outside.

Watch: India created history at the Tokyo Olympics

Graham Reid said, “I think one of the good things about that defeat against Australia was that we actually played pretty well. When you look at the numbers behind the loss, we could have quite easily played that game again and the numbers could have been 3-3 or 3-2 in our favour. So, getting the players back was a little bit easier than it looked.”

India faced a similar situation after a heart-wrenching defeat against Belgium in the semi-finals of the tournament. The coach remarked, “We played the full Belgium team during the test tour for the first time since the World Cup in 2018. I think it was difficult because we were not able to play any games for three and half months before the Olympics. So, it wasn’t an ideal preparation from a competition point of view.

“Maybe that also plays a factor and I think what was good in that game was that we were 2-1 up, we could have turned that into 3-1, 4-1 but we missed some opportunities.”

Goals for the future

Graham Reid speaks exclusively to Khel Now on his plans and vision for the Indian hockey team

Conceding goals in the last few minutes of a match is still a big concern for the Indian hockey team. India faced this problem at the Tokyo Olympics as well, which cost them a shot at the gold medal.

Graham Reid opined, “Well, I don’t think you can ever count that completely out. I think that’s modern hockey. When you lead, teams are trying to get back at you and score. So, that’s always there. But, we actually had a game against New Zealand in the test event back in 2019 and after that, we did a fair bit of work on talking about the mentality of the last time and really try to focus on task orientation, stick with the task in hand.

“The next step from here is to make these players better. This would be our strategy for the next 12 to 18 months. We will be trying to work out what are the things that we need to do to get better. I have some ideas and the team also has some ideas. We will also analyze the Olympics a bit more see what sort of things that other teams are doing and especially to us.”

The coach also believes that India has now earned the right to be mentioned among the top teams in world hockey. “I think we are very nicely placed among the top teams of the world. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done. We still need to get more consistent across quarters and across games. I also think we still need to be creating more quality opportunities,” he signed off.

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