How Westwood surpassed targets coaching 2-year-old Bengaluru FC
Ashley Westwood is 90 minutes away from coaching Bengaluru FC to a second successive Indian title. But to do so, his team, currently second in the I-League standings, must defeat leaders Mohun Bagan in the final game of the season on Sunday.
"For some reason, people want us to fail in this country ... the second one will confirm that we are deserved champions," the English coach of the southern I-League club told ESPNFC. "It is a huge game but we are looking forward to it."
The world may have had its attention on Zurich the past few days, but excitement has been building in India with the approaching title showdown. Kolkata-based Mohun Bagan, one of the oldest clubs in the world, may be ahead by two points but Bengaluru, one of the newest, have home advantage and a confident Englishman in charge.
Westwood is coming up to the two-year mark and a win on Sunday would make it pretty much the perfect tenure for the former assistant manager of Portsmouth, Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers. Lifting the league trophy in his first season as a head coach and the club's first season as a club, has not, according to the 38-year-old, received the credit it deserves.
"We won the league with players who were discarded by other clubs and this has made people envious and wondering how we managed it," he said. "People say we pay the most and that we have the biggest budget but that is a myth. I see people on television saying that it is easy for us to win with the budget we have but that's not fair. We negotiate hard and we sell the club to potential players as a way for improvement. People don't join for the money, you need competitive players who want to come because they want to better themselves. We are not Manchester City."
Westwood started out as a Manchester United trainee before embarking on a career as a centre-back, most notably with Sheffield Wednesday and also at Crewe Alexandra and Wrexham. After his spells as an assistant coach -- and completing his coaching licenses -- he moved to India in the summer of 2013.
Located in the city of Bengaluru, formerly Bangalore, in the south of the country and not a traditional football hotbed -- though more than 15,000 are expected for Sunday's showdown -- this was a brand-new club backed by Indian conglomerate JSW.
"As a new club meeting the financial commitments to join the league, we were given a three-year exemption from relegation," he said. "This gave us some stability and enabled us to build from the bottom and develop players with no pressure to finish outside the bottom three, though that is what we wanted. In terms of targets, we set a top three goal for the third season and mid-table for the second but we leapfrogged that completely. Never did we talk about winning the league in Year 1, 2 or 3."
The boss puts much of the success down to tactical flexibility and top-level physical conditioning. "Everything is based on English Premier League fitness programs," he said. "There is a lot of conditioning work. The condition of the players was not good so we could get much improvement from that alone.
"The group of players are good and they apply themselves. We compare our stats with regards to metres covered, sprints and all that. There are a lot of excuses in India -- the weather, the training ground -- and while we can't guarantee technically great performances, we can at least control the physical side.
"I wasn't surprised to win last season," he said. "I didn't expect it but I just knew that if you have the right framework then you can get huge rewards. It was more of a relief when we won it as we worked very hard. It was all 12-14 hour days. So it was a nice reward for that. If you don't win, you don't get the accolades. I came in June and stayed until July, I never nipped back to England and it has been the same this season."
As well as success at home, earlier this week Bengaluru were eliminated from the AFC Cup by South China of Hong Kong. Just reaching the knockout stage in the "Asian Europa League" is an achievement for any Indian club these days with the rising standards around Asia. Whatever happens on Sunday, insists Westwood, this season has been a success.
"We are confirmed top two, we can win the league, we are a new club and made the last 16 of the AFC Cup," he said. "We won the Federation Cup. It is a huge step forward. Other sides play 20 league games and four cup games but we have also had eight AFC Cup games too, travelling all over. None of the other Indian clubs can do that, they don't condition their players the way we do. Not to win the league would be disappointing but this season has placed huge demands on players who are not used to it. If we don't win the league, it will not be because we lost it but because we ran out of games."
When the club started there was one Indian international on the books but he was the best -- captain Sunil Chhetri, a shining example to others. Now club colleagues are joining the striker to represent their homeland. "In the last squad that came out, we had six," said Westwood. "And these boys haven't played for India before they came to us and with the three new players in the U22 side, we now have nine.
"All Indian players now understand that if you come to our club and learn more about fitness and nutrition then you have a good chance of becoming an international -- at least you will become a better player. Every time we play against a team, it is almost as if they are putting themselves on trial against us as they want to come and play for us. Everyone wants to beat you anyway as you are champions but others want to be at the club as they know we can further their career."
And the coach's career? Maintaining his 100 percent championship record as a No. 1, the Englishman would surely be in demand as a well-qualified, forward-thinking young coach with success already under his belt. Another title could attract interest from elsewhere.
"If I am being honest, I don't think that you sit there as a chairman after sacking your manager and start thinking about the lad who won the league in India," he said. "I just don't think that the English football telescope stretches into India. What you hope is that when the opportunity pops up, an agent mentions your name and then chairmen think you are interesting and want a chat.
"I have put down some solid playing roots, got the badges, worked as an assistant and then done well so far as a No. 1. The CV looks all right."
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.