Hard work and fun: How Owen Coyle turned Chennaiyin into a happy family
Owen Coyle looks tired. Face covered in thick grey stubble, little dark semicircles under the eyes, he looks like he could use a good night's sleep. He is, though, patently happy. Having spent the morning training with his team, he had been talking almost non-stop for a couple of hours before I could meet him. The ISL had wanted to film promotional material for the final he had guided his Chennaiyin FC team to, and his own club had wanted to record a video message from him to the fans for social media. It would have been understandable if his voice flagged a little, if the answers became a bit monotonic. But that is just not how Owen Coyle does things.
He is enthusiastic, vocal, speaks fast and answers questions in minute detail. Everything about him screams, "I b****y love this job". And he says so explicitly, many number of times.
"Listen, it's football, it's the best game in the world," he says. "When I was a player-coach, I remember my manager saying to me, 'Listen, Coyley, You've got to understand. When you become head coach/manager in your own right, not everyone is going to be as enthusiastic about football as you.' And I said I don't understand that. I still don't. I simply cannot understand that. Because to go out there and be able to kick the ball and that's your livelihood? It doesn't get any better than that."
This unabashed love for the game, that natural enthusiasm and the ability to get it to rub off on other people -- he believes it is the secret to the revolution he has whipped up in Chennai.
That, and "hard work".
Taking over a side stranded at the bottom of the table, with just five points and four goals scored in six matches, he transformed them into a snarling, free-scoring, winning machine. In the league stages, Chennaiyin won seven and drew three of his twelve matches in charge, scoring 28 goals and taking 25 points. They made the playoffs with a game to spare.
It all stems from the aspirations he had when he came in. For a team that had endured a horrible season last year, finishing on nine points (an all-time ISL low) and then having started so poorly this time, it would have been natural if the players had become consumed by toxicity, negativity, to go on the defensive both on and off the pitch. Coyle, though, was having none of it.
"Shutting up shop was never going to be enough. It might have been, if your aspirations were to just steady the ship, draw a game, win a game here, lose a game there... but to be honest, that's not me. When I come, I am committed. I want us to be the best we can be, to get us back to where the prizes are at the end of the season."
In his first meeting, he spelt it out to his players. "Whatever has happened before," he told them, "I can't affect that. I can affect what's to come. Everything in front of us, that's what we are fighting for. We control our own destiny. But the only way we can do that is by being positive, by believing and trusting each other."
As he spoke on about his philosophy, and that of his long-time assistant Alexander Stewart (the two played together, teammates since 1990, and struck up a post-retirement coaching partnership that still holds), he continued in the same vein. "We've been at a very high level because we know what we're doing. We won't let standards slip, we can be fun when we need to be, but we demand that drive. We try to remain positive -- it is easy to come in, beat someone with a stick, but ultimately [that doesn't work]. Our coaching has always been based on positivity, encouraging people, knowing there'll be mistakes.
"The best players in the world make mistakes. The important thing is that once you've committed a mistake, you go and get the ball. That you're brave and you're hungry and you don't mope and feel sorry for yourself," he says.
He believes that the fact that his players embraced this message, accepted it as a part of their mentality, helped them get to where they are now.
All this eagerness, the repetitive rendition of the same upbeat message of enthusiasm and positivity can seem borderline boring for an outsider, but you can see why it works with the players.
From day one, he says, "every one of them [his players] knuckled down and showed their quality." The nine-day forced break he got right after he joined them was key, he feels. It helped him observe his players up close, assess what he had with him, and ultimately fit that into what he had wanted to do: play attacking, entertaining football.
"We want to win, but surely you want to entertain," he says, his pitch hitting new levels of high, incredulous at the hypothetical scenario that someone might disagree with him.
Surely you want your fans to think, 'I'm looking forward to watching my team today.' Surely.
He believes attacking football is the reason so many of us love the game in the first place, and that is just how he wants his teams to play. "I think the best sight in football is the ball hitting the back of the net, for me next to that is a winger taking someone on and getting to the byline. When the number ten plays a clever pass -- we get out of our seats. We always say, in football, that fans can always help you, but the players have an obligation to help the fans, to give them something to shout about, and when you bring it together it's fantastic to see," he says, with a proud smile.
It is something he has always believed in. At Burnley and Bolton Wanderers, he transformed two famously stiff, defensive teams into swashbuckling entertainers, teams who punched above their weight, and did so with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Despite the setbacks, the failures, the contrasting jobs -- from the lower reaches of Scottish football to the English Premier League to the MLS and now the ISL -- that belief has not changed.
"Every experience was brilliant. There's always trials and tribulations in football. As a player, as a manger, that's the most important lesson -- you get punched in the teeth, how'd you pick yourself up and go again?" he shrugs.
This iron belief is not just show. It is evident with how he sets up his team. He advocates for the ISL adapting AFC's four-foreigner rule. He believes it is important that a team should not be foreigner-driven, that it should have a healthy dose of local youngsters. His isn't, and his does.
No other team in the league has a midfield base of two Indians, like the one Coyle has built with Anirudh Thapa and either Germanpreet Singh or Edwin Vanspaul. They have revelled in being the foundation upon which the entire attacking unit sits, in being the screen that protects the entire defensive unit, in being the beating heart of the team.
"We've given [the Indian] boys a chance, coached them. The more time you spend with Indian players, the better they are going to be. Because they're fit, they're hungry, they have a great desire, they have a tremendous work rate, but they need people to spend time with them," says Coyle.
He takes the example of Lallianzuala Chhangte -- "He just needed someone to trust him, to believe in him. This boy, he does the most difficult thing in football very easily -- penetrating in behind. It comes naturally to him. But when he comes to the last step, he needs to gather some composure, to slow down, calm himself. When you are composed, you give yourself a chance to make a better pass, take a better shot." Chhangte has seven goals this season -- his most productive yet. No midfielder in the league has had more shots on target than his 21. He is a key weapon in the Chennaiyin arsenal. That is real, tangible progress. Evidence that marrying determination to improve with quality coaching helps players.
As he continues, there is no dip in the gusto behind his words. He praises his players profusely, heralds their humility, their eagerness and their togetherness. He describes it as being part of the family. As an Irishman born and brought up in a tough, working-class Glasgow suburb as one of nine siblings, he believes in the concept of family. His father turned down a chance for 13-year-old Coyle to play for Dundee United ("a top four club at the time") in favour of Dumbarton in the lower reaches of Scottish football because two of his other sons were there, and the Director of Football was a family friend. To this day, Coyle does not have any regrets about it. He was happy about the decision then, he's happy about it now. "It's always good to be with family," he says. He feels it is important that Chennaiyin as a club have made sure that their players are all put up together, with the staff, for the duration of the season, that it's made his job that little bit easier.
He talks about how they had to win every match to make sure they were in contention for the playoffs, but acknowledges that it is not "real" pressure. "My mum and dad had to take two jobs to provide, that's pressure. Putting food on the table, that's pressure," he says, dismissing any notion that his team were under stress ahead of the ISL final he has guided them to against all odds.
"I just love football. I have been very fortunate, very blessed, to have a career in football," he keeps saying. You can see he means it. Sleep can wait. Tired or not, this is what he loves doing, and this is what he promises he will keep doing.
Owen Coyle is here to have fun, to make sure his players have fun, and to see to it that you have fun watching his team play. He is going to try his best to make them win. For the past four months, he's lived up to the first part. While merely reaching the final would be seen by most as an astounding success, Coyle does not want to settle. Come Saturday evening, he will have a chance to live up to that second bit.