Lost in Bengaluru FC's 'different direction', Simon Grayson pays the price

Bengaluru FC parted ways with head coach Simon Grayson. Shibu Preman / Focus Sports / ISL

When your club owner says in the middle of a game that changes are coming while calling the performance unacceptable, you sense that the writing is on the wall. As it turned out for Simon Grayson at Bengaluru FC, it was. On Saturday morning, the club announced that they have parted ways with the Englishman by mutual consent.

His last act as head coach of Bengaluru FC turned out to be an impressive press conference where he was clearly hurting, and even angry about a performance that he called lackluster and embarrassing as Bengaluru fell to their heaviest-ever home defeat, losing 4-0 to Mumbai City FC. Yet, amidst the anger, there was the refreshing honesty.

"I'm never fearful for my job," he said, "I've been in the game for 18 years [as a head coach]. I know what it's all about. Everyone looks over their shoulders when they get bad results."

More than a year on from another 4-0 defeat to Mumbai City FC in Mumbai where he called his players unfit to wear the shirt, Grayson termed this game as men against boys. "None of our players are showing any basic fundamentals to be professional footballers," he said.

And yet, despite taking aim at his players, he stood there for them with a touch of empathy as well. Clearly, his players had let him down, and eventually were a part of the reason why he has lost a job. Bengaluru's passing was shoddy, their off-the-ball defensive work was almost non-existent at times, this was a team that had no direction and no leaders on the pitch. Their coach, though, was fearful of something even more fundamental than his own job.

"What will happen will happen, but the biggest concern is the performance of some of the players who whether I'm here or not will have to show a lot more steel, application, desire because their futures are on the line as well. Some of these are only 22 or 24. Performances like this aren't going to keep them in football."

Grayson wasn't helped by some decisions the club had made through the summer, but he took responsibility for that as well, calling it a collective decision to let go of a few experienced players to give the younger players more chances. "We chose to go in that direction," he said.

It is a direction that wasn't easy to understand at the time, and with the benefit of hindsight, has become even more perplexing. They let Sandesh Jhingan and Prabir Das go, and their replacements were Shankar Sampingiraj and Jessel Carneiro. Arguably India's best centre-back and an accomplished right-back were replaced by a journeyman who wasn't even a regular in the I-League last season and a left-back.

"There is no doubt about it that we certainly miss somebody like Sandesh Jhingan. He is a leader, puts in his tackles, and talks to people around him. That's a decision that's probably come back to haunt us a little bit as well. We probably don't have enough vocal leaders in the group," Grayson said after the game.

That direction was laid bare at the Kanteerava on Friday. Mumbai City were cruising and were still able to bring on accomplished stars such as Tiri and Lallianzuala Chhangte. Bengaluru's five subs involved a debut for young defender Shivaldo Singh and a run-out for inexperienced attacker Monirul Molla.

"Look at the difference between Mumbai's substitutions and ours. It's not a criticism, it happens in football. Other clubs decided to do things differently to us. We've given five players their debuts in the ISL, I don't think any other club would've done that. We're a young squad, but we have some experienced players as well, who need to flourish these younger players and take responsibility of what they need to do as well."

For a manager to say that he doesn't have enough vocal leaders in a group that has India's captain and vice-captain is a damning indictment. It is also the perfect summary of the no-nonsense attitude that Grayson brought to Bengaluru FC. Nobody was bigger than the club itself.

Grayson genuinely cared. This is a man who has won four promotions during his time as a manager in the lower leagues in England, a man who had more than 400 appearances as a professional footballer in his homeland, but if he didn't care about Bengaluru FC and his players, then he was doing an incredible job of hiding that feeling.

"I know what it takes to go through hard times, good times, being promoted, winning trophies etc. But I'm hurting as much as any other time in my career, because this result is just not good enough for this football club," he said.

He cared about the club and its fans. As he left the stadium, he went over to one of the fans waiting to hand him a club bag with a couple of jerseys in it. That was his way of showing gratitude to the fans for standing by him and his players, even when he felt like they didn't deserve it.

Eventually, his stint at Bengaluru didn't work out as he'd have hoped for, but it was a stint always filled with honesty and empathy. Making three finals last season showed that beyond the human that he showed himself to be, Simon Grayson was also an excellent coach capable of winning football games.