Coyle's Chennaiyin promise greater heights despite ISL exit in playoffs

Owen Coyle took Chennaiyin FC to their first playoffs in four years. Abhijit Addya/Focus Sports/ISL

Chennaiyin FC may have fallen 1-2 to FC Goa in the Indian Super League knockouts, but their coach Owen Coyle added to his already impressive CV in this league by guiding them to the playoffs for the first time in four years. He'd taken Chennaiyin to the final in 2020, then won the ISL league shield with Jamshedpur FC, but has fallen short this time around, although with a squad that not many tipped to be here in the first place.

"I'm not being blasé about this [getting into the playoffs]. It's great. I'm delighted for everybody in the football club, particularly the fans," Coyle said in an exclusive chat to ESPN. "It's not the be all and end all for me. That's not what I'm about. I'm about trying to fight for trophies. So the playoffs are great, but it's just the first point to get there."

Coyle said that it's the toughest job he's had to face yet in the Indian Super League. "This club had Vishal [Kaith], Deepak [Tangri], [Lallianzuala] Chhangte, [Anirudh] Thapa in their ranks, all national team players, and they were not making the playoffs. This season, we didn't have those elite players, we had young aspiring players, which is definitely a different type of model," he said.

It was one of those who can be classified as elite, in Brandon Fernandes, who put the dagger through Chennaiyin hearts and ended their season, but getting there was an achievement in itself, as much as Coyle downplays it.

How then did he go about the task of taking a group of largely unheralded Indian players into the playoffs? The key, he says, was belief. The belief that the players had in his methods, the belief he had in the players' ability to deliver what he wanted from them, and the belief that they were not an inferior team to anyone else in the league.

The Kolkata Camp

A large part of that belief and team spirit came in a three-week camp in Kolkata. Chennaiyin had their nose bloodied prior to the camp, losing to bottom-placed Hyderabad FC.

So off they went to Kolkata for a fortnight of hard training. It was almost like a second pre-season. Realistically, they knew they had to win at least three of their last four league games to qualify for the playoffs. They won three in three.

Those gruelling sessions in the afternoon heat and humidity of Kolkata paid off handsomely for Coyle. "Sometimes, the players looked at me like 'why are we doing this?' I just told them they'll see the reason why we did that," he said. Tangibly in their first three games since that break - against Bagan, Jamshedpur FC and NorthEast United - Chennaiyin looked the much fitter side and won. Their season ended with two losses to a much superior FC Goa side, but the building blocks had already been put in place.

Coyle's young Indians vindicate his faith in them

Just look at who scored the winning goals for Chennaiyin in the three games they won. Irfan Yadwad stepped up against Bagan, Rahim Ali's delicate chip put Jamshedpur FC away, and then Ankit Mukherjee's blast from distance sent NorthEast United out of the competition. This is a legacy that Coyle already has in the ISL. Be it his first Chennaiyin stint, the season with Jamshedpur, or this season, he has squeezed performances out of every Indian individual.

"Sometimes players just need a chance. They need belief. They need to feel that we trust them and that they're going to get an opportunity," he says. He says he gave them the security that they will be given a fair run in the team, that they will not be dropped from the XI unless their performances demanded that.

Rahim Ali, in particular, has had a tough time over the last couple of years, but Coyle has now turned him into a player putting in decisive contributions for them. "Rahim is so so young, and has already been to the national team, sometimes it's like he takes the weight of the world on his shoulders," Coyle says. The head coach's sympathy for Rahim came from what he calls the toughest thing to do in the ISL - being an Indian no.9. "Everyone loves a goalscorer, everyone wants their striker to be a goalscorer, there's a lot more to his game though, like that hold-up play to assist Ankit's goal against NorthEast."

While admitting how eventually forward players will be judged by goals and assists, just as he's going to be solely judged on the basis of the results he brings, Coyle is excited about the potential of these players growing with him through another season in the ISL. In addition to Rahim and Yadwad, Vincy Barreto and Ninthoingamba Meetei have both made impactful performances out wide as well. That's what he's asked off every player in his side, contributions towards the team, even if they don't have a single player leaping out as an elite goalscorer. Their top-scorer this season - Jordan Murray - has scored five goals. Coyle never panicked because he knew he'd built the fabric of a team that could succeed in this league.

What's next?

It's about taking the next step, making these young players show more consistency than they have so far. They're there at the club because he thinks they're good enough, Coyle says. Even in the January transfer window, he says there was a plan in place at the club and a reason why Chennaiyin weren't the most active club even as teams around them strengthened their squads. He points to Bengaluru FC's additions of Nikhil Poojary and Chinglensana Singh as an example.

"It wasn't about, oh, let's spend that quick money short-term, it was about the long-term plan. Back in January, I believed that we'd be in the playoffs. I thought it was achievable with this squad, and so it has proved," the Scotsman said.

Owen Coyle's giant-killers are only going to get better next season. He said signing a two-year contract was to show the club's owners that he had faith in the project has was going to build. He's excited about this crop of youngsters, who unlike his young crop at Jamshedpur, will have the luxury of having him around to guide them for at least a season more. He's improved them all so much within a season, so one can easily see how the potential for players, club and coach in this project is sky high.

Coyle is clear, their methods will and can never be like a Mumbai City or a Mohun Bagan. But with high-level coaching and empowering young players by putting faith in them, you can squeeze every bit of high performance out of them. He has already done that in his years in the ISL, all while playing a fearless brand of attacking football that makes you want to watch Chennaiyin FC play.