When Jamshedpur FC become the ninth club to play in the Indian Super League (ISL) during their season opener against NorthEast United FC in Guwahati on November 18, it will be a bittersweet homecoming of sorts for Cameroon's Andre Bikey.
Formerly of Reading, Burnley and Middlesbrough, Bikey was one of NorthEast's best performers on his ISL debut in 2015, capping off nine appearances across defence and midfield with a vital goal in a 3-2 win over FC Pune City at home in their last league encounter, one they needed to win to stay in the hunt for the playoffs. They missed out by two points, and Bikey will be hoping to do better this time with the debutants.
"It's a new franchise. People probably expect us to be crap, because nobody is talking about Jamshedpur," said Bikey over the weekend, eliciting peals of laughter from members of the press. "We are prepared and confident."
Bikey was slated to return to play for Pune last year, but sustained a quadriceps injury in pre-season that needed surgery and ruled him out from September to February, a period when he admitted he "never thought he would get this opportunity to play in India again".
During the media day, Bikey sat alongside Jamshedpur coach Steve Coppell, who had been his manager at Reading. When Bikey was asked how he felt about re-uniting with Coppell, the latter nudged him and joked that he would have no option but to be nice. "The relationship with my boss has always been a nice one. In England, we have a nice three years together. It was my Premier League debut," said Bikey, who has 25 caps for Cameroon against his name.
Bikey is one of three African players in the Jamshedpur squad, alongside former ATK winger Sameehg Doutie of South Africa and Senegalese striker Talla N'Diaye. He might also need to compete for places in central defence with former ATK defender Jose 'Tiri' Arroyo and India international Anas Edathodika, who was Jamshedpur's first pick at the player draft in July. But Bikey, who had told ESPN last year that position didn't matter to him as he had begun as a midfielder and switched to defence only over the previous seven or eight seasons, sounded confident he would start. "In every team I am always the main man," he said. "I will perform in midfield or in defence, but I haven't come here to sit in a bench."
Bikey had once explained his football philosophy to ESPN saying, "Fans come to the game to enjoy themselves, and you owe them visually-appealing football. It is easy for teams to have 10 players at the back of the field, because everyone wants to win. But it would be the worst advertisement for the fans if more games finish 0-0 or 1-0. You don't become a good defender or a bad defender just because of the goals conceded, because it depends on your game plan. Sometimes when you play away from home, you attack less, but when playing at home you attack more and expose your defence more as a result."
Bikey's grit and tenacity were evident in his only ISL, where he was not just NorthEast's most commanding presence in defence, but also one of their most accurate passers of the ball. He had a good influence on young Indian players around him like defender Reagan Singh, who could front up against him on Saturday evening. All foreign players will also have to compete for one spot lesser compared to previous seasons, with ISL reducing the number of foreigners from six to five, something that encourages Bikey about the future of Indian football.
"I think, like in everything else, we always try to improve," he said. "This year the ISL will get six Indian players, which means someone was doing something [right]. In the first year, a number of players were in their mid-30s, but in Jamshedpur I'm the oldest player at 32. If I'm here again, I did well with NorthEast United, [and] people realized I have something to give."
It will be a long and often unforgiving ISL season, and debutants Jamshedpur will hope that former Kerala Blasters coach Coppell can use his inside knowledge of the league to take them far this time around. In executing that plan, his perfect partner could well be the versatile Bikey, and what better occasion could he ask for other than against his old team?