As the clock ticks closer to their Indian Super League (ISL) debut against ATK Mohun Bagan on Friday, SC East Bengal have been putting the final touches to their preparations under their new manager Robbie Fowler. In perhaps a first in Indian football, players are even attending online classes with a forensic psychologist, who's cut her teeth in the prisons department in the UK, and is also trained as a hostage negotiator. It's an innovative touch that -- if you had been following Indian club football for the past decade or so -- is particularly surprising, considering it's coming from East Bengal.
Their 100-year-old legacy notwithstanding, this is a club that hasn't won a national title since 2004. Over the last few weeks though, East Bengal have been making unfamiliar haste. But that sense of urgency has largely been thrust upon them. They would probably have remained in the I-League, but for the fact that Mohun Bagan entered the ISL. Their traditional rival's move to the top division pushed them into swift action.
It isn't as if they didn't make it as difficult for themselves as possible. There were unseemly issues involving an unhappy investor (Quess) and harried players (some without pay and some without accommodation). There were appeals made to the previously mentioned legacy. It finally took intervention by the West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, that finally secured East Bengal's ascension to the ISL.
In at least one aspect, though, they seemed to have it better than their city rivals following the move. Their new avatar SC East Bengal, is certainly less abrasive-sounding to heritage-minded social media fans than the name of ATK Mohun Bagan proved to be. So far, so good. However, the fact that East Bengal only secured entry to the ISL as late as September has meant for the most critical parts of running a club - selecting players, forming a team and training -- the ISL's newest club are chasing the ball.
Making things more challenging is the fact that this is a very different side from the one that finished a distant second in last season's I-League. Only three players from that squad have been retained, even as the club has brought in another 25 players in the transfer window. The late signings have meant that East Bengal is the oldest side in the ISL this season with an average age of 27.5 years.
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The highest profile signing came in the management staff with Liverpool great Fowler being brought in as the chief coach. Much like the club, Fowler too doesn't appear to be coasting on reputation either. Fowler brought in a big team of backroom staff, including set-piece coach in former Blackpool manager Terence McPhillips - which, like the hostage-negotiating expert, is a first in Indian football.
While Fowler lacks the managerial experience like his peers in the other squads, what's in his favour is the fact that he's been in this situation before. Just last year, Fowler, in what was his first managerial stint (not counting one season in 2011 when he served as a player-manager with Thailand's Muangthong) produced a dramatic turnaround in A-League club Brisbane Roars' fortunes. Fowler took the side from second-last the previous season to fourth on the table during his tenure.
It's no surprise that at East Bengal, Fowler's foreign player selection has largely been of those he's familiar with. Australian right-back Scott Neville and Welsh striker Aaron Amadi-Holloway both played for Brisbane Roar under Fowler, while midfielder Matti Steinmann is another A-League import.
The remainder of Fowler's signings bring English experience. Winger Anthony Pilkington joins East Bengal from Wigan Athletic, after earlier spending three years at Premier League outfit Norwich City. Scottish defender Danny Fox also has Premier League experience with Southampton although he has spent the majority of his career in English Championship, most recently as with Pilkington, at Wigan. The final piece of Fowler's puzzle is midfielder Jacques Maghoma who joins from Championship side Birmingham City.
Fowler's foreign picks and his tenure with Brisbane, keeping in mind the limitations of the time he's had to train his squad, give a hint of the style he'd want to play with. In Australia, it appeared that Fowler preferred a safety-first approach, prioritizing defence over attacking vigour. At Brisbane, Fowler played three centre backs and two full backs as they conceded just 28 goals from 26 games. In turn, they only scored 29. At East Bengal, Fox and Neville will be expected to play key roles at the back, Pilkington and Maghoma are likely to play out on the wings with Steinmann feeding them from the midfield while also being in a position to drop back if required.
While Fowler has done what he could with foreign signings, it's the Indian bench, which was filled out prior to his joining the set-up, that will be the unknown factor for his side. While midfielder Eugenson Lyngdoh and striker Jeje Lalpekhlua are amongst the biggest names in Indian football, both are coming off long injury breaks. With both playing critical roles, any delay in finding form is only going to create headaches for Fowler.
It's early days yet in the ISL. East Bengal could yet end up surprising everyone. While they were one of the last squads to start their pre-season training in Goa, they've managed to find some sort of rhythm going by their solitary friendly match in which they beat Kerala Blasters 3-1. However, for the most part, East Bengal's last-minute rush compares poorly to more systematic planning by their competitors. While EB had deeper pockets than some of their I-League counterparts, there's simply not much room for error in their plans in the ISL against teams that have the same resources as they do.
And so, while their psychologist has plans to fly out to India should the side reach the playoffs, it's on Fowler and his squad to ensure she makes the trip.