'Our greatest strength' - Hyderabad eye ISL trophy by putting squad unity over personal glory

Hyderabad FC have relied on their squad unity to overcome Covid-19 and injuries to reach the ISL final Sandeep Shetty/Focus Sports/ ISL

"The coach has said many times this season, that the team that manages the situation better will arrive at the final."

The 'situation' here is COVID-19, and what an outbreak can do to a football team mid-season. The person speaking, Hyderabad FC captain Joao Victor, a day before the final of the 2021-22 ISL season.

He has a modesty that mirrors that of his coach, Manolo Marquez, as he speaks about the team's remarkable achievement this season. This seemingly simple line, however, underlines a key aspect behind their success... squad management.

They've done it better than most, and it's taken some skill.

Hyderabad FC were one of the worst hit when COVID-19 ripped through the ISL bio-bubble mid-season, and then were affected again towards the end of the league stage. They've had key players missing big games, and have played several players out of position on multiple occasions. Others have had to do it too, but none quite as successfully. Marquez's ability to instill belief in his squad had already been proven last season, when he guided them to a fifth-place finish (missing out on the top 4 on the last day) despite having a number of long-term injuries to key foreign players. This season's he's taken that to the next level.

"You might have said 25-26 players in a squad is too much, but it's not," says Marquez. "You need all of them to train at the same level. [You need them to understand that] if you train well, your moment will arrive. They have to be prepared."

With the outbreaks, this has often meant last-minute changes to plans, sometimes just as the team's boarding the bus to the stadium. Victor, for instance, was of seven players who made it straight onto the pitch after a week's isolation in their rooms for the final league match against Mumbai. Hyderabad won 2-1.

"I have always told my teammates that mindset takes centre stage at moments like this," says Bartholomew Ogbeche. "If the coach calls me tomorrow, and says 'the team needs you as a goalkeeper', I will say 'give me the gloves, let's do this'."

Of course he's exaggerating for effect, but you can see he's only half-joking. If Marquez really did ask Ogbeche to become the goalkeeper... "Listen, I may not be very good at that position, but I go all out, prepare myself as if I'm playing in my natural position. That's one of the keys to being successful, being able to help the team from whatever position you're called upon."

Scorer of 17 goals in 17 league stage games, he played as a deep(er) lying #10 in the semifinals, behind Javier Siverio. He still scored once, because this is Ogbeche we are talking about, but this willingness to change position, to not moan one bit, is why when he says "I would trade any personal accolades for the team's success," you believe it.

It's part that us-before-me mentality, and part the hard yards put in training that has carried Hyderabad this far. As Chinglensana Singh says, "The key to this is to understand the role of each individual." Sana, as he's fondly known, has played in a back four that conceded the second-least amount of goals, and has grown considerably to become one of the league's best centre-backs. That he has done so in a season that's been as unstable and unpredictable as this is a credit to him, and the coaching staff. "It's simple," he says. "If Ashish [Rai, the starting fullback on his side of the pitch] is in, he does the job, if Nim [Dorjee] comes in [instead of Rai], he knows what to do. For instance, when I missed out when I got COVID, Nim came in the middle. This is our [greatest] strength."

There are moments, of course, where it hasn't been enough. Marquez becomes wistful, the early rage having died down, when considering what might have been against Jamshedpur. In what was virtually a straight shoot-off between them and Jamshedpur FC for the league shield, they missed (amongst others) Laxmikant Kattimani, Juanan Gonzalez, Victor and Ogbeche. The spine of the side.

It's the kind of result that could have spiraled out of control; anger and resentment getting the better of the staff, the squad. They didn't allow it to. They beat Mumbai four days later. And then schooled ATK Mohun Bagan over two legs in the semifinal the next week.

Now, standing in the way of the big prize is Kerala Blasters. Ogbeche, wizened pro that he is, has been speaking to the youngsters, asking them not to worry. Victor says he has butterflies in his stomach, the good kind, because isn't that what football is all about? Sana cracks a broad smile when telling us how pleased he is that the stadium is sold out.

Come Sunday, they will all want to keep doing what they have been doing all season long. Believing in themselves, battling till the last minute, being there for each other. And if things go as per Marquez's plan, as they usually do, lifting the ISL trophy.