ISL: 'We must enjoy' - Kerala Blasters coach Vukomanovic preaches pre-final what he's practiced through the season

Ivan Vukomanovic is aiming to bring home Kerala Blasters' first ever ISL trophy Faheem Hussain/Focus Sports/ ISL

Ivan Vukomanovic is remarkably relaxed for a man about to play a big cup final the next day. The Kerala Blasters play Hyderabad FC in their first final in six years, it's the first time in as many years that they're a decent outfit, but Vukomanovic doesn't want to hear any talk of pressure. Tens of thousands of travelling fans, millions shouting themselves hoarse back in Kerala... none of this is pressure, he says. Just "pleasure".


"As someone who has experienced finals as both player and coach, these are the easiest games to play. You are motivated, you are [full of] concentration, you're ready. There's already that extra motivation to show your individual creativity... what more do you need?"

How can there be pressure, he is essentially asking, when "there are so many people around the world, doing what they have to do to survive, to provide food for the family"?

"We as a people in football have the luck and privilege to do something we love. When we transfer that love onto the field, there is no pressure. Only pleasure and joy. Being able to go onto the pitch with such a great club, shooting the ball, playing for the cup... I am getting goosebumps!"

Those goosebumps are real. There's a twinkle in Vukomanovic's eyes when he speaks about this romantic notion of football he believes in. The smile's wide and genuine, the actions animated, the words rushing out in a tumble. He's having the time of his life, and he wants you to know it, to share in it.

That last bit's important. It is, after all, a fundamental part of his coaching philosophy - share in the pain, the happiness, the work... oh, the work. Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, 21, the Blasters' starting 'keeper, talks about how intense training under Vukomanovic is. "It's non-stop, the intensity. When you train like that, matches... they just become easy!"

It's not like Vukomanovic came in and immediately imposed all-out training. "He phased it in, increasing the tempo as we improved our fitness simultaneously," says Gill. "Look at us now." They are the ISL's hardest working team.

This phased introduction wasn't part of the coach's original plans. It was part of an adaptation that, Vukomanovic says, was the biggest challenge of his first season at the Blasters. "Every coach in the world, you have your approach, your working style. After a couple of days, we decided, as a coaching staff [collective], to completely change our working style. You must be capable of adapting to the local environment, mentality and qualities. You cannot just demand certain things immediately. You have to modify."

"Today, we see our team fighting for each other from the first till the last moment. The players coming [off] the bench know [their] task, they know what to do, and they don't need the time to adapt. We modified our approach... and it resulted in a spot in the final. Now when we go back and think about these things, it was exhausting, not easy, but it makes you feel better. Even if it was difficult, who cares? We enjoyed the ride, and today we are here... we must enjoy."

Gill's introduction into the team was unplanned, the result of an early long-term injury suffered by Albino Gomes, but he's stayed #1 ever since. Gill is one of quite a few Indian youngsters who are likely to feature in the starting XI tomorrow - Ruivah Hormipam, Jeakson Singh, Puitea, Sanjeev Stalin, KP Rahul are the others. And there are more waiting in the wings, fully confident their chance will come, because that's what their coach has promised, delivered. Vukomanovic paraphrases the great Matt Busby when he says, "If you have quality, and you are better than your contemporaries, you are going to play. Age does not matter."

His football is modern, distinct to what the ISL has seen so far. While the league went through, and is still going through, a 'Barcelonafication' phase where teams attempt to build out from the back, play with it rather than hoof it long, Vukomanovic brings with him a high-pressing, high-intensity style that can blow teams away when done right. He's doing it because he believes it's the right thing to do - to evolve - and not because he has a rigid overarching style guide.

"When you look at life, there's evolution. Football's the same, it is a part of evolution. When you look at modern football, there are certain aspects that are improving, year by year. As a coach, I like to follow [new methods, new tactics] and then implement, and then try to show the way certain opponents can be beaten. All around the world -- Premier League, Bundesliga, everywhere -- there is intensity, high pressure, I want to try that out."

"As a coach it makes you feel better later when you see that it can be achieved, that the boys understand it and are showing it in the game. At the end of day it makes me proud when I see them enjoying it, and then everybody around us enjoying the victories [that come out of it]. That's my, and my coaching staff's, philosophy. That's how you bring about the improvement of a club."

And what improvement he has brought about. His trials have taken a team that languished tenth, seventh, ninth, and sixth in the last four seasons to fourth and then the final. If not for that COVID-19 outbreak in January, which Vukomanovic believes stopped their momentum dead, he feels they could have been challenging for the shield. That's the only time a tinge of wistfulness colours his words. But he doesn't linger on it. A smile, a look up to the heavens, and a booming laugh later he's back to talking about joy and football and fans and happiness.

Vukomanovic cares for success, any good coach has to, but he knows it's not be-all and end-all of this sport. The one thing he's going to tell his team before kick-off? "Win or lose, you have to give your 100%. Leave everything on that pitch. At the end let the best team win."