As a young sports fan, Karolis Skinkys loved teams that punched above their weight, teams that were "tough to beat", "not ones with magicians, but with good fighting spirit." As a sporting director, Skinkys demands exactly those qualities from his teams. "If you're not in a position to buy [whoever] you want, you need to find a way to compete. This is usually the way."
Compete. That's exactly what Skinkys' Kerala Blasters did this past season of the Indian Super League. They finished fourth in a tight league stage and reached the final of the playoffs, losing only on penalties. They had their fair share of magical moments courtesy Adrian Luna's ridiculous technique, Sahal Abdul Samad's mazy dribbling and Alvaro Vazquez's volleying, but if you think Blasters class of 21-22, the one quality that comes to mind is collective intensity. The best phrases to describe them? "Good fighting spirit." "Tough to beat."
This didn't happen by accident, rather through decisions made even as the previous season - where Blasters' finished 10th out of 11 teams - was coming to a close. Skinkys scouted far and wide before hiring Ivan Vukomanovic, whose last job had been an interim gig in Cyprus in 2019. The pair then went about refreshing the squad - completely overhauling the foreigners quota and signing a mix of experienced (Harmanjot Khabra) and promising (Ruivah Hormipam) Indians. They then, surprisingly, started pre-season in July, more than three months before the season itself started, involving their reserve and youth teams in the senior's training sessions.
All these - the choice of coach, the selection of players, the early start to the season - had been dictated by the "observations" Skinkys had made during his rather disastrous first season.
"We didn't have enough time [in '20-'21]. We came just four weeks before the season started, the foreigners came three weeks before the first game... everything was in a rush. We were not prepared at all, and obviously we underperformed a lot. This is why we started pre-season this time around so early. For some, it might seem strange, but with these huge breaks between seasons in India it creates big problems for players to stay without football. It's not the way to improve."
They competed in the Durand Cup, but that ended in disappointment. After that, "we came back to Kochi and continued our training where our young boys had the chance to be with the team. Some of them, for example Bijoy [Varghese], made the first team probably only because of this long pre-season. Because he made a huge improvement during that period."
Even before that, though, the coach.
"We needed to start from the basics, and this is maybe where we made a mistake in the first season. We [wanted] to play some kind of possession [based] attacking football, [with I-league winning coach Kibu Vicuna] but in my opinion, it wasn't the most efficient way. So we [wanted to find] the correct coach. That was the main target, to have a mentally strong coach who has an ability to adapt and choose the most efficient way to play."
Vukomanovic's idea of efficiency tallied with Skinkys idea of what makes a good team. When you speak to them both, you can see the common thread of football philosophy that connects them and you understand why they appear to be getting along so well. The masses that support their team are not a source of "pressure, but pleasure." They repeat often how "we are also lucky to work in football."
While Skinkys didn't want to comment on any possible extension to Vukomanovic's contract, deferring to the team's right to announce it (or not), all factors point to him remaining in charge. "Next season, the style will be even more clear. This season was Ivan's first in India, and he also needed to adapt. Some things when you see it up close, you understand better."
"Now, the most important thing is to keep consistency, make the right choices [going] forward. Football never stops. The team and the dressing room and the club structure is alive [and evolving]... it always keeps changing, there's always something happening, we also need to understand that some changes need to be done to stay on [track]."
The Blasters institution have had a problem with 'consistency' since its inception. There have been 11 managerial changes in eight seasons. They've had managers from different nationalities, who subscribe to widely differing philosophies, and a revolving door of foreign players to suit each of them. They've been, essentially, a study in how not to build a team for far too long.
Skinkys aims to change that. He wants to emphasise that there won't be change for change's sake, something that he says happens way too often and to the detriment of teams. He says that while the squad is youthful, and a pathway from the reserves to the senior squad will always be encouraged, the setup will always be balanced and no one will make the team just because they are young. With COVID-19 abating (hopefully) he wants to have an even more hands-on approach at the club, get involved in the youth structure.
While right now he's thinking of the coming pre-season, and even laying down plans for the next, his ultimate aim is to see a club which will "grow and get better every year." Not in terms of standings, but "processes, in terms of improving all parts of the club, sporting and otherwise. With improvements in processes, results will come."
He wants people to look at Kerala before a season starts and say 'they will be in top four, they are a really good team'. But he knows they are not there yet.
For Skinkys and his team, this belief - that they are still not where they can be, where they have the potential to be - will keep them going. Isn't that exactly what the legions of Blasters fans want to see?