"East Bengal asked me nicely."
Stephen Constantine is in good spirits ahead of his first match as a manager of an Indian club. His East Bengal side take on Kerala Blasters in Kochi in the season opener of the Indian Super League on October 7 and he's fielding questions from the press with the same witty charm he's shown over the years. The former Indian national team coach of seven years (across two stints) laughs when asked why he joined East Bengal this summer. "I deliberately didn't join any (Indian) club after the Indian national team job. It's been three years and... well, East Bengal FC asked me nicely."
And so he's back. To take the opportunity to complete some "unfinished business" as he calls it: the chance to manage at club level in a nation he knows so well.
It has not been easy. East Bengal, over the past few years, have redefined chaos. The last two seasons have seen them finish 9th and 11th in the league, with the club making news for off-field drama and post-match press conferences more than anything they did on the pitch.
Earlier this summer, a tempestuous two-year relationship with chief investor Shree Cements had come to an end and like the past two off-seasons, they watched on as every other club made moves in the transfer market. There wasn't even surety that they could field a team this season. One of the grand old clubs of Indian football was languishing. Then along came Emami, and with them, Constantine.
"I had 12 players when I arrived here," he says, before adding that he didn't really wish to get into all the multitude of challenges he had to overcome to get a season-ready squad. "Now we have a squad of 26-27 players and they have worked very hard for me so far."
The way he looks at it, it's a restructuring - from top to bottom. The squad has an interesting look to it, with exciting Indian talent like Aniket Jadhav, VP Suhair and Amarjit Singh (will this finally be his breakthrough season?) wrestling for place with proven ISL players in Ivan Gonzalez, Alex Lima and Cleiton Silva. Besides them, "there are a few players in the team who might not have been in the ISL were it not for us," says Constantine. "It's a chance for them to prove a point."
Combine known quality with players who have a slight chip on their shoulders and add a dash of assistant coach Bino George's flair with Constantine's own nous and one thing is certain - it'd be silly to write East Bengal off this season.
Kerala Blasters' head coach Ivan Vukomanovic, for one, isn't taking them lightly. "Yes, East Bengal had a couple of less [than good] seasons, but it was the same case with the Kerala Blasters before. After such a dry period, you have new ideas, new motivation, you have new power." Vukomanovic had talked about a lot of potential surprises in store this season, and counts East Bengal as a potential one. "They have a good coach, they have a good team. Anybody can beat anybody, in the ISL. Whoever thinks that it will be easy against East Bengal, they are wrong. They are a good team, with good organisation."
That last word is key. Constantine may have had a lot of critics during his stint with the national team for his particular brand of football -- 'a midfield? What is that?' -- but the one thing he always ensured was organisation. Defensive discipline, workrate, minimizing mistakes: no compromise.
The question is, though, will that be enough? As new club captain Sauvik Chakrabarti said when asked why he left champions Hyderabad FC... "The name East Bengal is enough." It's a name that carries weight, a club emblem that demands nothing but trophies from those that wear it. Constantine understands this, but takes pains to explain the base from which he is starting.
"Kerala Blasters FC have been in existence for what... nine years? But they finished fourth last season, reached the final. We have been in existence for over 100 years but what have we done? It's good to have history to look back on," he says, "but each team will make their own history based on their results and situation.
Which is not to say he's pessimistic. As long-time fans of Indian football will know, Constantine simply looks to be realistic about any situation he is, at all times.
"We are not the finished article, and we will not win all twenty matches," he says. "But we haven't come here to lose the game on Friday. And I haven't come to East Bengal FC to finish in the last place. So, I will do everything I can to make it work."