Mumbai City FC were an afterthought in ESPN's 2021-22 ISL review of the season. None of their players made it into the Team of the Year either. Des Buckingham, hyped a fair bit upon his arrival, had taken over the defending champions... and finished fifth. Almost a year later, the prose has flowed for Mumbai, their entire starting XI could very well be the Team of the Year and Buckingham has turned his side into unstoppable, record-breaking champions.
So, how did they get there?
The answer isn't as dramatic as you'd like. It's the default blueprint of any successful club -- smart recruitment, adept man-management and quite simply, patience. It sounds simple enough, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a single ISL club, barring Mumbai City, who managed to do all three this season. ATK Mohun Bagan recruited well, but poor man-management and injuries saw them flounder. Hyderabad and Kerala Blasters suffered in the recruitment front, which resulted in a league campaign of what-ifs.
There's no such uncertainty when interacting with Buckingham, whose hypnotic blue eyes and quietly confident demeanour are enough to lull you into a sense of zen-like euphoria. At least that's what explains how Mumbai's players have dealt with every challenge thrown at them this season with an eerie calm.
Right from the opening game of the season, where Mumbai came back twice to earn a 3-3 draw with Hyderabad, to their 6-2 hiding of Chennaiyin FC after being two goals down, to going 4-0 up against an in-form Kerala Blasters inside 25 minutes, and even scoring twice in the final ten minutes to complete a 2-1 win over Jamshedpur -- Mumbai City FC have had the answers, All. Season. Long.
CAMPIONES CAMPIONES OLE OLE OLE ����️
PS - Watch it till the end for Jahouh's somersault ✈️����#CityOfChampions #MumbaiCity #AamchiCity �� pic.twitter.com/uprwZ60Z8t
- Mumbai City FC (@MumbaiCityFC) February 11, 2023
Despite their fifth-placed finish last season, Mumbai were favourites in ESPN's 2022-23 season preview on the back of a recruitment spree that saw them bring in last season's Player of the Year Greg Stewart as well as Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Alberto Noguera and Royston Griffiths.
In a chat with ESPN, Buckingham reveals that it's not simply about going out there and spending money for its own sake, saying, "They should suit the way we want to play. When we go looking for players, we firstly look at the player profile we need, and measure them against that profile. Obviously, there's a lot more due diligence that goes in because you have to work with the person as well, not just the type of player they are. That's very important when you're in these types of environments every day."
It's borne out in the stats -- Diaz fit in like a glove and leads the league in goal involvements, with Stewart not too far behind as well. And we haven't even mentioned Lallianzuala Chhangte, arguably the player of the season so far.
It's easy to forget that clubs weren't falling over themselves for Chhangte's signature when Mumbai brought him on loan last January before making the deal permanent in the summer. For good reason too -- Chhangte's varying confidence made him appear a world-beater one day and a journeyman footballer another.
It's a complaint many foreign coaches have put forth about their Indian players -- Juan Ferrando being the latest to do so -- with three glaring exceptions -- Manolo Marquez, Ivan Vukomanovic and Des Buckingham. Three managers who also happen to be the best suppliers of talent to the Indian national team. What a coincidence, eh?
The Mumbai boss, ever complimentary about his peers' ability to man-manage, noted why they succeed with Indian footballers. "You can know as much about football as you want, but if you can't relate that to the people you work with... that relationship and being able to get that information across and how you do that is so important."
The proof that Buckingham's man management is stellar is on the pitch -- Chhangte, Bipin Singh and Apuia make mistakes but rarely let their heads drop anymore. There's no hiding or reverting back to playing it safe, they've become a reflection of their manager, persevering in the belief that they can still showcase their best abilities... which usually results in the ball nestling in the back of the net.
And yet, Mumbai's greatest leap this year has been in defence. From letting in 31 goals last season, to just 18 so far (six of which came in their first and most recent game), it's been quite the turnaround, despite only adding Royston Griffiths to the mix. Buckingham is keen to stress that the improvement is due to time spent on the training ground, but is also at pains to point out the circumstances of his arrival at the club, saying, "Last year, I only arrived three weeks before the season started. My staff arrived after me. We still had players arriving after me. So, in terms of preparation or having the time to work with players, it was very difficult.
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"When I talk about trying to play this style of football or, get players to understand it and work towards it, sometimes that does take time... [This season] there's been a consistency of them working together and time spent together on the training pitch."
Consistency has been a focus of Mumbai's defence, with Vignesh Dakshinamurthy, Mehtab Singh and Rahul Bheke all flourishing. Phurba Lachenpa in goal has seven clean sheets and one of the best save percentages in the league. Yet, Buckingham is also keen to point out Griffith's impact, allowing him to rotate between the Australian and Mourtada Fall thus reducing their dependance on keeping either one fit, while also having the option of playing them together when needed.
Griffith's slotting into the group with ease reflects Mumbai gradually becoming more aligned with the City Football Group -- allowing a player from partner club Melbourne City FC to slot in immediately since it's a similar style of functioning.
It extends to the head coach, who signed a contract with the club till 2025, but he speaks about the long-term benefits of being part of the CFG. "Even if I was to move on in two years, whoever was to come in, would come into a very clear way of working, which they would probably be used to already. It helps continuity, it helps the ability to develop the club itself. If you drip-feed it down and it gets as far as the academy, you go from a bottom-up approach rather than when the head coach changes, everything changes."
Everything changes - this is certainly the norm for most Indian clubs, but Mumbai's success may hopefully aid the perception that patience pays off. This league shield was 17 months in the making, right from Buckingham's first days at the club, beginning a rebuild that started with long hours on the training ground.
The rewards have duly come as Mumbai City are back to being league champions. How much higher can they fly? In the immediate future, the ISL trophy is one to fight for, but with Buckingham at the helm maybe even continental glory isn't that far-fetched an idea.
In their coach's own words: "One step at a time." They've certainly made an impressive first one.