CHENNAI : ASK John Gregory how he managed to recover from the absolute nightmare that was Chennaiyin FC’s 2018-19 season and you get a nervous laugh in return. “I haven’t recovered yet,” he says.“We can’t change whatever has happened,” Gregory says. “You can just learn from it. I really don’t look at last season as a failure, I look at it as a huge lesson.”It’s not often everyone associated with a football club have to deal with the labyrinth that Chennaiyin found themselves trapped in last year. They went in as defending champions, with most of their title-winning squad intact. They came out dead last after scoring the least and conceding the most. Peaks are inevitably accompanied by troughs, one this deep left many scratching their heads.
Chennaiyin, recognising that it wasn’t all down to the manager, chose to stick with him and trusted things to set things right. A one-year extension to Gregory’s contract was offered and (after some deliberation, he admits) was accepted. After their AFC Cup campaign fizzled out in June, the 65-year-old Englishman had the chance to go home and think about where things went wrong. The conclusions he came up with probably cover every aspect of how a football club should be run.
“We were five years old,” he says. “Back in England, there are clubs that are clubs that are 120-130 years old, who’ve been doing it for many many years. We’ve been doing for five years. We made a lot of errors on and off the field.” Right from the way the players and staff lived, Gregory reckons, which is why they’ve shifted base this year.
All wasn’t well with the playing squad either. Henrique Sereno, the captain of their title-winning squad, was the one big name to leave. But those who remained weren’t their usual selves. Inigo Calderon struggled before leaving in January. Injury woes came back to haunt Dhanpal Ganesh. Jeje Lalpekhlua, who was widely panned for a barren season, too was playing through an injury. “He should have had an operation in December,” Gregory says. “But he kept playing. We needed him to play. Had we been a club where we had three or four options, he would have that operation in December.”
But the biggest factor in their downfall was probably how many of the players failed to get over that feeling of winning a title. There’s a case to suggest that we went into the season a little bit blase. Maybe we didn’t work as hard as we should have done,” Gregory says. “When you’ve won a trophy, you have to be more dedicated. You can’t live on the memory of that. There were too many of us last year who were still stuck in season four. But you have to forget that. Prove how good you are by winning the next trophy. The great teams and the great players, that’s what they’ve always done over the years. Manchester City won the league last year, they’re as ruthless as ever this year. Liverpool won the Champions League, they’re ruthless.”
Fast forward to the present and Gregory has made sweeping changes, from backroom staff to playing personnel. Chennaiyin’s looked good in the pre-season, especially the two foreign strikers they’ve recruited — Lithuanian Nerijus Valskis and Malta’s André Schembri. They’ve managed something of a coup in bringing in India star Lallianzuala Chhangte. It’s time for Gregory’s team to finally escape the labyrinth.