CHENNAI: As Chennaiyin FC’s players were still celebrating their passage to the final of the Indian Super League in the dressing room, John Gregory, in the post-match press conference upstairs, chose to invoke a more sombre moment from within those same walls. It was half-time at Chennaiyin’s first game of the season against FC Goa and they had just conceded three goals in 45 minutes while being hopelessly outplayed. “At a quarter past six, I sat in the dressing room thinking ‘God! What the hell have I done?’. I think there was an airline ticket booked for me to go back to London,” Gregory said.
The hopelessness of his first 45 minutes in Indian football makes Gregory’s feats all the more impressive. Chennaiyin is not the most technically gifted team in the league — Gregory has admitted that on multiple occasions, including on Tuesday. Unlike previous seasons, they no longer have an Elano or John Mendoza to make the difference. Their goals have come from 11 different players.
And when such a team gets to within a match from winning the title, one has to look at what the coach is doing right. Like Antonio Lopez Habas three years ago, like Steve Coppell last year, Gregory deserves big credit. One of the things Gregory has grasped about Indian football is that in a country with limited footballing talent, the fittest ones rule. Goa may have been the most technically gifted team, Bengaluru the most balanced, but it is Gregory’s Chennaiyin who are the fittest. “To get into our team, you have to have the ability to work hard. You have to be able to run for 90-93 minutes. The ability to withstand enormous pressure, that’s what our team is built on,” Gregory said.
“A perfect example of that was Gregory Nelson today (Tuesday),” he said. “With ten minutes left, he couldn’t lift his leg up and we took him off. But as soon as the final whistle went, he was jumping over barricades. All of a sudden, he was an Olympic sprinter.”
In many ways, this season has been about Chennaiyin outlasting teams — the number of late goals they’ve scored is borderline freakish. That opening day against Goa may have ended in a defeat, but Raphael Augusto raised hopes with an 84th-minute goal. Against FC Pune City away, Henrique Sereno’s winner came in the 82nd minute, while Gregory Nelson’s decider in the corresponding home fixture came in the 83rd minute. Against ATK, Inigo Calderon gave them the lead in the 84th minute.
After Njazi Kuqi had cancelled that out five minutes later, Jeje still had time for a 90th-minute winner. Dhanpal Ganesh beat Bengaluru with an 88th-minute winner. Chennaiyin fans were applauding what they thought was an 89th-minute winner against Kerala Blasters before CK Vineeth equalised a minute later. In Delhi, Mailson rescued a point with an 81st-minute goal while the Mohammed Rafi’s winning header against Jamshedpur FC came in the 89th minute. Even against Goa, Jeje Lalpekhlua scored the third in the 90th minute.
In Bengaluru on Saturday, if both teams are locked in a stalemate with around ten minutes left on the clock, travelling Chennaiyin fans will be forgiven for feeling a heightened sense of anticipation. Forget Fergie time, they now have Gregory time.