So often do football managers fall unnoticed from their professional perch, that it was heartening to learn recently of one who has bucked the trend.
Unlike players, for whom the transition from ‘current’ to ‘ex’ is commonly marked by one last stage-managed substitution, the focal point for a grateful stadium; managers rarely get to highlight their retirement. They pass, in the shadows, from being fashionable to unfashionable, and suddenly – invisibly – they are gone. Harry Redknapp, you may have noticed, isn’t quite as go-to as he once was. The process has begun.
So good on John Gregory, then, for flirting with death both professionally and personally, only to come back and lead Chennaiyin to the Indian league championship, 16 years after he left Aston Villa, at the end of what was easily the high-point of his cv and a spell in which he was briefly touted as a future England manager.
Even if I throw in that he is the first Englishman to lead a team to this particular title, you’ll have said it by now, I’m sure: maybe only inwardly and disliking yourself for it, but you’ll have said it, nonetheless. “It’s only India…”
And you’ll have a point. Rarely, if ever, does the football world halt to acknowledge the latest champions of India. But then I also have a point when I counter with, “So what?”
Aside from the old cliché that you can only beat what’s in front of you, or the fact that when you’ve returned from heart surgery to one of the most stressful jobs outside of combat, the national championship of anywhere is a valid cause for personal pride, there is also this thought, perhaps best shared with those old enough to be able to see beyond the UEFA bubble.
Whose would make the more colourful life story? The coach whose football experience only ever existed between Burnley and Bournemouth, or the coach who got to see a world beyond Champions League away-days? The hankering for the big-time might never go away – that’s only natural ambition – but I suspect I’d be tempted to buy Stephen Constantine’s book before I buy Arsene Wenger’s…
“Initial success with Nepal and India is followed by less successful spells with Millwall…Malawi and Sudan. Constantine has more luck in Cyprus but is ultimately undermined by the country’s economic problems and a culture of match-fixing. However, not many coaches can claim to have almost started a diplomatic incident in Zimbabwe, been deported from Iran or drawn comparison with Mary Poppins in North Korea.”
For his part, Gregory seems to be discovering that the big-time has no monopoly on professional fulfilment.
“The fact we literally live together under a single roof and see each other in the hotel and training all the time… the togetherness we’ve got and the trust we’ve built [is what makes management in India unique],” he said. “I’ve never known a group like this, who manage, support and look after each other.
“There’s a togetherness you don’t get to see in England. You see the guys for two to three hours of the day, and then they go home. We don’t necessarily sit down and eat together here, but we’re still around each other all the time. We travel together. There’s a real closeness with all my coaching staff and the owners. They come to every game, home and away, and support us – that doesn’t always happen in England. I don’t want to sound corny, but we have a real family atmosphere here.”
It’s an enlightenment I would wish for any coach: the realisation that not all of sport’s rewards are fashioned in silver and gold.