The regular season is nearly done and dusted and with the playoffs only around the corner, I thought it best to get the opinion of two experts, to see how they’ve found this edition of the ISL. Step forward, Paul Masefield & Russell Osman of Star Sports, India’s leading TV channel when it comes to all things Indian Super League.
Russell has got a UEFA Cup winners medal, eleven England caps and experience of being in a film with the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Pele, so I was humbled that he agreed to speak to us. Paul ‘Mace’ Masefield’s career wasn’t as successful as Russell’s, but, he took the plunge that I think many other English players can take inspiration from. As opposed to playing in the lower echelons of British football, he opted to move to Hong Kong and hasn’t really looked back since.
So, now the pair of them find themselves working together covering the ISL and while I could’ve spoken to them about their past for days on end, I thought it best I got some relevant content for the website. I’m good like that, you see?
Seeing as we’ve only been going since this season, I began by finding out how this season compared to the other three.
Russell began by saying:
“I’ve been doing it since season one and there’s been a big improvement. The Indian players have been getting fitter and stronger. The young lads were a bit raw in season one and we’ve seen them develop into some decent players and we’re seeing what could be the start of a good production line here as the young players are coming through.”
Moving In The Right Direction
“It’s come on leaps and bounds and one of the things that has really helped has been having six Indian players on the pitch and it’s given opportunities because they’ve had to go in and actually play. And they’ve not only gone in to play, they’re playing well and now some of them are pivotal in their teams. I think it’s testament to the way the league is developing; it’s still a very young league in its infancy but it’s moving in the right direction.”
The six Indians on the pitch is something that we’ve spoken to NorthEast’s Eelco Schattorie about before, he was of the opinion that from next season there should be even more than six. I was interested to know what Mace and Russell had to say on the matter.
“I think it’ll stay the same because you need a bit of consistency with the league. You’ve had two new teams come in this year who’ve done very well. You can’t keep chopping and changing too many things too quickly.”
That was Russell’s thoughts, what about Mace?
“What we might see is one of the foreign players having to be an Asian player because of the AFC Cup. So, I think what you may see is teams from next season including an Asian player much like Bengaluru have done with Erik Paartalu. It means that they (Bengaluru) can use him in AFC competitions as well.”
It Was Very Similar To Leicester Winning The League
Makes sense. We looked at the teams in the Bengaluru’s groups recently, so I had to ask Mace what he thought about Aizawl firstly…
“The thing with Aizawl is that it was very similar to Leicester winning the Premier League because it was unbelievable. I’ve spoke to a couple of their players and they said it was amazing how they kept it all going for the season. Bengaluru have the upper-hand because of the experience the players they’ve got. Aizawl haven’t been challenging this season (in the I-League) so you have to favour Bengaluru. However, it’s a cup competition, two legs home and away and it’s not an easy place to go and get a result.”
New Radiant SC and Abahani are the other two teams in Group E, what did Mace know about them?
“I’ve seen a little bit, the quality isn’t there. The Bangladeshi league isn’t the strongest and neither is the Maldivian; Bengaluru didn’t have a problem going to the Maldives and getting a result in the qualifiers, so I’ll be surprised if they struggle.”
I realised at this point that Russell was getting a bit left out, so I thought I best get back to a topic that they both had an opinion on. May as well go for the kill. Would you favour Bengaluru for the ISL as well? Russell wasted no time in getting involved with this question –
“Results speak for themselves and so does the league table. They’ve shown they’re the strongest by far but when you’ve got more or less a cup competition, it could be a different kettle of fish. Bengaluru do look very, very strong, but they’ve been beaten four times this season so they’re certainly not unbeatable and with the congestion they’ve got with certain fixtures, they’ve got to be clever.”
Miku Has Been A Revelation
I took that as a yes. Mace had this to say:
“The big thing for me is that they managed to retain the core of the squad from over the last couple of seasons in the I-League and Albert Roca has kept it together. Look at all the foreigners, obviously, John Johnson has been here a while, Paartalu coming in, Edu Garcia has left to go to China now which will be a big loss but then Toni Dovale comes in and scores a hattrick in the AFC Cup. Sunil has been fantastic and Miku has been one of the revelations of the season.”
That as another yes for Bengaluru. It was in my eyes anyway. We then touched on the final playoff spot. I spoke to Mace and Russell prior to Goa’s demolition of ATK which is why Russell answered with this;
“Anyone from three.”
Of course, with Goa beating ATK, it meant that Kerala could no longer qualify. Mace then said something which I’ve still failed to do, which is probably why my bets have been all over the place.
“You have to take everything game by game. Goa battered Pune which was amazing really because the wheels had spectacularly fallen off and they hadn’t won a game in four and all of a sudden they’ve got loads of confidence. Goa are in the driving seat which is what Lobera always wanted.”
Coppell Is A Shrewd Cookie
Yes, Goa are in the driving seat but for me, that could be a negative as they’re not too good at defending. Here’s what Russell thought about that…
“They got their first clean sheet at Pune, but Pune were playing like a team that had already qualified which was interesting. Jamshedpur vs Goa will be a very interesting game; Steve Coppell is a shrewd cookie and he’ll be up for it. The thing is though, you can try and predict all the games but you have to take it one game at a time. There’s been a lot of surprises this season and home advantage doesn’t really mean anything.”
By the time this is published, the Sunday preview would’ve gone out and you’ll see that I firmly believe Jamshedpur will do enough, don’t know why. Coppell has got the knack of getting results when it matters most, though. Who’s been the biggest let down of the season?
Russell was straight in with:
“Yeah. I think it’s been the injuries throughout the season which has really scuppered them; they’ve never really had a settled side out. You know, you’re going into the first game of the season and they’ve got five or six injuries. Robbie Keane is out and it’s massive. They then lose Eugeneson who did his cruciates after three games. It’s a shame because Kolkata is seen as one of the hotbeds of Indian football.”
Hard to argue with that. What about the biggest surprise?
Mace was quick out the blocks –
“Jamshedpur. Before the season started, they were a brand new franchise; they couldn’t retain any players and they did the shrewdest bit of business they could and went and got Steve Coppell, who had been with Kerala the season before. What they’ve done is basically built a club. So kudos needs to go to the squad and the Tata group. Steve Coppell did an interview the other day where he said if we were given the opportunity of making the top four come the final day, we would have taken it. It’s testament to the club that they’ve come from nothing and they’re now on the brink of possibly going through to the semi-finals. It’s a massive achievement.”
Speaking of Coppell, do you think there’ll be a shake-up manager wise?
Russell fielded this one:
“Interesting question. I think Steve (Coppell) enjoys it. It would be nice to see some consistency develop within the league and if you did have the likes of Steve and John Gregory staying, it’d be good. Hopefully, David James will sign on for another year because it would be good to see some of the same old faces going from one season to the next. It’ll also be good if the six Indians and the five foreigners stays the same along with the same amount of teams because it’ll make for a good league next year.
What about Avram Grant?
“He’s a friend of the owner and because of what happened, John (Abrahams) went to him and asked for a little bit of help and assistance. It’s going to be down to John and Avram to sort out between themselves. The only thing I’ll say is the consistency needs to be there; they’ve been playing some not bad stuff, they’ve been ok. Under Joao de Deus there was a little bit too much and they were overplaying; Avram has come in and stabilised it to an extent and we don’t know what we’ll happen. We’re like everyone else in the fact that we’re looking forward to finding out who will be retained in terms of coaches and players.”
No Draft Next Year?
Mace answered that one. Anyway, what do you think will happen with the draft? Mace went first:
“We don’t know if there’ll be a draft next year if there’s the same number of teams.”
Russell went second:
“Obviously, we’re looking for consistency. You can’t keep having a draft every year if you want the league to have consistency.”
News to me. I had spent the majority of the morning trying to work out who was going to be retained and what have you. What a colossal waste of time that was. A question was then posed which created a bit of verbal tennis between the two. Best player so far?
“There’s been good players all over the place. Tiri at Jamshedpur, Jerry at Jamshedpur, Coro banging the goals in, Miku has been an excellent addition.”
15-0. Russell won the next point with:
“Memo at Jamshedpur, played every minute of every game this season. Wellington since he’s come in.”
Mace came back with an ace to go 30-15 up.
“Robbie (Keane), when he’s fit, he adds another dimension.”
The game then ended as Russell decided to confiscate the ball…
“I don’t think there’s been one that’s stood head and shoulders above everyone this season.”
I thought they were going to name names for hours, never mind. What’s been your favourite game to cover? Mace quipped:
“The final, when it comes.”
Good one. Luckily, he followed with a proper answer.
“I went down to Kerala earlier in the season to Kerala vs Chennai, the Southern Derby and it was the first time I’ve been to the stadium. I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like it.”
I could tell by his voice he was sincere, I had to ask though. Really?
“Yeah, when everyone in there is wearing yellow and they’re all going mad two hours before kick-off, it’s phenomenal.”
We then touched a little bit on the Singaporean football scene because that’s where Mace lives, however, not much worth writing home about regarding that. All you need to know is the ISL is a long way ahead of the S-League. It did remind me of a question that I had been thinking of for a while, though…
It’s Thailand Five Years Ago
What would you say is the most comparable league to the ISL? Mace was on the money with:
“It’s Thailand five years ago. In the last few years in Thailand, the quality of players coming through has been brilliant and the clubs are a lot more professional. It’s also got a lot more professional now that the teams are involved in the Champions League on a regular basis and that has to be the benchmark. Indian Football is certainly on the right track to emulate what Thailand has done over the last 5/6 years. With Thailand, you’ll get teams getting 10-15,000 for a home game and if you go out into the sticks, you get people coming out in support. The thing to remember is that football is relatively new to India and to have fans coming out in the numbers that they are to watch it, it’s a phenomenal start. You’ve got to remember that it’s against a big cricket culture, however, I don’t think there’s a reason why football can’t emerge as the main force.”
“We’re also seeing supporters now travelling to watch their team which is good. You know, people are hopping on planes to watch their team and they’re making their presence felt in the stadium.”
Mace closed the question by adding a bit more:
“It is a growing and developing league and people shouldn’t get carried away because it’s only in its fourth season but the league is getting bigger, better and stronger on and off the pitch.”
I was conscious of the time at this point because I knew that they had to get prepared for the Goa game, so I went in for the kill again; who is going to win the ISL? Mace said:
“The table doesn’t lie, saying that though the team that finishes top has never gone on to win the trophy.”
It was like being in the bloody house of parliament. I went back in. So, Bengaluru? Mace replied:
“Yeah. Biggest and most consistent squad. Roca has tweaked and tinkered and now knows what his best eleven is.”
Russell’s final words were:
“Yeah, they have the strongest squad.”
I finally had an answer! After that, I gave them my thanks for speaking to us again and that was the end of that. It was a superb interview to have done and I hope that you reading it enjoyed it as much as I did conducting it. You’ve also heard it here, Bengaluru are going to win it. If it doesn’t happen, you can blame Mase and Russell!
Until the next time.