Khalid Jamil breaking new ground for Indian coaches in ISL

After taking Aizawl FC to an I-League title in 2017, Khalid Jamil is now busy making NorthEast United a force.

When the Indian Super League began in 2014, names like Zico, Marco Materazzi and David James were part of the competition – as coaches. The ISL had its rules in place and foreign coaches with professional licences were the only ones allowed to be at the helm. Seasons have gone by and so have the types of coaches that have been a part of the league since. From names known to everyone in India, to slightly higher-pedigreed coaches (albeit not as popular), the ISL’s idea of who should coach clubs has evolved. And last year, Indian coaches with valid pro licenses were finally given the go-ahead to take charge of clubs.

While the story of ISL was being scripted, one Indian coach was on his own parallel path – one which started with an almost impossible task of keeping Mumbai FC, a team in the I-League, afloat on a shoestring budget. Khalid Jamil has been a part of Mumbai’s football fabric from his Rizvi College days and his first stint in top-flight coaching saw him keep Mumbai in the I-League for six years in a row. As if that wasn’t enough, Jamil went on to script history when he took Aizawl FC from being just a promoted I-League team to I-League champions in 2017.

Last year in the ISL, Gerard Nus’ NorthEast United FC were winless in seven matches when the franchise decided to pull the trigger and terminate the Spaniard’s contract. In stepped Jamil, then the assistant coach at NEUFC. Up until that point, the club had made the ISL playoffs only once in their history and were never really considered contenders. Jamil and NEUFC went on an 11-match unbeaten run that saw them make their second-ever playoff appearance. It took 11 games when given the opportunity, but an Indian coach had finally made his mark. NorthEast became the first ISL club to take the plunge and hire an Indian coach for the top job.

“It’s like the chicken and egg story,” says Dinesh Nair, founder director of the Association of Indian Football Coaches (AIFC). “Even after 10 years if you don’t give someone a chance… We need to have faith in Indian coaches, we need to have confidence and put them in those positions. We need to start somewhere and now coaches shadowing foreign coaches for quite some time has helped and they have learned on the job.”

Jamil has worked under English coach David Booth and Nus, both of whom have greatly contributed to his development. But the biggest reason for Jamil’s success has been his own self.

“When Mumbai FC were training, they used to train in a ground near Milan subway. I used to see Khalid’s commitment over there. If the team had training at 3 in the afternoon, Khalid would be there at 12:30. He would have a cup of tea and start setting up the pitch,” said Nair.

Jamil had been an India international whose career was cut short by injuries. Known for being a quiet individual who chooses to focus all his energy towards football, he would occasionally show his funny side as well. The subject of his funny bone was former Mahindra United manager Henry Menezes.

“It took me 48 hours to get him to sign a contract.” And in those 48 hours, Menezes had to camp outside Jamil’s house and wait for the then defensive midfielder to come home. Once he did, he was immediately put in a car and taken to sign the contract.

“To get him to sign on the contract was another matter. He didn’t want to put pen to paper and it took us six hours to convince him. He even made the excuse of not liking a particular pen to not sign the contract immediately. He used to have fun in his own way,” said Menezes.

Backing Indian players

Another key aspect of Jamil’s managerial policy is his knowledge of Indian players. Clubs in the ISL have routinely banked on marquee foreign signings and preferred to sign overseas names, rather than put their faith in Indian players.

Jamil’s 11-game unbeaten run at NEUFC coincided with a sudden improvement in the Indian players, noticed by NorthEast United FC defender Gurjinder Kumar. “The language used to be a problem. Foreign coaches also insist that we play a certain way and restrict ourselves in some ways on the pitch. With Khalid as coach, we got more freedom to play a certain way. He knew the strengths of players in the team and set us up tactically in such a way that it took advantage of those strengths,” said Gurjinder.

And it wasn’t just the Indian players that Jamil was well-attuned with. Aizawl FC owner Robert Romawia remembers his first meeting with Jamil. It was at his residence and Syrian player Mahmoud Amnah had caught Romawia’s eye when his team played against Sporting Clube de Goa. Romawia mentioned the same to Jamil, who immediately got onto a call and had the Syrian international signed and sealed. “In the first minute of meeting him, he showed good initiative,” said Romawia. Aizawl would go on to win the I-League that year itself.

Last season in the ISL, NEUFC beat both eventual champions Mumbai City FC and fellow playoff club ATK Mohun Bagan. Both these clubs boasted of top foreign players as well as Indian internationals. It was only in the semi-finals that they lost to Bagan over two legs.

This season, Jamil has the foundation of a team that is not among favourites but in the mix for their third ever playoff spot. That may be the farthest this NEUFC team can get. But with his coaching prowess, Jamil can achieve much more. It might not be as memorable a story as his triumph at Aizawl, but becoming the first Indian coach to win the ISL would be an incredible achievement as well.

NorthEast United take on Bengaluru FC in Bambolim on November 20 from 7:30 PM IST. Follow the ISL 2021/22 match live on Star Sports Network and Disney+Hotstar.

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