If there is one guarantee about life in India, it is that it plunges you into bustle. The second-most populous country in the world, with 1.2 billion inhabitants, is an assault on all the senses. A teeming mass of humanity, it allows for few public spaces in which you are not left looking out on a sea of faces.
ButOwen Coyle found one in his sub-continent sojourn with Indian Super League club Chennaiyin FC, in the most curious circumstances. And the experience could be instructive as to what Scottish football must confront whenever restrictions are lifted in the coronavirus lockdown.
The global health crisis was mainly a Chinese concern when the 56-year-old accepted the offer to coach in the Bay of Bengal last December. He and long-time assistant Sandy Stewart took on the task of attempting to lift Chennaiyin from the foot of the Super League table. Transforming the team’s fortunes entirely, they led them to one of the play-off spots before a semi-final victory over first-placed finishers and favourites for the title Goa set Coyle’s team up for a final tilt against ATK.
It was then, on 14 March, that the global health crisis created a first for Coyle across his 30 years in football – early social distancing measures introduced over that weekend in India meant the final, held in Goa’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, was required to be held behind closed doors.
Games played without supporters may be forced to become the norm in Scottish football even if a resumption of football is instigated in August – considered the best-case scenario following the SPFL/SFA joint response group’s statement this week that all football activities would be suspended until “at least 10 June” with the “medical advice that competitive matches could not take place for about six weeks after training and conditioning recommences”.
Coyle’s team were beaten 3-1 by ATK and the Glaswegian doesn’t attribute the defeat to the absence of spectators, with the game having been expected to be a 20,000 sell-out. Missed chances to go two up in the early minutes and a defiant opposition keeper cost them on the night. But Coyle does confess that, whatever the outcome, the experience would have been unsatisfying.
“I had never been part of a competitive game in an empty stadium and it just didn’t feel right. It certainly didn’t feel like a final,” said a man who enjoyed memorable managerial stints with Burnley and St Johnstone and has had spells more recently with Ross County, Blackburn Rovers and Houston Dynamos.
“What was it that Jock Stein said ‘football without fans is nothing’? It certainly felt like it shouldn’t have been deciding a trophy. Our fans had all bought tickets, but were left outside.
“When you think about Josip Ilicic scoring four goals against Valencia for Atalanta the other week in a Champions League last-16 tie played behind closed doors, you can’t help but feel it doesn’t add up. Some of his goals were absolute screamers, and it might prove the highlight of his career to get four in such an important game. But how will he remember it, when he didn’t have supporters to celebrate with?”
Coyle will remember only happy times in one of India’s jewel cities, Chennai, which boasts of being the country’s safest city. The football club is owned by famous Bollywood actress Abhishek Bachchan and Indian cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni and their regard for Coyle and Stewart’s endeavours in reviving the team has ensured there is an offer to the two Scots to return for next season.
“It is something we will consider but we certainly were rewarded for the willingness to go and explore another culture and another part of the world,” Coyle said. “It gave us a new lease of life and our success in getting the team into the play-offs meant an 11-and-a-half week stint turned into a three-month stay. We experienced some amazing places with trips to Mumbai, Kolkata, Goa and Kerala but above all else it was the people that made the greatest impression. They had warmth and openness and with my Scots-Irish heritage I really bonded with them.”