N the train to Dublin to finalise my visa, I really wasn’t sure. I was singing in a two-piece band, Jack & the Box, belting out tunes around the Cork bar scene, and I was still organising next month’s gigs.
It was August 2016. I didn’t want to leave Cork again. Life was good with a great girlfriend and truth is, I was terrified at the idea of living in such an impoverished country as India.
I’m never keen to leave Ireland, but there are not many opportunities here for coaches who have plied their trade abroad. And I thought I’d left full-time football behind when I finished in Iceland.
On the phone, I caught some footage of my brother-in-law Rob Heffernan walking to a great eighth place in searing heat at the Rio Olympics.
I would soon become accustomed to searing heat. The lure was too strong. And the following week I left Cork for Pune, India.
DSK Shivajians was a new franchise in the Indian I-League. Former Shelbourne centre-back Dave Rogers was manager and I was to be his head of strength and conditioning and nutrition.
Shivajians is a partner club with Liverpool FC, who help run the international academy in Pune. That made the move all the more attractive.
I lived in the DSK International Campus, which we shared with students, mostly Indian, with a sprinkling of foreigners. It was clean, modern and homely. I loved the daily interactions with students. I worked as a college coach in America and this was a welcome return to vibrant and eager people, thirsty for knowledge and guidance.
The players were much the same. Their natural ability was terrific. They had the innocence of street footballers, while having the hunger and desire to use football as a means to escape poverty.
They were inspiring people. I immersed myself in their stories, their tales of family, their habits, hopes, and cultural differences. Men holding hands as friends, the hugging, the constant high-fives. It was all fascinating to me and I quickly adapted to the heat. OMFG, the heat!
The I-League was formed in 2007 as a successor to the National Football League and now co-exists with the new four-month Super League in which Robbie Keane’s ATK play.
But my introduction to Indian football came in the Durand Cup, one of the oldest cup competitions in the world. And what an introduction.
Players playing two games in two days in unimaginable heat. I saw more than one player become dangerously dehydrated.
On our way to the semi-finals we played eight games in 12 days. I was basically a spectator, learning the ropes, but I did oversee the food and drinks the players were taking on board. I noticed a recurring sweet tooth among the Indian boys. Sweets, Coke, cakes. Crisps were all the rage, and I immediately embarked on my first project.
The players were, with a few exceptions, physically very slight, with thin legs and arms. And while they all seemed to have six packs, and eight packs, very few of them had a good base of core strength. So I added veg, brown bread, chicken breasts, potatoes, and brown pasta to their nutritional plan, while limiting rotis, chiapatis, curried dishes and other spicy foods that, although tasting fantastic, were not ideal for athletes wanting to become stronger and healthier.
A new explosive gym programme, and FOGA (football-yoga), which I had used in my FRP (fitness for regular people) class in Cork, helped to almost eliminate our injuries. Our players were becoming stronger, healthier, and more explosive, and this was giving our manager a healthy selection headache.
On the field, we were gearing up for the 2017 season which began in January. With Dave a constant presence on Indian TV for Premier League and Champions League analysis, I took first team training while he was away.
On the field, I rediscovered my love of coaching. I loved orchestrating sessions and seeing little things that the players were picking up. And as the season neared, I was convinced that we were about to do something very special with a group of talented young players.
But from mid-December there had been rumblings that all was not well at DSK. We were paid a half salary in December, and for the staff that was enough to see us through the Christmas period. Haha, ‘Christmas period’! It’s fair to say, Christmas isn’t a big deal in India. I spent it with two beers, a glass of Jameson and rang my parents for a little taste of Ireland.
We plugged on with preparations. People were borrowing money and getting money transferred in. We were assured the company was stable, and our salaries would be paid by January 21. But February came, and March, and eventually we realised the financial situation was dire.
I had been promoted to assistant manager, and along with the manager and the other staff, tried to keep the players as positive as possible. But I knew we were running on fumes. I could see the despondency in our players as we sat in a hotel in Aizawl when the text messages came in on April 2 to show our accounts had been credited with another half month’s pay.
The results suffered, and although we produced some memorable victories and performances, the players were destroyed. I was told by our staff that this was the norm in Indian football. Only pay when you have to, and we had to accept that.
The season finished somewhat successfully as we qualified for the end-of-season cup for the first time in the club’s history, and finished a respectable seventh in the league. But I felt it was a huge case of what might have been.
With Dave ill, I did have the honour of leading the team out in the final league game. A thrilling 4-4 draw was a perfect metaphor for our season. Great football, exciting play, but just lacking the final piece to get us over the line.
With the campaign over, there were a lot of despondent players and staff. Empty shells of the enthusiastic people I’d met a few months earlier. And as I walked off the field and addressed the press, I knew an amazing experience was over.
Players had been left almost begging for salaries, and I am not sure even now how the financial situation has been resolved. I met the owner and came to an agreement. That was paid almost immediately. I thanked him then, and I thank him now for the privilege of working for his club and the Liverpool brand. I only wish it had lasted the full three years.
All the Indian lads know that I loved my time in Pune with them but the social aspect of living in India was eye-opening.
You could be walking from a coffee house to your car and see people lying on streets, maybe dying.
It was troubling and unsettling, but I was quickly advised that I would have to accept that this is life in India and I had to get on with it. In order to survive, there was a strange kind of stoicism demanded of you that never truly sat well with me during my time there.
But there were uplifting moments. I saw impoverished and homeless kids, playing and swimming enthusiastically through the monsoon waters in the streets of Delhi, as happy as any kid in Ireland with a new Playstation or bike.
The Angels Academy in Delhi is an organisation helping the most underprivileged kids in society become successful and the warmth shown by Sylvester and his staff during our visit will always have a special place in my heart.
Professionally, I fell back in love with football and I am now happily living in Iceland in a town called Husavik, working as the head coach of Volsungur FC.
In India, I got to meet and spend time with one of my heroes, Terry Phelan, the former Wimbledon and Republic of Ireland left-back, and am delighted to remain in constant contact.
A couple of evenings spent in the educating presence of Steve Coppell in Guwati was another highlight. And I speak to our staff regularly; academy head coach Dan Reece, and Dave of course, who is now head coach at the Liverpool academy in Korea.
And when we share stories and memories, we recall a happy, special, if frustrating time.
We had a great group of lads at DSK. Good footballers and good people.
I had my problems with them, and I’m sure they had their problems with me. But they were dedicated, hungry players, who always gave 100% in sometimes unimaginable circumstances.
Would I go back? As the Icelandics say, ‘aldrei seiga aldrei’, which loosely translates as ‘never say never’.
It is a wonderful part of the world with some wonderful people – and I wish them and their families every success in their footballing futures.