Football clubs aren’t merely a place where men gather to play the sport. It is an institution that unites the people of a particular region in the name of sport. Hence it is not surprising that successful clubs across the world have always relied on local players — from Manchester United’s class of ’92 that brought a decade of success to the Red Devils to Barcelona’s La Masia products who were the key figures behind the ‘Tiki Taka’ revolution.
Indian Super League (ISL) club Chennaiyin FC certainly seems to be a firm believer in the ideology. After roping in Syed Sabir Pasha, one of the greatest players the State has ever produced, as its assistant manager, the Chennai-based club has signed two exciting Tamil Nadu talents in left-back Nallappan Mohanraj and central midfielder Dhanpal Ganesh.
Sportstar caught up with the two players for a quick chat on the upcoming season of ISL and the state of football in the country.
Question: Mohanraj, how much of a role did Materazzi, who was perhaps one of the finest left-backs in the world in his days, play in convincing you to join Chennaiyin FC? You also play in the same position, so what are you hoping to learn?
Mohanraj: He’s a champion footballer and I’m looking forward to learn from him. I’m left-footed like him and that will help me learn a great deal from him both in terms of tactics and technique. He has also won a Champions League under (Jose) Mourinho. So I’m hoping to learn a lot under him. He’s the one who wanted me in the squad and I’m grateful for it.
Did you manage to talk to him before making the move?
Mohanraj: I did not have a direct conversation but we communicated through the media manager. I have been selected for my abilities and I’ve come here to play. It is not because I am from the State.
Your story is quite inspiring. Apparently you did not make the cut in the State trials in both under-16 and under-19 before joining HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) and then moving to Mohun Bagan, one of the country’s biggest clubs. How did you overcome the disappointments to reach where you are today?
Mohanraj: Not only me but this, perhaps, is the story of all young footballers suffering in Tamil Nadu at the moment. When I was young, I went for the trials but got rejected all the time. I was sure I had whatever it took to make the cut but they always rejected me as the others had some recommendation and influence.
I had no support. I was there alone. Every time I got rejected I used to cry. But I wanted to prove to them that I was not finished. I was motivated by the rejection. I kept working hard even though it was really tough. Today they can see that I am not yet finished.
We see Tamil Nadu players having to go out of the State to make a mark. What do you think is lacking in the State?
Mohanraj: We have no clubs here. It is after 10 years that we have a club from the State playing a major league. For the up and coming players there is a club now to look up to. Every region needs a club. Kolkata has always had Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Goa had Salgaocar and Dempo. All regions had their teams.
From a small age I’ve wanted to play for the country, so I moved out of the State looking for an opportunity. It was difficult initially because I didn’t know Hindi or English. And those days I used to wonder why we never had a team from Chennai.
How much of a difference will it make to have someone like Sabir Pasha as the assistant coach? He will now work closely with Chennaiyin for talent hunting within the State as well.
Mohanraj: I think he will be more understanding of the local players in the squad and he can certainly communicate more effectively and establish an emotional connect with the local players. He can help them communicate as well.
Dhanpal: Indian Bank was the last team from Tamil Nadu to play in a major league. The team was led by Sabir Pasha and coached by the late V. P. Sathyan. After that we had no opportunity within the State, so all the players moved out. When we were kids we used to look up to players from the State such as Raman Vijayan who plied his trade in Kolkata. So we also thought that was the way to go about things. But now with Chennaiyin, up and coming players have a team within the State to play for.
Dhanpal, last season you missed out due to an injury. What is this season’s target?
Dhanpal: I couldn’t play last ISL due to an injury. So my immediate aim is to get fit again and ensure that I make it to the playing XI. Eventually the goal is to win the title with the team.
Do you hope to be a regular with the National team soon?
Dhanpal: There is a lot of quality in the Indian squad today with the likes of Eugeneson (Lyngdoh) and Rowllin Borges impressing really well. So there is a lot of competition for the spot. (Stephen) Constantine’s India plays a 4-4-2 formation, so the central defenders have to attack and defend. There is no clear defensive or offensive midfielder.
You have been in Indian camps under Constantine. Tell us more about it.
Dhanpal: He is a good coach and under him the team has started relying a lot more on science. There are GPS trackers on us, so they monitor everything we do on the pitch including how much we ran, what positions we took up… This has helped us improve a lot.
These monitoring techniques that you mentioned, don’t you think we should be doing that from a young stage, say while under SAI (Sports Authority of India)?
Mohanraj: Not really. At that age what is required is basic training. We need qualified coaches to teach the kids the basics of football. I think that is still lacking today. Till the age of 17, the focus should be in developing his/her all-round understanding of the game. Once you have the basics right then we can go for all this.
The position of a wing-back has come back to prominence with the likes of Florenzi and Neil Taylor performing admirably. Do you fancy yourself in that role, Mohanraj?
Mohanraj: I’m ready to do whatever the coach demands of me. I can play both on the offensive and defensive. It’s not like I have played only as a left-back. For Atletico de Kolkata I played in the wings a couple of times — against Kerala Blasters and Chennaiyin. It all depends on what the teams wants me to do.
Dhanpal, you started off with Pune FC. You had a stint at Pailan Arrows before coming back to Pune. Now both teams have been disbanded. How frustrating is it to have to keep changing clubs and looking for opportunities? How does that affect the growth of a player?
Dhanpal: It certainly helps to get to stick to the same setup annually for a long time. But playing for different clubs has its advantage in the sense there’s exposure to varied team cultures, philosophies and tactics. I have played in 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations and these help you to develop different sets of skills.
Mohanraj: But you also have to understand that it is the same if a team keeps changing coaches every year. Chennaiyin is exciting that way because they have managed to retain their core staff and you can see the massive improvements someone like Jeje has made.
Has ISL helped that way? To know there will be one league? Are you excited about AIFF’s plans of a merger?
Mohanraj: It does help if you are playing at one place for a regular 7-8 months season. Nobody likes to keep jumping from one team to another. If the proposed plans come true then it will be good, I think, with a clear three-tier system. But we do not know much about it.