Hyderabad FC are the favourite of the neutrals this season. They have impressed one and all with their style of play and especially with their Indian youngsters taking up the mantle and stepping up their game to help the team in the race to make the playoffs. Hyderabad are in a tight battle with FC Goa and NorthEast United FC to make the playoffs. There have been times this season when Hyderabad have played with just two or three foreigners and with injuries to their foreign players, the Indians well and truly carried the team forward.
Manuel 'Manolo' Marquez has perhaps been the manager of the season given the way he has developed Hyderabad FC from the club that finished bottom last season to the team that can make the playoffs. Hyderabad FC, under Manolo, have forged an identity and have been a joy to watch.
In an exclusive conversation with News18.com, Hyderabad's co-owner Varun Tripuraneni spoke about the club's performance this season, their plans of having a grassroots calendar, how they are targetting the city market and more.
ON THE BEAUTY OF HYDERABAD FC THIS SEASON
Yes, results can go either way. You can see that in the table as well, it's all pretty tight. But definitely the way we have played the games, it's definitely not something I expected (ahead of the season). Of course, you watch good football but I have been really, really happy to see how we have been playing. I think the fans are also really enjoying it. Some of the comments I see, it's more about the way HFC play rather than the win or loss or a draw. The games we lost, we were decent. Kerala was one game I felt it wasn't one of our best. But the game against Mumbai and Goa, it was unfortunate. I have been seeing comments from fans of other teams also saying HFC is like 'our second favourite team and it's fun watching them play.' That's something I definitely didn't expect. It's been great and I look forward to all our matches.
ON INDIAN PLAYERS STEPPING UP
Before the season started, in fact it one of my first conversations with Manolo after he signed with us (about the Indian players). He had watched videos and that's the closest he could sort of get to knowing the players. He said 'we will do well this year but we'll do extremely well the year after', purely because of the youngsters we had in the squad. The first name we discussed was Akash Mishra. I have seen very little of Akash in the I-League and we signed him on a long-term contract. I was surprised Manolo brought his name up first and one comment he made was 'he will be the best full-back in the country'. He has always been extremely positive about the young players we have in the squad. We did have a lot of injuries to foreign players, we started off with a couple of them and then against Bengaluru, we lost Chianese and Sastre. We had ATK Mohun Bagan next and we knew it was a big game and we played with only Odei and Joao.
The other thing we have spoken about is the players taking the opportunities and being consistent. Sometimes you do have the tendency to have one good game and then you drop, which is also understandable for young players but some of them have shown amazing maturity, composure and consistency through the season. Players like Asish Rai and Yasir played quite a few games like season as well and they got their opportunities because there were a lot of injuries last season as well. Manolo has worked wonderfully with the younger boys. That's been extremely positive, results are one thing but things like the style of play, youngsters coming up - I think these are even more encouraging than the wins or points.
ON TEAM ENVIRONMENT
We have got a great unit, there is great atmosphere within the team and there is great relationship between the young, experienced and foreign players. My interaction with the players is limited of course. When I recently spoke to Aridane, he said this was one of the best teams he has been a part of, just by atmosphere point of view. These players are always guiding the younger ones and the youngsters know the current situation as well. It is a fight for every position in the starting XI and for the youngsters, it's important to understand the current situation of the team and what it takes it to push others out. The youngsters should take it positively and know what it takes to push themselves into the starting XI. I think it's only a matter of time. Even if they are not playing, they have an important place in the squad.
LATEST ON DORTMUND PARTNERSHIP
With Dortmund, I feel it is just the start. We will see a lot of activities in terms of coach education. With the current travel guidelines and restrictions, the timelines have shifted but a lot of virtual sessions, that's something we are planning. The real partnership or what both clubs want to achieve from the partnership will start tucking in going forward. It's purely because of the restrictions and our focus on the first team currently. We are trying to adjust but I am very hopeful of a very positive year in terms of activities with Dortmund.
ON GRASSROOTS PROGRAMME PLANNING AND 12-MONTH CALENDAR
Initially when we formed Hyderabad FC, we knew the sporting culture here was strong. Pretty much all the sporting leagues of the country have a team from Hyderabad. When it comes to football, I know the market fairly well. It's as good as Bengaluru or even better purely in terms of the infrastructure. Just from the grassroots point of view, pretty much every street has a five-a-side turf. You got kids from all age groups playing. The participation levels are good, I have been to some schools in Hyderabad and there are proper grass pitches, which is not usual. We supported a school league last year and there were more than 50 schools that participated. That shows the participation level and it's an opportunity for us and something that we have to tap. Being encouraged by what we have seen, we will focus a lot on grassroots.
We are working on a full 12-month calendar for grassroots. We want to have a team focus on this independently. We want all the stakeholders - kids, parents, schools - to be aligned with our plan and know what the opportunity to engage with HFC are for the entire 12 months. We hope to announce the calendar soon and when you have that, you are sort of obliged to stick by it. I am very confident we will have a very good year at the grassroots level. We want things to be back to normal to implement everything on the ground but still, a lot more we can do in the current scenario as well and we hope to get started soon.
We have had a couple of discussions in the last couple of months about the calendar and the age groups we want to target. If we look at the established football markets, U-6 is the age to start. For that age group, it's important to have the right coaches as well. We will work on that alongside. We were planning baby leagues for U-6 and U-8 and we working on the frequency of the matches in a year. It is also to scout for talent and we feel the best way is to watch them play more and more and see how they progress. While we are working on the calendar, we are also keeping in mind the numbers of games per team. There are a lot of academies in the city and schools have their own teams. Our role will be to ensure that there is enough exposure for them competitively.
For U-11s and U-12s and our teams for AIFF youth leagues, we would prefer that players come from the leagues we organise rather than depend on trials. The best way to judge players is to see their progress week-on-week and month-on-month. I am fairly confident we are as close as you can get to implementing it. A few states like Mizoram and Manipur have good number of games for youngsters, the number of minutes they get is really high compared to other regions. That is something we want to replicate. Even in ISL, players have developed with minutes, which also makes them confident.
TARGETTING THE HYDERABAD MARKET
May be right now just looking at the Hyderabad market alone, the followers of the team are limited to football-following audience, may be not even all those are aware of HFC's performance last year and this year. In Hyderabad, the challenge is to be known just beyond the football circle. I think the best way to do that is to focus on grassroot and community side of things. The challenge for all teams is to engage for all 12 months. The off-season is becoming shorter season by season, we've got to put maximum efforts to connect with the community. May be you just got to look at how to promote HFC, not just as a football club but it's got to be much larger than that and the community connect is going to be the key. There is a tendency that crowds come only when the team is doing well so that's something you can't guarantee but if the people know for HFC stand for, the results won't matter and may be you will see them supporting the club. This season's results will surely help because the way the season ended last year, we knew we had to have a 360 degree turnaround. I wouldn't say we are there yet but the way things have progressed has been positive.
ON THE PERSONALITY OF MANOLO
It's very easy communicating with him. He is a very positive person and with a lot of experience. He has taken the role very well because it wasn't a very easy time for him or the club. It wasn't ideal as we were arranging for visas for the foreigners and for him to take the role then and take is as positively as Manolo has, it's great. He's a great person to interact with, good person and good sense of humour. He's been very good with the Indian players and the foreigners.