The Indian Super League has been growing rapidly since its foundation in 2013. Alex Griffiths caught up with Mark Tompkins, who made his commentary box bow out there in 2015.
Talk us through some of the big names the ISL has attracted. Is it fair to say most are past their peak?
Most teams have nine foreigners and there’s a cap of 10 per squad. In 2014, there was Robert Pires and David Trezeguet, David James and ex-Manchester City attacker Elano, who went on to score in the 2015 final, and this year there was Lucio and Simao, so it is fair to say that they are on the older side.
There’s been Zico and Roberto Carlos, plus Marco Materazzi, who came as a player only to become coach of Chennaiyin. Most may have been in their thirties but there is still an undeniable credibility that these guys bring with them.
But the cap is intended to help these star names, or marquee players as they are known, to bring through the Indian talent and the same goes for the referees, actually.
There’s been a notably big turn around of coaches, for example Peter Taylor only lasted four games before being replaced by Terry Phelan, the former Wimbledon and Ireland defender.
You are allowed five foreigners in your starting line-up and the draft starts in July. I fully expect the trend towards the loan of star players to continue this year.
A good example was Adil Nabi, now at Peterborough United, who was the first player to be loaned from a Premier League club to an ISL team when he joined Delhi from West Brom. He was a really interesting player to get to know, too.
And when it comes to refereeing development?
They brought in referees from all over the world. I met guys from Canada, China, Kuwait and the USA and the final was taken by a Japanese guy, Yudai Yamamoto, while the assistant appointments were all Indian.
I do know that former Premier League referee Alan Wiley, from Staffordshire, had a monitoring role and there were Fair Play awards throughout the season. All the players would shake hands before and after every game, in line with what you would expect in most professional leagues.
Discipline-wise I felt the officials generally received a satisfactory level of respect from players fans and media, barring the kind of disputed penalty calls you’d expect at any level, anywhere around the world.
Did you think long and hard about the offer to become a part of the ISL set-up?
No, for my part there was never a question of my turning down such an exciting opportunity. I regularly work all over the world as it is but this was unmissable, and I would have started a year earlier had it not been for some pesky logistical reasons!
As soon as I got there it was game, road, game, road as part of a production team of 12 and I covered matches in seven of the eight cities involved, so it was pretty hectic. To get to one of the grounds you had to cross Bangladesh en route, so the travel was a major part of the experience. Our team included John Helm plus former players Steve Hodge, Ashley Westwood and Gary O’Reilly.
Kerala Blasters, who finished bottom, had an average gate of 52,000, which puts them in a world top 10 for attendances, while Atletico de Kolkata may not match it again, but still got 66,000 when Chennaiyin played there.
Our remit was very much based on introducing their younger players to the public and avoiding being patronising when it came to some of their stories, which was a trap you could have fallen into with the background of some players being rickshaw drivers and so on.
Education is an important part of the sport’s future in India, of course, because it’s obviously a cricketing nation. But it was also about adding to the flavour and I have to praise the access we had from that point of view.
That goes equally for the referees, who we’d always talk to beforehand. Unfortunately, we found they were as disappointed as we were that we could not follow up and discuss anything on the record with them after games. We were not even allowed to pool quotes off the record as a way of getting round the policy.
They also stayed at different hotels to us, and were mostly shepherded away, unlike the players. I could understand it, but it was still a pity.
Wasn’t there a strange ending that somewhat spoiled many headlines for last year’s final?
Well at least it was not a case of Elano, who was arrested, having a go at match officials, there was always going to be needle but it was very much a one-off. The problems afterwards with Goa FC co-owners did not detract from what was the highlight of the whole season for me, anyway, although it has rumbled on and got drawn out with the threat of suspensions for those involved.
It was an emotional game; a thrilling, emotional way to win for Chennaiyin, and could hardly have been a better final.
To be fair, there was worse from the Indian international Khabra playing for Chennaiyin against NorthEast United in the first game I did, when he got a straight red for verbal abuse. But I found on the whole these were exceptional incidents.
What sparked your own devotion to football?
My own upbringing was influenced by watching Birmingham City home and away with my brother, starting in the days of Francis, Hatton and Latchford, and while I’m glad the eighties is over for many reasons, one of them would definitely be the size of the shorts those referees squeezed themselves into! There was an eye-watering fashion for garments reminiscent of Speedos. which I sincerely hope will never return.
One ref who stuck in my memory, probably from the following decade after that, and for less than positive reasons, was Jeff Winter, even if he did once send off Dion Dublin in a derby! I wish you hadn’t jogged my memory now… Shall we move on?
I think I speak for the majority of fans outside the big clubs when I say when you see your team win a trophy at Wembley it really doesn’t matter what trophy it is. In our case it was the Leyland DAF, but there have been many other memorable moments, including taking Liverpool all the way in the Worthingtons Cup when we lost on pens in Cardiff back in 2001.
For now, though, I’m mainly concerned our manager will be tempted away, which isn’t something we have always had to worry about, to be fair!
You gained a useful perspective on the technology available at the highest level last year, didn’t you?
Yes, luckily for us, while covering the Women’s World Cup in Canada, we sat next to the guys running the goal line cameras. They don’t have them in India yet, I dare say because of the expense, but I hope they consider using them in future, as the equipment really is amazing.
Not only is the issue one of affordability however, and that goes for its application down the divisions in Britain, too, but there is the functionality factor. They obviously have to be reliable 100% of the time!